Archive and Special Collections

From order to chaos

Working with archives is a powerful reminder of the natural tendency of all things to move from the pristine into a state of decay. Scientists call this entropy, the running down of energy and matter to a uniform state of inertia. The steady dissolution of systems, from order to chaos. Memories lost.

For example, we have in our collections a vellum backed book that had been stored for many years in very dry conditions. The book sank further down the entropic scale – from hot to cold as it were. Originally, energy was infused into calfskin; cleaned, scraped, bleached, stretched and abraded. Yet more energy was introduced as the vellum was married to the text-block; sewn, laced, trimmed, splayed, pasted. For some years our vellum backed book rested on a shelf, perhaps occasionally rediscovered, remembered and read, then returned. Forgotten again. A succession of less than perfect environments sucked moisture from once supple organic material; drying, leaching, cracking and warping. More recently, under the care of the Archive, energy has been expended again, the book protected in an acid free enclosure stabilised, arrested, described and catalogued.

What will happen when that energy is withdrawn, for instance when the vellum is permanently removed from its protective enclosure? What will happen when the protective environment of the Archive is lost? Will we forget? Without vigilance the input of energy an Archive can provide is so easily broken. A file of paper documents, an oil painting on canvas or a vellum bound book may end up stored in unsatisfactory environments, regarded as safe for a short while. However other priorities emerge, the document, the painting and the book are eventually given little regard, they are forgotten. Day by day there is no perceptible deterioration, material appears much the same as it did yesterday or the day before that, but already degradation has begun. Cumulatively over the lifetime of an item those storage conditions leave a mark. If we are not attentive short term pressing matters override any long term concerns. It is a matter of time. What remains is the steady dissolution of systems, from order to chaos.

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By Dr Keith Rowntree
07 Mar 2019
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