Operational Policy: Conservation

December 2009

1.2, July 2012

1. Executive Summary

The National Archives of Australia (the Archives) has extensive and varied holdings, annually increasing in number, that must be managed and cared for with finite resources. This policy has been formulated to ensure that the Archives’ conservation resources are allocated to the best effect. The basic guiding principles are that intervention is kept to a minimum and ‘broad-brush’ approaches are employed wherever possible.

2. Purpose

This policy is intended to guide Archives staff working in treatment conservation, preventive conservation, exhibitions conservation, preservation digitisation, and audiovisual and digital preservation in conservation of the Archives’ holdings.

3. Scope

The policy applies to the work of Archives staff specifically dedicated to the conservation of the holdings.

4. What does the policy apply to?

Conservation encompasses a broad range of activities, providing a comprehensive and holistic approach to the care of the archive.

Conservation activities include:

  • survey
  • projects
  • triage and treatment
  • research and development
  • outreach programs
  • preventive assistance
  • exhibitions.

5. Policy statement

The Archives has a small number of professional and paraprofessional resources devoted to the conservation of its holdings. Given the size and complexity of the Archives’ holdings, it is important that these resources are used in the best possible way to achieve the greatest good. The principles employed to ensure this is done are as follows:

  • Where possible, ‘broad-brush’ approaches to conservation are favoured, for example, the use of appropriate storage containers, storage in appropriate conditions and the use of appropriate handling procedures.
  • Intervention is restricted to records of high conservation need, high usage and high significance.
  • Conservation work is matched to the needs of the record. It is aimed at the stabilisation of the record and ensuring it is safe from future harm.
  • Conservation work will not unduly endanger the integrity of the record.

All conservation work performed on archival records is governed by the guidelines and requirements set out in the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM) Code of Ethics. Conservation focuses on stabilisation and retaining original material, and ensures against further deterioration, whether environmental, chemical or physical.

6. Policy context

Conservation is encompassed in the Archives’ Corporate Plan 2009–2012 as follows:

Outcome 2
Greater understanding of our heritage and democracy through preserving, describing and providing access to the national archival collection
Program 2.1 – Securing, describing and preserving records of national archival value

Of the 10 core business responsibilities outlined in the Corporate Plan, the following seven involve the conservation function directly or indirectly (because any use and handling of archival holdings may at some time require conservation assistance):

  • identify records of enduring national significance as archival resources of the Commonwealth
  • transfer archival-value records from Australian Government agencies
  • enable agencies to continue to access the records of their business that we hold
  • catalogue and index all the records that we hold
  • identify and preserve records that we hold which are at the highest risk of deterioration
  • provide access to the records that we hold in accordance with the Archives Act 1983
  • promote understanding and appreciation of the archival resources of the nation.

7. Mechanisms for implementation

7.1 Survey

Surveys examine targeted records and/or format types to determine where best to focus conservation treatment attention and provide information for long-term planning.

7.2 Projects

Programmed conservation projects can take many forms and include in-depth, time-consuming conservation treatment processes, repackaging projects, and quick and effective basic treatment approaches on a large scale.

7.3 Triage and treatment service

This provides immediate conservation attention to records, primarily as a result of requests for access, or other operational requirements.

A Conservator On Duty provides a streamlined process between accepting ad hoc work into the laboratories, the allocation of work and the subsequent prompt completion.

The aim is to provide quick and effective outcomes for the records and the requesting areas. In a small number of cases, where the treatment required is more complex and/or more time consuming, a project proposal may be required (see section 7.2 'Projects').

7.4 Research and development

Preservation research and development are conducted where information to make preservation decisions is lacking. Conservation research can be divided into two categories:

  1. Conservation treatment and treatment-related research seeks new or untested treatment approaches or techniques and a greater understanding of unfamiliar format and material types.
  2. Preventive preservation research informs decisions regarding storage environments and packaging. Specific areas of research include conditions for storing specific format and material types; packaging materials and methods for different types of records; and the Archives’ testing of products to determine the applicability of the Archival Quality Trademark (intended to signify that products are suitable to use in the creation and storage of archival records of enduring value). Preventive preservation research may involve collaboration with other institutions.

Both forms of research may lead to publication or presentation of papers on conservation to conferences or in wider forums.

7.5 Outreach programs

The scope of conservation outreach programs is wide, but all aim to provide audiences with a working knowledge of, and experience in, keeping and caring for historical records. Conservation outreach programs are provided to both Archives staff and the public.

Public outreach programs include conservation clinics associated with the Archives’ Shake Your Family Tree Day, state and territory open days, exhibition-related workshops and seminars, as well as in response to public enquiries.

Internal outreach programs include records-handling training, involvement in staff induction and building tours for visitors, and in response to special record viewing requests. Conservation also provides assistance to those Archives state and territory offices that have no permanent conservation staff.

7.6 Preventive assistance

Preventive conservation encompasses disaster management, environmental control and monitoring, integrated pest management, and records use and handling.

7.7 Exhibitions

Conservation supports the preparation and treatment of items for display or loan, exhibition installation and removal, environmental monitoring and services for couriering items interstate.


Related information

AICCM Code of Ethics


In the Archives, 'conservation' is used to describe those activities carried out by professional conservation staff and which involve direct intervention with the records. The term ‘preservation’ is used to cover the broader function, which includes conservation but also includes storage, copying and handling. A wider range of staff is involved with preservation, and some aspects of the preservation effort are the responsibility of all staff.

'Conservation' is defined by the AICCM as preventing damage and loss to cultural heritage. It aims to minimise change to archival holdings; protect records from the adverse effects of climate and chemical deterioration, and providing access; and safeguard our heritage not only for ourselves but for future generations.

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