1. Saving a business archive
Archives are the eyes of history, revealing the past and its traces. Unfortunately, the preservation of business archives has for a long time been neglected. Almost in isolation, the archivist Oliver Holmes published one of the first papers about the preservation of such archives in The American Archivist in 1938. Holmes warned readers that historians of the future would need business archives to understand the forces that shaped modern life. In Argentina, indifference towards business archives has often led to improper care and occasionally even destruction of their records. Floods, mould and fire: a sad and common picture. Whether small or large, not a single company or corporation archive in Argentina has escaped this fate. Fortunately, in the last decade, this situation has begun to change thanks to the academic community, especially researchers in economic and business history. They have made institutions and companies aware of the need to safeguard their own records and historical archives. Business archives are now becoming a precious gem for historians.
The Bunge & Born business archive is one of the most important in Argentina and even all of Latin America. This company was founded in 1884 by Ernesto Bunge and Jorge Born, and grew into a massive multinational corporation, established mainly in Buenos Aires. Bunge & Born’s initial activities were based on the international trade of commodities such as maize, wheat, wool and leather. This corporation controlled almost all the cereal exports from Argentina around the world.
The archive’s collection is divided into the following:
- The historical collection (from 1884 to 1950), comprising more than 3,000 records.
- The modern collection (from 1950 onwards), with approximately 1,200 records.
- Staff records: more than 7,200 employee records.
One of the most interesting facts about this archive is that all the records are stored in a security vault inside the main building of the company. Yes, in a huge bank vault where valuables and money had originally been stored. Symbolically, perhaps, the archival documents are the company’s true treasures. However, the archive has been forgotten for many years because the company did not understand until recently the importance and the historical value of the collection.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced people all over the world to face a bewildering number of changes. When some face-to-face activities resumed in Argentina in January of 2021, and epidemiological restrictions had been relaxed, the Bunge & Born business archive reopened. The archive’s holdings then had to be prepared for digitisation and use by researchers. For many years, this business archive had remained in the shadows, the documents untouched and gathering literal dust in their vault. Therefore, the first challenge was to remove these records from the vault, clean them, and stabilise them.
Organising and preserving an entire archive on paper cannot be done over Zoom. It is paramount to touch the documents, to feel their shape, to perceive the unique smell that paper archives commonly have. It was also decided that all holdings should be cleaned as a part of the initial stabilisation process. This decision was made for several reasons. First, the documents had been stored for decades in a dusty environment without any cleaning. Second, all the documents will be digitised in the future, and they will need to be clean for clear imaging. Finally, thorough cleaning will help keep the documents, archivists, and researchers safe during future work. Scientific studies have shown that at least some kinds of deposited dirt can hasten paper degradation (Grau-Bové et al. 2016), so keeping the records clean is important for their preservation. If dust accumulates over long periods, this could also encourage bacterial and mould growth, which could cause the dirt to be cemented to the paper or even spread to other collections. Therefore, we had to clean the documents thoroughly, record by record, page by page. In addition to cleaning, the stabilising treatment would include removing tape and fasteners like rubber bands and rusty paper clips.
We immediately ran into a problem: where to carry out the cleaning and stabilisation? The working space inside the company building was limited, and we did not have access to a conservation laboratory. Stabilisation had to be carried out in the same space where the archivists were working. We were concerned that the cleaning process would release a lot of dust into the air, which might resettle on other documents or endanger the health of the staff. Therefore, the conservation team decided to create an enclosed space for this task to contain the dust. The ideal solution would have been to buy a good dust extraction system, but this is not easy to do in Argentina. These kinds of supplies have to come from abroad and are too expensive for our limited budget. In the end, buying a premade dust extraction system for cleaning books was out of the question. Nevertheless, the conservation team was not discouraged. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
2. Designing a dust extraction system for cleaning records
Since we could not buy one, we decided to design our own dust extraction system for cleaning books and records, built entirely from locally sourced materials. Our system is similar to a laboratory fume hood, which extracts harmful particles and fumes to limit their dispersion. The device is an open-faced box made from transparent 4 mm acrylic, with dimensions of 1500 mm × 1000 mm × 1000 mm (H x W x D). The edges where the acrylic sheets meet are reinforced with a locally made non-toxic adhesive. The box rests on a black 10-mm-thick rubber mat glued to an 18 mm plywood board. The mat provides shock absorption and a non-slip surface, and loose particles accumulating in the bottom of the box are clearly visible against the black. The box has a suction inlet connected to an air extraction system with adjustable suction and a HEPA filter. The filter eliminates 99.97% of airborne contaminants, including dust, allergens, germs and volatile organic compounds.
The dust extraction system also includes a Clarkson book support made from locally sourced lightweight synthetic foam. The synthetic foam ensures that the entire surface of the book is supported evenly. We chose a grey foam with good anti-slip properties. The support consists of six pieces that can be used in different combinations, and it is sturdy enough to support the largest and heaviest records in our archive. Some of the accounting ledgers can weigh over 10 kg.
We tested the dust extraction device with different types and sizes of documents and with varying degrees of surface dirt and dust. The device captures the loose dust very effectively, with no visible dust leaving the box or settling around it. This has allowed us to clean all the records in the same workspace where other archival tasks were carried out, without compromising people’s health or contaminating other records.
We are very happy with the device we built. First, it has allowed us to safely clean the documents in a shared workspace. Second, we saved a significant amount of money, avoided buying supplies abroad, and used locally sourced materials. Third, we made sure the device accommodates even the largest and heaviest of our records. Last but not least, the design of this dust extraction system can easily be replicated. Other archives and libraries can build a similar system on a small budget.
In spite of many obstacles, we were able to proceed with organising and preserving one of the most important business archives in Argentina. We faced restrictions due to the pandemic, difficulties with sourcing supplies, budget constraints, and an economic recession resulting from the health crisis. Nonetheless, we found creative workarounds for all these complications. Adapting resources to local contexts in times of crisis is surely an important part of the work that library and archives conservators do on a daily basis.
Grau-Bové, J., Budic, B., Kralj Cigic, I., Thickett, D., Signorello, S., & Strlic, M. (2016). The effect of particulate matter on paper degradation. In: Heritage Science, 4:2, pp.1–8.
Holmes, O.W. (1938). The evaluation and preservation of business archives. In: The American Archivist, 1:4.
Juan Facundo Araujo has a master’s degree in Comparative Literature and a BA in Librarianship and Information Science from the University of Buenos Aires. Currently he is working on an Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree in Techniques, Heritage, Territories of Industry (TPTI) at the University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne and the University of Padova. He provides technical advice to libraries, archives and museums to help them preserve their collections.
Eugenio Torres graduated from Berkeley College of Music (Boston, MA, USA) with a degree in Music and a major in Music Production & Engineering (summa cum laude). He is currently studying library science at the Universidad Católica Argentina and working on a master’s thesis in Cultural Management at the Universidad San Andrés. He works as deputy director of the Bunge & Born Archive.