In the process of processing multitudinous piles of correspondence, reports and photos of what is referred to as the “central files” (read: administrative records) it has been suggested that the number of staples in a document often correlates to the value of the document. Memos kept only for reference appear to hold one or, at the most, two staples. Records that are imperative to the history and operation of the organization, on the other hand, tend to contain a minimum of 5 staples and often as many as 21.
These records are the historically relevant reports, correspondence, photos, maps, drawings, or ledgers that tell the story of an organization. These are the items an historian, students or writers tend to request when visiting the archives for research. These are the items that will be used most often, opened, browsed and handled. They must be preserved with careful attention. They also seem to contain layers upon layers of rusty, badly aimed, and mangled staples.
Why, you might ask, are staples of any interest to archives and archivists? A key component of processing archival records is preservation and conservation. Conservation consists of correcting the damage that has already been done and preventing further damage through more thorough preservation methods. We’ll save this for another day. Preservation consists of work to render artifacts impervious to degeneration for the longest plausible period of time.
Preservation may be practiced at a range of depth. The deepest and most authoritative levels of preservation might include depositing each and every item in a Mylar sleeve or hermetically sealed container. Once packaged, the items can then be stored in a temperature and humidity controlled space for long-term preservation. The most basic level might include placing artifacts in minimally acidic containers in the area of a building with the least fluctuating temperature and humidity. This does not include basements and attics for storage of your family photos and artifacts FYI.
Still, you might ask again in increasing frustration, what do staples have to do with preservation and why am I still reading this? Archivists, like doctors and modern medicine, live and work by an oath of “do no harm”. Unlike modern medicine (in general), the oath for archival artifacts actually extends further to “prevent harm”. This means working to prevent any further deterioration of an artifact without causing harm to its current state. Enter: the staples.
It is generally accepted that staples be removed as part of the preservation process. Why? Because staples:
1) are made of cheap metals that rust, stain and damage paper
2) puncture, pinch, and tear paper during years of storage and handling
3) are mostly unattractive and an annoyance even in common use
4) puncture photos and damage the emulsion that normally protects photos (side note: staples should NEVER be used on photos)
While archivists are professionally trained at staple removal including the use of specially designed proprietary tools, staple removal can be harmful to paper and photos. If removing staples involves scraping, bending, ripping or otherwise compromising the document, the staple stays in place.
But, staples are also a danger to archivists. And this is why a small group of professional archivists, with the support of local experts, has decided to establish an organization known as AASS: Archivists Against Staples and Staplers. Primary arguments of AASS for the dissolution of staple development, production and use:
1) unless we have had a recent tetanus shot we are in danger of infection as we are poked, sliced and jabbed with rusty, twisted and layered staples
2) carpel tunnel syndrome is not just for typists anymore – holding a micro-spatula like a chopstick, turning paper carefully to reach top and bottom layers, and prying staples open one leg at a time is not good for the wrist
3) sure, the first few 21-staple documents are funny, but when you spend an entire day removing staples from sticky-notes stapled to paper and staples taped to paper, your mind starts to bend in ways that are not natural and your eyelid might start to twitch
To help heal the psyche and fingertips of archivists we will soon be developing and distributing public service announcements to promote the reduction of staples and staplers. We hope that you will educate yourself about the danger and misuse of staples and support AASS.
Never mind that staples have been commonly and successfully used for more than a hundred years. Never mind that they were even used BCE for things we don’t want to discuss here and also later in the early 19th century by royalty and other less desirables. That’s another subject. (If you are truly fascinated by staples, please visit your local library or archive and ask for assistance with researching the history of staples and staplers.)
Staples of any size are useful really. They hold a report together, they hold a sticky-note to a memo (sticky notes, BTW, are designed to stick – staples are NOT necessary for these), and staples can even create a nice diversion for avoiding eye contact in awkward office situations. And staples are such small things. In the early period, staples were less than half an inch wide; they were minute really. As time passed and humans developed into desiring bigger and better things and using more paper, staples grew to their current size.
I am sure you have a standard sized stapler near by and know from use that they hold up to about 20 sheets of paper. There are others out there too. The 3/8” the ¼” and the 1” industrial size staples that can hold an annual report with just one staple. That report will probably be ignored or, at best, skimmed and dropped into the back of a file cabinet, but it will be stapled forever! Maybe the number of staples does correlate to importance.
Special thanks to Carol for the main title and to fellow members of AASS for support and development of this article.