Archival institutions working towards environmental sustainability

By Anicka Austin, Emory University Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, SGA Blog Contributor

Dr. Melanie L. Harris starts off her book “Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth- Honoring Faiths” by describing her mother’s garden, which is always in bloom. It reminds me of my favorite things about Spring when she writes, “gazing at bees already humming at my mother’s roses, I noticed that we all seem to be singing the same song. Even the color of the roses added a melodic tune.”

From this introduction to her family, Dr. Harris goes on to describe the first step of ecowomanism, which is to access our individual and collective ecomemories. How did we get here? Although the word “sustainability” is now in our collective vocabulary, there is a history of faith-based practices by African diasporic women that extends well-beyond our contemporary understandings of environmental justice (Harris, 2017). The legacy that Dr. Harris describes is extensive. She says, “the parallel between the colonization of the earth and the colonization of black and African bodies throughout the history of the transatlantic slave trade up to the present is an important theme in ecowomanist thought.”

History plays a major part in how we shift action and conversation around sustainability. This is one reason why the work of archivists and memory workers is directly related to our environment. Ben Goldman (2017) encourages archivists to steward collections that tell stories that are “fundamentally more respectful of our environment”. Senior Collection Archivist and Chair of Rose Library’s Sustainability Committee, Laura Starratt, notes that Rose Library is a major collector of political and social activism. She says, “we hold many collections focused on social justice, which relates directly to the conversations on environmental sustainability.  Holding these collections, but not addressing how we are actively contributing to climate change would be an ethical conflict.” In fact, one of the collections at Rose is that of Alice Walker, who’s work provides a basis for Dr. Harris’ ecowomanism method. However, as Starratt mentions, there is tension between collecting and acting in the best interest of the environment and the Sustainability Committee at Rose is examining ways to reduce collecting. Even as we advocate for collecting the records of “people who are deeply observant of their communities” (Goldman, 2017), we also know that collecting less may be more beneficial to the environment than acquiring more.

With that in mind, acknowledging history is not just about collecting. Institutions could acknowledge the history of the land on which their archival repository resides. The ecohistory of Emory is tied to how the land in Dekalb County, Georgia was acquired. In the land acknowledgement developed by Professor Craig Womack and Professor Debra Vidali, it is noted that “Emory University was founded in 1836, during a period of sustained oppression, land dispossession, and forced removals of Muscogee (Creek) and Ani’yunwi’ya (Cherokee) peoples from Georgia and the Southeast.” Emory, like other academic institutions, relied on the labor and land of indigenous and African people. With this and ecowomanism in mind, it matters that conversations around environmental sustainability are nuanced and diverse. In recognizing old narratives and creating new ones, Dr. Harris notes that “as a first methodological step to ecowomanism, mining ecomemory simultaneously pushes back, critiquing traditional forms of environmental history that leave out the histories of peoples of color, and pushes forward social justice commitments to be incorporated within the environmental movement.”

Finally, archival institutions can address how we are collecting that history and the legacy we want to leave behind through our process. Starratt talks about how the materials we use reflect our commitment to sustainable archival practices:

We can also look for options to reuse.  We should be looking for ways to reuse what we already have.  The boxes may have writing on them or not be the right color, but they can still hold materials…. Recycling means more than just having bins in our spaces for paper, aluminum, or glass.  We should ensure that we are not buying single use plastic or Styrofoam.  This is a common packing material for archives, but there are options.  We should also be insisting that the people and organizations we work with refrain from using these materials.  We should only buy recycled paper for our printers (and continue to reduce how much we print).

Rose Library’s Sustainability Committee has been advocating for some changes that might help other libraries in their commitment to sustainable practices.  According to Starratt, “the committee was set up in 2018 by then Digital Archivist, Dorothy Waugh with goals including creating a culture of sustainability, developing green habits, and building resiliency.”

Some of the committee’s successes are in line with practices Jan Zastrow (2019) supports as ways to move towards greater sustainability. She mentions supporting research projects with environmental themes, selecting conference venues that have made commitments to sustainability and going to conferences remotely to offset our collective carbon footprint. We have all been going to conferences remotely for the most part (due to covid-19, of course) but the sustainability committee at Rose aims to take further steps. Having a zoom option for all meetings is becoming normalized, as to encourage teleworking after pandemic restrictions lift.  Rose Library has also received a Silver Level Green Office certification from Emory University.

Acknowledging history and creating a legacy that reflects care for the environment can allow for more nuanced and diverse conversations about sustainability. For more resources to help sustainability efforts in archives visit Archivists Against History Repeating Itself and Archivists Responding to Climate Change.


Goldman, Ben (2017 May 13). “Things the grandchildren should know: Archives and the origin of an ecocentric future”. Libraries and Archives in the Anthropocene Colloquim, New York.

Harris, Melanie L. (2017). Ecowomanism: African American women and earth-honoring faiths. Orbis Books, New York.

Interview with Laura Starratt, Senior Collection Archivist at Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (17 May 2021)

Womack, Craig & Vidali, Debra. Native American and Indigenous Engagement at Emory. “Land Acknowledgement and History Statement”.

Zastrow, Jan (2019). “Environmental Sustainability and Climate Action in Libraries and Archives.” The Digital Archivist: Trends in Curation and Digital Preservation for Special Collections.

Safely Storing Your Art

By Jill Sweetapple, SGA Blog Contributor

Please welcome Tricia Miller, Head Registrar at the Georgia Museum of Art, based at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Georgia Museum of Art

Tricia Miller has a Masters in Art History from the University of South Carolina, with a concentration in what was then called “Applied Art History.” She says her first paid job was as Director of the Stanly County Historic Preservation Commission in Albemarle, North Carolina (now the Stanly County Museum). Along with two other employees, they did everything from exhibition development, to collections management and sometimes even cleaning duties. She says that job taught her the aspects of museum work that she was good at and enjoyed and what aspects she struggled with or did not enjoy. Her next job was as assistant registrar at the Georgia Museum of Art. She moved up the ranks at GMOA to associate registrar and then to head registrar, and has been with GMOA for 22 years.

Miller estimates that approximately 2% of the 17,000-plus objects are on display, which leaves the problem of storing the rest. As she points out, it is not just about public display, but the storage and preservation of holdings for future generations.

“Institutions with some financial resources to put towards storage of art and the space to handle it may want to look into some standard museum quality storage units. Depending on your objects (framed works or sculpture, or even furniture) your basic options are rolling/sliding racks, bins, cabinets, or shelving. For framed objects rolling/sliding racks (for hanging storage) or metal bins (storage units with vertical slots for storing framed works side by side) are your best option. For small sculptures or other objects (pottery, baskets, silver, etc.) museum quality cabinets with slide out drawers are your best option. For larger items like furniture or larger sculptural items, you may consider industrial, powder-coated metal shelving from industrial supply companies.”

If, like so many of us, you have little cash or perhaps even storage limitations, perhaps you can start small:

“Nobody’s art storage is perfect and we all have something we can improve, even in most museums. My mission each year is to take the resources available to me (money, labor, time) and try improve the storage situation for as many objects as I can. It probably won’t ever be totally perfect, but I know I’ve improved the situation for some objects each year. “

Miller suggests using industrial cardboard bin boxes for storage, which can be purchased from industrial supply companies such as Uline or Grainger in various sizes. Line the bottom of the box with another piece of cardboard or foam-core (for extra stability) and place the framed works vertically in the box side by side. A good rule of thumb is, front-to-front and back-to back. The hardware on the back of frames can damage the front of another frame or the surface of a painting, so by placing them back to back you can avoid unnecessary damage. It is also a good idea to place a piece of cardboard between the frames which are face to face to protect them from rubbing against each other. Keep in mind that many framed works together in a box can become heavy and difficult to move, so consider using more numerous smaller bin boxes rather than fewer large ones. If possible, keep the boxes elevated off the floor, if you can do that safely. Also, you may want to cover the open tops with plastic to avoid dust accumulation and it serves as protection in the event of a crisis situation such as a water leak from a pipe. Avoid wrapping the frames in bubble wrap. As it deteriorates over time, bubble wrap will damage the painted or gilded surface of frames, sticking to it or leaving permanent marks in the surface.

Miller shares the following tips for art that you may have hanging or otherwise on display:

  • If possible, avoid hanging art near heating/cooling vents or above water fountains. The direct flow of conditioned air onto a work of art over the years will possibly make it crack or buckle, any source of water is a potential hazard for works of art.
  • Avoid hanging works of art near windows or in areas where they will get direct sunlight. We know the impact of direct sunlight on paper, and it can eventually have an impact on paintings as well.
  • If possible, avoid hanging works of art in places where other objects (furniture in public areas or other items in storage) may be accidentally pushed up against the work of art. Also, think about the height of a person’s head when they are sitting in a chair or on a bench over which a framed work of art might hang.
  • If possible, avoid hanging works of art in areas where food and drink are prepared or served. It is amazing how food and drink particles can travel through the air! Grease can fly, and carbonated drinks have a potentially wide spray factor when opened.
  • If possible, avoid hanging works of art near pipes, fire suppression sprinkler heads, vents or any other source of water or potential condensation. One of the biggest threats to museum collections is not theft, but water.

Some links to bin box choices:

Regularly tour your storage spaces, looking for potential problems. What is the art leaning against, or what is leaning against it? What is around the art and what is moving around it-is it in a main thoroughfare? And, what can you do to mitigate the risks?

One of the biggest risks for paintings in non-museum storage is damage to the surface of the work either by puncture or abrasion from another object. Consider putting paintings in a container, if possible, such as the bin boxes mentioned above. If the object is too large to go in a container, there may be other options. Large paintings can be faced with a piece of cardboard (the size of the frame) and wrapped in plastic. The cardboard provides some protection from impact on the front and the plastic provides overall protection from potential water damage. Before you wrap the painting, take a picture, print it, and tape to the cardboard (under the plastic) so you can identify the object while it is stored. Additionally, a moving blanket over a piece of furniture can provide some level of protection and help to avoid the accidental scrape or mishap.

Many thanks to Tricia Miller for her time and to Hillary Hazel Brown for the building photograph. The Georgia Museum of Art, on the campus of the University of Georgia, is both an academic museum and, since 1982, the official art museum of the state of Georgia. The permanent collection consists of American paintings, primarily 19th- and 20th-century; American, European and Asian works on paper; the Samuel H. Kress Study Collection of Italian Renaissance paintings; and growing collections of southern decorative arts and Asian art.

2021 Summer Workshop: The Education Opportunity – Primary Sources and Context in the K-12 Classroom

Thursday, July 8, 2021, 1:00-4:00 PM (EST)

Virtual workshop on Zoom

Registration: $25

This workshop is for archivists and custodians of primary source materials who wish to increase the visibility and sound use of their holdings to educators. Participants will engage with multiple primary sources from a single collection to learn how to connect archival literacy with the creation of turnkey resources for educators. This workshop will help custodians of primary sources think critically about their collections as they relate to state education curriculum standards and broaden their potential K-12 audience. Participants will learn of unique strategies and resources currently applied in the classroom from the teachers who are currently using them as a means to foster discussion regarding how archival outreach might be enhanced at the K-12 level.    

Instructor: Amanda Smith, Jena Sibille, Mike Santrock

Register here