Monday, July 11, 2011

The evils that beset mineral collections: 14a. Fasteners and computer programs

I forgot to mention another important class of non-archival materials that can damage the support information for mineral specimens: rubber bands, staples, paperclips and other fasteners. It is possible to get plastic and plastic-coated paperclips, and stainless steel staples are sometimes available. If you need a replacement for rubber or elasticized bands, however, your best bet is to use archival string or ribbon.

The biggest boon to collections in recent years is the availability of computer software for managing information.

It is important to back up software early and often.  It is also important to have off-site backup on a regular basis, and to have a backup copy of your information in your control in case of electronic catastrophes (like the Internet becoming unavailable).

What form of back-up is appropriate?  Over the years, I have stored information on paper tapes, punched cards, magnetic tape, 8-inch floppy disks, 5" floppy disks, 3.5" not-so-floppy disks, CDs of various kinds, and flash drives. Each of these media have expiration dates, due to medium degradation and/or hardware obsolescence. So as technology changes, your backup copies have to be copied or translated onto new media. This may not be a lossless process.

Similarly, the software available for documentation of your collection can change over time.  These days, I keep most of my data in Excel databases; but I can remember when Microsoft Works was a better platform for graphics. In the 1970s, much scientific programming was done in Fortran, and I can remember running into problems updating a program written using unsupported features from an earlier Fortran version. Many cataloging programs today are proprietary; what happens to your catalog if the company producing your program goes out of business? Can you still get support for your software?

Finally, if you use password-protected programs to document your collection, make sure you still know the password as long as you need your backup. Heirs and executors may need your password as well.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The evils that beset mineral collections: 14. Newspaper, tape, glue, and other nonarchival materials

Let's talk about the materials that surround your minerals. These include: boxes, labels, packing material, repair materials, and documentation. All of these could decay over time, possibly damaging the specimens themselves, or losing their accompanying information.

Newspaper is a common wrapping material, used to protect specimens while collecting in the field, and while transporting from mineral shows to your home. It's tempting, in the field, just to write the collection details -- where, and what date -- on the paper  itself. The problem with this non-archival material is that it decomposes over time; paper made from wood pulp turns brown in sunlight and gives off acidic fumes. Eventually, the paper flakes into small particles. Some newspapers also have ink that can rub off on specimens, discoloring them. And the acid from the paper can react with some minerals.
     Other materials used to wrap specimens in the field include butcher's paper (or shipping paper, toilet paper, paper towels, tissue paper...), dry-cleaning bags, canvas bags (used by many field geologists), beer flats, and film canisters. Almost all inexpensive paper is pulp paper, and will break down forming acid over time.
Cardboard boxes are frequently used to store individual specimens; beer flats for transport are also cardboard. In my experience, cardboard is more durable than paper with regard to exposure to sunlight and heat, but it is not a permanent material, and is again wood-pulp based. Archival cardboard boxes are available. Sometimes plastic trays are used, but not all plastics are archival, so check the material before you decide to use it.
     Fragile specimens are sometimes kept in boxes padded with cotton or polyester fibers. Cotton is not archival and subject to insect damage, and any fibrous material can get caught up in specimens with points or cavities. An least one museum of my acquaintance pads specimen boxes with an archival closed-cell foam material such as "Volara."
      Many collectors use wood cabinets. Some woods, like oak, give off fumes over time, so are not archival for containers. (The British Museum used to recommend mahogany.) Also, some finishes give off volatiles.

What about labels? The paper may be pulp-based, so non-archival; the ink may be unstable to sunlight, and fade away; the label may have been previously torn and repaired with cellophane tape. Cellophane becomes yellow and stiff and loses its stickiness over time. (Other tape kinds can be even worse, like old duct tape, which leaves gooey residues.) Some collectors save old labels in mylar or other archival envelopes, because they are valuable to the provenance of the specimen, no matter what they are made of. But for your new labels, try to use archival materials.

Older specimens sometimes were repaired with non-archival glues, or coated with yellowing shellacs. Modern epoxies and UV-setting resins may be more permanent. Another repair technique is to use an adhesive that is easily soluble in something the specimen is not (e.g., casein glues for non-water-soluble specimens), so that the repair is not permanent and can be redone if there is a later need to do so.

Finally, on the subject of preservation of documentation, we need to discuss computer files. This will be a separate blog entry.