MARTINEZ -- For decades, volunteers have been poring over documents, carefully categorizing, filing newspaper clippings dating back to the mid-1800s -- and preserving the county's past.

Each donation of archives still gets a thorough dusting off with white-gloved hands using soft brushes, and is carefully put away in shielding acid-free boxes and Mylar casings.

For just over 10 years, the Contra Costa Historical Society has been digitizing, protecting the items in cyberspace.

Recently, Priscilla Couden, the society's executive director, sought out further expertise to ensure they were doing their best to protect its massive collection from further deteriorating.

The Martinez-based history center received a $4,500 federal grant from the California Preservation Program, under the auspices of the United States Institute of Museum and Library Services, and Barclay Ogden came calling, conducting a daylong needs assessment.

"I'm humbled by the size of the collection. The quality of the holdings is really stunning," said Ogden, the director of library preservation at UC Berkeley.

"It gives (them) a game plan to make improvements," he added. "I was much more focused on security and environmental conditions, so they'll continue to last."

The 5,000-square-foot history center on Escobar Street houses such archives as county records, old maps, thousands of photographs, slides and negatives and naturalization documents held in trust for the Superior Court from 1869-1984, and includes such records from Angel Island's once immigration station.

The new facility allows related archival materials to be separated into different enclosed rooms, where humidity and temperature are controlled.

"He turned my ideas upside down," said Couden of Ogden's recommendation that copying newspaper clippings onto acid free paper be given top priority, and that documents housed in tattered leather-bound books were actually in stable condition.

Since 2000, Walnut Creek resident Leland Taylor has volunteered, preserving and categorizing historic photos.

"The need for scanning color slides, those deteriorate the fastest. That was the weakest link (Ogden) could identify," he said.

Existing measures that volunteers have taken to preserve archives include the countless hours spent indexing documents, court cases and images onto a database, meaning "less wear and tear," Couden explained, by reducing the need to expose materials to harmful elements.

Seemingly innocuous items are often potentially insidious, explains Betty Maffei, of Walnut Creek, who was the history center's executive director for 25 years, "from the moment it started."

Volunteers are quick to remove staples, paper clips and rubber bands, photos are taken out of old wooden frames, and folded correspondence can lose the words along the crease, she said.

"We started with the oldest and most brittle," said Maffei. "Glue eats into photos, and we'll lose Aunt Millie or Uncle George."

"Except for our newest things, we've archivally housed everything else," said Couden.

And with a loose benchmark of "what would someone be interested in 50 years from now," Couden said, volunteers will keep on preserving.

"When you can draw the past to the present, that's very special," said longtime volunteer Avice Taylor.

preserving history
The Contra Costa Historical Society takes careful steps to ensure historical photographs, documents and other items are preserved for future generations. For more information, visit www.cocohistory.com.