Managing Records:

Historical Records

Frequently Asked Questions

What are historical records?

Historical records, also called archival records, are records you keep permanently because of their long-term research use. The State Archives provides services for both government and non-government historical records programs. Historical records, regardless of who creates them, can exist on paper, parchment, magnetic tape, film, or a variety of other media.

Identifying historical records

Historical records are those you need or choose to keep forever. The process of determining which of your records are historical is called appraisal. For a general understanding of how to appraise records effectively, see Publication #50, Appraisal of Local Government Records for Historical Value. Also see Publication #81, Historical Records and the Local Government Historian.

In New York State, historical records in local governments and state agencies are those that are designated as permanent in a State Archives' records retention and disposition schedule. They are also materials you decide to keep beyond the legal retention period because they have continuing administrative or legal value, or because they document a significant event, person, or decision.

If you work for historical societies and other organizations that collect non-government records, develop a collecting policy that outlines in detail the geographical, chronological, and topical scope of your collection. Use the criteria in your collecting policy to appraise records before accepting or refusing them. For more information on developing a collecting policy, see our publication, Strengthening New York's Historical Records Programs: A Self-Study Guide PDF.

The State Archives appraises records of state agencies; records are not accepted in the State Archives without prior consultation and approval. For information about the appraisal of state agency records, contact us at (518) 474-6926 or via email. To learn more about records appraisal in a non-government repository, attend the Documentary Heritage Program (DHP) workshop, An Introduction to Appraisal and Selection of Historical Records, or contact your DHP Regional Archivist.

Acquiring historical records

Documentation is the process of locating, identifying, and acquiring unique, historical records that are not yet in a historical records repository. For a detailed guide, see Publication #79, Documentation Basics: A Guide to Planning and Managing Documentation Projects. Also attend the Documentary Heritage Program workshop, Documentation Basics: How to Plan and Manage Documentation Projects or contact your DHP Regional Archivist.

Making historical records accessible

To make historical records accessible, you must organize and create information about them. Archivists call this process arrangement and description. For basic guidance, see:

  • Arrangement and Description of Historical Records, a workshop for nonprofit historical records repositories

Descriptive tools such as finding aids and catalog records help researchers know whether your records will answer their questions. The DHP program at the Central New York Library Resource Council has developed a pamphlet on finding aids titled How to Create Finding Aids.

Reference services

Providing access to your historical records collection while protecting records from damage or loss can be a challenge. All historical records repositories should have clearly stated rules on the use of records. The publication, Strengthening New York's Historical Records Programs: A Self- Study Guide, and our new workshop, Providing Access to Your Records, has information about providing reference services.

If you don't have enough staff to provide access to your historical records, consider

  • distributing microfilm copies of your records to public libraries or other repositories
  • providing digitized copies of your records on your or a host website

The State Archives offers several publications and workshops on micrographics and digital imaging.

Promoting access

To increase use of your historical records, provide information on them to the widest possible audience. One way is to submit series descriptions to the State Archives for inclusion in the Historical Documents Inventory (HDI). The HDI is accessible through the State Archives' catalog. For more information about how to submit your records to the Historical Documents Inventory (HDI), contact our Archival Services unit at DHS@mail.nysed.gov.

October is New York State Archives month. It is a time to celebrate and promote the rich and diverse documentary heritage of the state by increasing public awareness of archival materials and repositories, and by acknowledging the importance of our records keepers. Learn more about Archives month .

Preservation and conservation

Preservation means working to prevent the deterioration of your historical records as a whole by using appropriate archival quality supplies and having optimum environmental conditions for storage. For a thorough overview, attend our Preservation of Historical Records workshop and refer to our storage and preservation page.

Conservation is the repair of damage that has already occurred using minimal, non-invasive techniques. Conservation work should always be done by a professional.  To help you decide what records require conservation measures, see Publication #60, Criteria for Selecting Records for Conservation Treatment, and our list of conservation consultants.

Funding a program

Grant funding for many of the historical records activities described above is available through two programs of the New York State Archives: the Documentary Heritage Program (DHP), serving non-government nonprofit organizations, and the Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund (LGRMIF), available for local government historical records programs.