Key Concepts and Needs Relating to Archives

Key Concepts and Needs Relating to Archives
By Steve Green

The issues below are designed to get you thinking about the ramifications of creating or maintaining an archives program within your organization. They are not intended as a challenge (although maintaining an archives program is definitely challenging) nor are they intended to dissuade anyone from developing an archives. This list is simply a reminder of some issues that are easy to overlook when thinking about archives.

Organizational Mission
  • What is the overall mission of your organization?
Archives Mission Statement
  • There should be a mission statement outlining objectives of having an archives.
Archivist Position
  • Who will assume the role of organizing, caring for and overseeing archival collections, policy development, assisting users, managing files and equipment, and addressing preservation concerns for both short term and long range?
Internal Line of Authority for Archives
  • The person in charge of archives should have authority to enforce policies relating to collection development, records management, preservation and access. Usually this authority derives from the Executive Director.
Staff Support
  • Will the archivist need additional staff to carry out the work or mission?
Records Management
  • Management of current staff and administrative records is tangentially related to archives but constitutes a professional field unto itself. This includes managing electronic records on networks.
Accession Procedures
  • How will archival materials be acquired giving legal custody to the organization?
Collection Development (Purchases, Gifts, Transfers)
  • What is the scope of materials that should be acquired for the archives? Are there any restrictions on formats that are collected? Are there already other repositories specializing in overlapping areas?
  • What is the nature of your building or office space? Is there adequate room to house staff, archival materials, media equipment, work space for research use of the archives? Is the building solid, in a location that is relatively safe from natural disasters?
Storage Space
  • Is their sufficient space for storing archival materials? Is the space clean, dry, reasonably cool, above ground, protected from excessive outside light, protected from intrusions of critters and unauthorized personnel?
Staff Work Space
  • Do staff have room to work on sorting files and media materials without being in the flow of traffic? Is there shelving and flat surface space to use for organizing materials?
Researcher Work Space
  • If outsiders or staff need to use archival materials, is there space where they can work under supervision without placing materials at risk? What if they need to listen to recordings, browse through 35mm slides, or see video footage?
Researcher Assistance & Monitoring
  • Is someone available who can devote time to assisting archives users locate what they need, explain handling procedures and other policies, and supervise the use of materials? Are there regular hours during which people may use the archives?
  • Are there adequate security measures in place? Are archives users monitored? Is the space kept locked? How many people have access to the archives? Do you have a way to track users of the archives (i.e. find them after the fact)?
Environmental Factors
  • Is the archives space stable in terms of climate— namely temperature and relative humidity? Is the space too hot? Too damp or humid? Are there hazardous surroundings like overhead water pipes or potentially flammable materials nearby? Where are controls for air handling and heating and who oversees those controls?
Organizational Framework for Archives
  • Most archives are organized using a hierarchical system with “collections” as the basic organizational unit. Subsumed in collections are “series” and “sub-series,” “folders” and “items.” This approach works well for large masses of materials that do not share a uniform title or a single creator, but the system may be cumbersome in a setting where quick access to specific items is needed regularly.
Organization History
  • Do you have a history of your organization or know whom to contact to help generate a good overview of key personnel and activities since the organization’s inception?
Administrative Transparency in Archives
  • If the archives includes administrative materials such as financial records, board meeting minutes, grant applications and reports, personnel files, fund-raising documentation, etc. is it inappropriate to allow access to such materials to general researchers? In addition to programming information (exhibits, festivals, concerts, publications), grant-based projects may also contain sensitive information about budgets, salaries, and personnel.
Restricted Materials
  • Some materials in the archives may need to be restricted (closed to researchers). How will this be indicated and who will take responsibility so restricted materials are not inadvertently made available? Nature and status of restrictions may change over time.
Media Accessibility (Playback Equipment)
  • What media formats does your archives hold? Do you have well-maintained professional grade equipment for playing back all formats? If researchers need to hear recordings, view slides, or watch videos, what formats (and what equipment) will be used for accessing these media?
Technology Support
  • Is there adequate expertise on staff to operate and maintain equipment and handle media responsibly? How will media playback dovetail with other aspects of archives in the digital age? Technology now integrates hardware and software solutions and combines physical media “carriers” with digital files that exist only on computers or networks.
Access and Use Policies
  • Who will formulate access and use policies for archival materials?
Fee Schedules
  • Will you charge for copying or other services? If so, what fees will you charge?
  • Is there a system in place for collecting fees?
Processing Time
  • Is there adequate time to process archival materials? Depending on the size and complexity of collections, the amount of time needed can be days, weeks, months.
Processing Procedures
  • Does the person in charge of the archives have understanding of archival principles that guide processing of collection materials? Are you able to identify resources in order to obtain training or guidelines?
Preserving Context vs. Efficient Access
  • A basic tenet of archival theory is to preserve where possible the context in which materials were created or used. This means arranging materials in ways that may reduce the efficiency of locating specific items (unless a detailed index or database is provided). It’s worth considering whether your organization will benefit from a true archival approach, or whether there is some other approach that may work better for the organization’s short term needs.
Collection Level Description vs. Item Level Access
  • Collection level description means providing brief summaries of collections so users can grasp the big picture of what general resources the archives contains. Item level Access means being able to pinpoint specific documents, files, recorded items, or photographs and retrieve those items without having to search through boxes of material. In a hierarchical system, collections are at the top (broadest) level while items are at the bottom (most specific) level.
Cataloging vs. In-house Finding Aids
  • Do you have the ability to create standardized catalog records that follow rules and principles established by libraries and archives? Do you have access to reference works that provide rules for cataloging or enable you to assign standard headings? Does someone in the organization have time to prepare careful entries for catalog records? At what point do you set out to catalog your holdings? At what level do you catalog them? How will you disseminate catalog entries once they are created?
Web-Based Finding Aids
  • What other options exist in terms of letting people know what you have— for instance via a web browser?
Working Collections vs. Archival Collections
  • Does staff of your organization still need frequent access to materials from past exhibits or projects? Are those materials recycled for use in newly created projects or programs? Are archival collections “static” or are they still somehow “organic” with things being added, moved around, modified, or re-integrated with other materials?
Collection Boundaries and Programs Overlap
  • Are you able to discern collection boundaries, or does it get confusing because different programs have used the same materials? How do you know what goes where?
Preservation vs. Outreach
  • Are materials meant to be preserved or meant to be used? Or both? How can you achieve the aims of preservation for the future while encouraging the use of materials in the present?
Advocacy Through Publicity
  • Calling attention to archival documentary materials holds great potential for demonstrating the value of public folklife programs and for showing how federal and state agencies have made a difference in the quality of life of communities and the nation. In highlighting public programs that have supported cultural documentation, the work of folklorists and community arts administrators can be publicly recognized and legislators can be made aware of diversity and cultural richness in their districts.
Repatriation of Cultural Materials to Communities
  • Are you anticipating at some point sharing with communities the cultural documentation generated through your organization’s program?
Repatriation of Documentary Materials to Families
  • Are you anticipating providing copies of documentary materials to families whose relatives or ancestors were documented through your programs?
Privacy Issues
  • Are you prepared to address issues of privacy in dealing with sensitive materials in your archives? How will you handle this?
Free Content vs Revenue Generating Content
  • Does your organization hope to create content to mount on the Web for free access by visitors to your web site? Or do you see possibilities for generating revenue through product development from archival materials (either analog or digital, on or off the Web)?
Passive Storage vs Pro-Active Content Development
  • Will your archives be a passive storage place for materials, or do you see the archives becoming a generator of content to share with the larger world? In other words, will you wait for users to come to you, or will you be proactive and take content to the users?
Measuring Archives Use
  • Do you need to measure or evaluate archives use for any reason? For the Board? For a parent agency?
Integration of Archives into Work Flow
  • How will the archives interface with daily workflow of the organization? How will things like interviews and digital photos find their way to the archives, and how will materials from the archives be made available to staff? Will your archives be “self-serve” or will there be a gatekeeper? If staff need to “borrow” things from the archives, how will that be handled?
Implications of Digital Files and File Management
  • The rapid ascendancy of digital formats of all kinds has resulted in a complex technoscape requiring considerable research to evaluate compatibility issues, determine suitability of formats and equipment, find software that does the job well, decide on platforms and operating systems, set up file sharing networks, and manage files once they are created.
  • With staff changes, do you have any way to ensure that archival systems can be passed along, or will the next person re-invent the wheel and develop their own way of doing things?
Long Range Planning
  • What does the role of the archives look like five or ten years from now?
Disaster Planning
  • If Hurricane Katrina happened to you, what would you do? If you received a call in the middle of the night that your building was on fire, what steps would you take regarding the archives?
Archives Provision If Organization Changes Mission or Ceases to Exist
  • Is there a plan for what will happen to your archival materials if your organization ceases to exist?
Preservation Assessment
  • Do you know what condition your materials are in currently and whether anything is at risk of being lost? Do you know whether your storage conditions are okay, or whether you should be storing anything differently?
Prioritization for Preservation Initiatives
  • Do you know which formats need attention before others when it comes to preservation?
Appraisal or Research Value of Cultural Documentation
  • Do you know which of your materials are the most valuable in terms of research potential, intrinsic value, or value to a community, family, or humanity?
  • Do you need to keep everything?
Resource Sharing
  • Do you know who else has materials that relate to your programs, your main audiences, or your collecting areas? Is there a good way to know who has what and how to access it?
Supplies & Equipment
  • Do you know where to get archival supplies and equipment for storing or playback of audiovisual formats?
  • Do you know who you can call on for a preservation assessment, advice about managing an archives, advice about repairing damaged items, advice about reformatting videos or sound recordings?
Vendor Services
  • Do you know what vendors provide fee-based services in case of an emergency, in case you need tapes copied, in case you need to evaluate structural integrity of your building, in case you need to install moveable shelving?

Steve Green

Western Folklife Center

October, 2005