Core Documents

Commentaries to the Guidelines for Practice

Commentary 28 - Preservation of Documentation


  • Documentation is an integral part of the conservation process; therefore, it must be preserved so that the information it contains is later available to conservators and others.
  • For a specific cultural property, documentation may be used to:
    • evaluate the cultural property's present condition;
    • plan its further treatment;
    • expand appreciation and understanding of it;
    • study it even if it is lost, destroyed, or otherwise made inaccessible.
    • More generally, the documentation may be used to;
      • evaluate treatment methods and materials;
      • support scholarly research;
      • provide a record of "current accepted practice";
      • study the history of the conservation profession and the thought processes and rationales applied to the care of cultural property.
    • Documentation:
      • reduces the need for direct intervention (e.g., sampling, handling, re-excavation, pretreatment testing) when future study and treatment are undertaken;
      • serves as an important educational tool for owners/custodians, students, scholars, and the general public;
      • serves as a record that can help avoid misunderstanding and unnecessary litigation;
      • enhances the credibility of the conservation profession by setting a positive example for allied professionals and the public.
    • Documentation may be created and preserved in hard copy form and/or electronic form. The advantages of each form are:
      1. Hard copy documentation: 
      • does not require complex storage measures to maintain for its expected lifespan;
      • requires no special equipment to view or access;
      • can be physically stored with related object information and supporting materials (e.g., sampled material, labels, handwritten notations).
      2. Electronic Documentation:
      • provides the most easily accessed documentation record when properly managed and organized;
      • can provide the most informative photographic record when electronically displayed, if created properly;
      • has the ability to maintain, preserve, and reproduce the photographic documentation without image degradation, given appropriate digital preservation strategies.

B. Minimum Accepted Practice

  • Handwritten and printed documentation must be produced on and with permanent, stable media, and be legible. If film is used for the graphic component, the most permanent photographic systems reasonably available must be utilized (such as properly stored and labeled color transparency film).
  • If documentation is created using electronic media, the conservation professional must recognize that the long-term maintenance of these records requires regular proactive measures. A comprehensive plan for long-term storage of digital records must be established. Such plans involve (but are not limited to):
    • the creation and maintenance of at least two copies of the electronic records kept
      in different locations;
    • the regular monitoring of records (i.e., make sure they open correctly);
    • the regular migration of records to new electronic media;
    • the conversion to new file formats when necessary to keep current with changes
      in technology and thus ensure long-term access to the records.

      The conservation professional must also recognize that, unlike traditional hard copy records, the long-term survival of digital files is at present unproven over time.
  • If databases or other electronic record keeping systems are used in the course of maintaining image files and other digital documentation, then these supporting electronic records must also be preserved with equal attention to planning and care.
  • If such measures for the maintenance of electronic documentation records cannot be achieved, the conservation professional must create and maintain hard copies of the documentation on the most permanent materials available. Recommended storage conditions should be followed for hard copy material.
  • Electronic conservation record files, both photographic- and text-based, should be stored in a file format that is as universally accessible as is reasonably possible.
  • Records should be organized and maintained to ensure their preservation and their retrieval in a timely manner, by appropriate individuals. The records must be stored under the best environmental conditions feasible.
  • Multiple copies of the documentation must exist: one (the “record copy”) with the owner/custodian (curatorial office or registration department in an institution), the other with the conservation professional. For electronic records, the conservation professional must create and maintain at least two copies on separate storage media in different locations. The conservation professional must stress to the owner/custodian the importance of storing these records properly and maintaining them with the cultural property, even if ownership changes.
  • To allow access to the documentation without violating confidentiality, the owner/custodian should be asked to sign a written agreement governing access to the information by conservation and allied professionals and by future owners/custodians. Conservation professionals working in public institutions may not need to obtain such an agreement, since access to documentation created within such institutions is governed by federal and state statutes.
  • When requested, copies of documentation should be provided to future owners/custodians or conservation professionals in a timely fashion.

C. Recommended Practice

  • Written and graphic documentation other than photographic should be executed on paper that meets ANSI Standard Z39.48-1992. (R2002) (ISO 9706:1994).
  • The conservation professional should retain an original photographic record (e.g., negative, original color transparency, or electronic file) so the highest quality of graphic information is available.
  • Both electronic documentation and hard copy of electronic documentation should be created and maintained whenever possible in order to maximize long-term stability and provide widest accessibility.
  • Multiple copies of documentation files in electronic form should be maintained and physically stored in multiple locations.
  • Whenever possible, digital photographic files should be created and maintained in an uncompressed format.  If it is necessary to create or maintain files in compressed form, the minimum level of compression should be used. Lossless compression is preferable to lossy compression.
  • Electronically or magnetically recorded documentation and documentation requiring the use of other specialized retrieval apparatus (e.g., videotape or optical disk) can be useful adjuncts to the permanent record but should not be relied upon as permanent records unless a comprehensive plan for long-term management of the digital file(s) or analog medium is in place (see section B above).
  • Recommendations should be made to the owner/custodian regarding the maintenance and use of the documentation. Attaching a summary of critical information (e.g., name of conservation professional, identification or job number, treatment summary) to the cultural property may be a useful way to ensure that documentation accompanies the cultural property over time.
  • Within institutions, conservation documentation should be regarded as part of the institutional archives, and conservation professionals should work with archivists and records managers to develop sound policies for their permanent retention.
  • Private practitioners should maintain and monitor documentation throughout the lifetime of their practice. If ownership of a practice changes hands, the documentation should be included in the transfer. If the practice closes, the conservation professional should make an effort to place documentation in an institutional archives. (AIC provides information on how to identify archives and place collections.) If this proves impossible and records must be discarded, their final disposition should be reported to AIC for future reference.
  • The conservation professional should strive to keep informed about and to follow practices for the preservation and organization of records currently recommended by archives professionals.

D. Special Practices

  • In certain situations when no substitutes are available, nonpermanent materials (e.g., color Polaroid®, blueprints, or AutoCAD®) may be used for documentation. Efforts should be made to transfer the information to a more permanent medium.
  • It is advisable to obtain legal and other professional advice when establishing records policies.

Originally Approved by the AIC Board October 1996
Revisions Approved by the AIC Board September 2008