20 Steps for Developing an Archives

20 Steps for Developing an Archives in a Public Sector Folklife or Cultural Arts Organization
By Steve Green
1. Organizational History

Try to construct a brief history of your organization. Determine when it was created, with what funds, and through what initiatives. Create a list of primary staff and the dates of their tenure. Generate a list of projects, exhibits, events, publications, and other special projects— this doesn’t have to be exhaustive at the outset. Just create a framework for better understanding how the organization has unfolded over time.

2. Regional Survey of Related Materials

If possible, conduct a regional survey to find materials that may relate to your organization or its programs. Look at the list of your past primary staff, especially folk arts coordinators and contract fieldworkers. Where are they now? Contact them to see if they have materials that should be part of the organizational archives. If they don’t want to part with stuff, at least note down what they have and where it resides (at their home, etc.). The purpose of the survey is to gain knowledge of what materials exist relating to your organization and it’s activities, where those materials are, and what kinds of formats are represented (tapes, photos, etc.).

3. In-House Records Survey

Conduct a room-by-room inventory to identify records and materials that reflect the administrative and programming activities of your organization. If you have remote storage locations, visit those places too and make a list. At this stage, it is helpful to assign a provisional number to cartons and boxes (you can write it on the box or use a label or post-it). Look through the box and try to determine the nature of the materials (files, invoices, grant reports), the source of the materials (festival director, exhibit curator, fieldworker), the date range represented by the materials (1989-1990), and anything else that seems significant. Note the presence of non-print media, especially slides and photographs, cassettes, computer discs, etc. You can create a paper form to fill in manually or use a template on a laptop. What you want in the end is a numbered list of boxes and cartons and some idea of what’s in them and where they are stored.

4. Archives Space

Archives should be established in a secure safe environment. Set aside adequate space to house materials, obtain shelving and cabinets, and set up work tables, computer stations, media playback equipment, and other things needed to create both storage space and work space for processing collections. Consolidate materials in this space. The space should be locked when not occupied, and should be evaluated for potential threats from flood, fire, vermin, unauthorized intrusion, direct sunlight, and climate extremes.

5. Establish Collections

Using the in-house records survey list and any additional information you may have about fieldwork, exhibits, festivals, and other programmatic or publication activities, generate a provisional list of “collections” and assign a unique number to each collection. The sequence doesn’t really matter. The collection is going to serve as the basic intellectual unit for organizing your archives. In theory, everything you have should fit into some collection— and into only one collection. Collections can be related to other collections (say an exhibit grew out of a festival presentation) but it is worth establishing boundaries so you can figure out where stuff belongs. If you can’t figure out where something belongs, or you sense that some crucial information is missing that could help determine what a collection should be, set the material aside for later consideration.

6. Collection or Series?

You will need to decide what are collections and what are series. Generally speaking, series are part of larger collections. If you ran a concert series for two years and there were twelve concerts, consider making the whole group a collection and each concert a series within the collection. It gets confusing because of the vocabulary (why is a concert series a “collection” and not a “series”?) but you are simply creating an intellectual framework or outline. The arrangement is always hierarchical— thus, you have: Archives Repository (your organization) Collections Series Sub-series Sub Sub-series Folders Items Determining whether materials constitute a collection or a series can be tricky. If you set things up provisionally first— don’t write anything permanent on the materials yet— you can shift things around later and fine-tune the overall system.

7. Media Formats

A collection can contain anything regardless of format. Don’t worry at this point about whether materials are tapes, photos, slides, DATs, posters, clippings, or grant reports. What you care about is what collection or series they belong to. As you identify and list your collections, include a note mentioning the existence of any tapes, photos, computer discs, etc. Later, you will come back and generate more detail about what those items are. For now, you just need to remember that they exist and to cite them as part of a specific collection. If you find things like tapes and are unsure what they are or where they belong, skip them for the time being and move on.

8. Natural & Artificial Collections

This is a concept only, presented here to guide your thinking and offer a rationale for organization. When considering whether materials constitute a collection, do they reflect a single context or provenance? Or have they been brought together from many different sources, like books purchased from different book dealers? If the materials derive from a single source (a person, a department, an agency), they are probably a “natural” collection, meaning you should make an effort to retain the materials as a cohesive group and not mix them up with materials from other sources. If the materials are related because they have a similar topic or format but no unified source, they are probably an “artificial” collection. Many book and recording collections are “artificial” as are collections of clippings, miscellaneous photographs acquired from different places over time, and files on artists that have been created in-house and added to over time. With artificial collections, there is no real context to preserve.

9. Collection names and numbers

A collection name should be descriptive and cite the source of the material where possible. If it does not make the collection name too cumbersome, try also to include something that indicates what the primary format is. Some examples might be: 1037. Blanton Owen Collection of Ranch Architecture Photographs (1980s) 1056. Glaser Family Scrapbook Collection (1927-1950)

10. Series

Creation of series can be based on a variety of criteria such as format, date range, genre, source, project, etc. Consult archival processing manuals for further explanations and advice about designating series within a collection. Bear in mind that series and sub-series are often intended to help clarify the internal relationship of parts of a collection.

11. Arrangement of Media Formats

Organize media materials into series by format (LP, cassette, DAT, open reels, etc) Impose a sequence and numbering system on media materials. If possible use chronology to establish a sequence. If recordings are not well-labeled, determining dates visually can be difficult.

12. Finding Aids

Begin to describe materials using archival approach (Scope and Content, Background, Key Personnel, Related Collections, Series, etc.) in a “collection inventory,” “collection guide,” “register,” or “finding aid.” Consult archival processing manuals for guidance, or hire an archivist. Cite any media materials, pointing to shelf numbers (this means media must first be arranged and numbered). 1037. Alexis Prendergast Great Basin Fieldwork Collection (1990-1993) Series 1. Administrative materials Series 2. Correspondence Series 3. Sound recordings Sub-Series 3.1 Cassette tapes (CT1015 – CT1099) Sub-Series 3.2 DAT tapes (DT237 – DT239)

13. Access

Assume that access approach will proceed primarily from collection (broad discovery) to item (narrow discovery) instead of the other way around— but linking collections to items in a database allows you to go in either direction (by searching the database using specific terms).

14. Media Formats Shelf List

The first database for media materials should be a “shelf list.” Basic fields can include: Collection Number Collection Name (will be reflective of project) Format Code (will point to media items grouped by format) Archives Number (will pinpoint location in format series) Descriptive Title (challenging for untitled materials) Artist(s) (optional at this level) Date (if possible, but optional)

15. Collections Checklist

Create Collections Checklist (just a list of collections in numerical sequence and brief description of what they are). This helps you see the archives “at-a-glance.” Try to store collection materials in numerical sequence on the shelf. When formats require different storage locations these can be indicated in the finding aid or by using “separation sheets” placed with materials on the shelf. While materials may be physically scattered, they are unified intellectually and are described cohesively in a finding aid or catalog record.

16. Cataloging

Don’t approach cataloging until a “collection inventory” or “finding aid” is completed (how can you catalog a collection if you don’t know what it contains?) NOTE: Creating a finding aid assumes a static collection, not an organic, shifting group of materials that are still in use.

17. Surrogates for Media Access

Make sure to use surrogates for any sound recordings, video tapes, and other original materials that could be inadvertently damaged through handling or use (machine playback makes materials especially vulnerable).

18. Open House

Don’t publicly advertise what you have until you are ready to have people ask to use the material.

19. Professional Development

Learn about archives and archives management through workshops, online courses, professional conferences, web sites, books, and some vendor catalogs.

20. Consultant Services and Funding Support

Consider engaging an archival consultant for assistance, or to provide an assessment that can be used to strengthen a grant proposal for archives infrastructure or preservation assistance. Learn about what makes a good archival project for grant funding and what organizations support these activities. Work with colleagues, a consultant, or a grants program officer to develop project ideas and proposals.

Steve Green

Western Folklife Center

October, 2005