Fundamentals of Managing Local Government
by Gloria A. Bartowski
Local Government Records Technical Information Series No. 40
As part of their overall records management programs, local governments are responsible for administering, caring for and making available archival records for users. Attending to local government archival records may require as little as an hour or two per month from a Records Management Officer working with just a few boxes of records stored in a vault; or, it could require staff working in an area dedicated to managing and preserving several hundred or even thousands of cubic feet of archival records. Archival operations do not have to be elaborate or expensive to be effective, but should build on certain fundamental activities discussed in the following pages. This publication:
When a local government captures information as a photograph, on paper, audio tape, videotape, or computer disk, a record is created. Usually this record is useful for a relatively short period of time and it will be destroyed once it has served its purpose. In a small percentage of cases, the information in a record is of continuing value to the local government and it should be preserved so that it can be used today and for years to come. Such a record is called an archival record.
Archival records are created in the process of government doing its regular business. They may be actively used in offices or stored in a records storage area and referred to only occasionally. Archival records are worthy of continuing preservation because of their on-going administrative, legal, fiscal and historical value.
Why Archival Records are Important
Local government archival records document policies, decisions, and the ways a local government conducts its business. They provide continuity with the past and illustrate interactions between government and citizens. Archival records also may protect individual rights and document government accountability. Archival records witness the origin and history of a local government and the evolution of its functions.
Archives have a definite, beneficial function, rooted in day-to-day practicality. They are used to reconstruct the past and plan for the future. Several cases that demonstrate practical uses of local government archival records in New York are:
Each time a department head checks an annual report, a worker verifies a disability or a pension claim, or supervisors use past trends or performances to plan for the future, the value of archival records is confirmed. Archival records are useful, practical assets to local governments. These records provide critical information to local government officials to assist them in decision-making and continuing ongoing operations. They also serve as an important resource to document the "community memory" for local citizens, teachers and students, community groups, and historical researchers.
Managing Archival Records
Archival activities are one component of a local government's records management program. The Records Management Officer (RMO), or an individual in cooperation with the RMO, should have responsibility for the archival records. In addition, the State Archives recommends local governments designate a records advisory board to advise on archival issues and to develop local legislation that addresses ownership, custody and transfer of archival records. (Detailed information related to local legislation and records advisory boards can be found in the State Archives' Records Advisory: Records Advisory Boards.)
Each local government determines the level of archival management that best suits the conditions of its archival records and provides access to users. The size of the local government, quantity of archival records, the functional responsibilities of the local government, fiscal and staff resources, as well as the commitment of the local government to archival endeavors are important factors influencing the management of the archival records.
A variety of options exist in managing archival records. For example:
The option for managing archival records is based on what archival records the local government has, its space, access needs and condition. Much of this information is gathered during the records inventory and needs assessment process.
Core Archival Activities
Archival activities should be undertaken within a local government's overall records management program. The diverse nature, size, and responsibilities of local governments means that there is no single formula for managing archival records. However, any archival operation should include certain basic core activities, which may already be part of the records management program.
The core archival activities are:
IDENTIFYING ARCHIVAL RECORDS
Appraisal is the process of evaluating records to determine their ongoing importance. Archival records can be identified through use of the State Archives' records retention and disposition schedules. The State Archives' records schedules assign permanence by appraising the importance of records series based on their continuing value to government. These values flow from the reasons the records were created:
Since records are created for specific reasons, they are normally useful only as long as they are needed for that purpose. The record retention schedule identifies how long records must be kept to fulfill the reason they were created. In some cases, the schedules identify record series that have potential historical or other research value. Since these values vary from community to community, the RMO may reevaluate or appraise certain records, and decide that various non-permanent records should be kept because of the historical value to a particular locality. New York's local governments, and the records they create, are so diverse, that the State Archives' schedules cannot make determinations of historical value for every record series. Therefore, appraising records for historical value is an activity local governments will want to undertake themselves.
The Records Management Officer may wish to re-evaluate certain non-permanent records before they are destroyed to determine historical significance. Records should be analyzed by considering the local government and the community it serves. Local historians can assist the RMO in determining the historical value of records.
PROVIDING STORAGE FOR A STABLE ENVIRONMENT
Because archival records are permanent, they should be stored in a clean, pest-free environment, avoiding wide swings in temperature and relative humidity. Local governments should make a concerted effort to do the best they can with available staff, funds and space to provide an appropriate, secure and safe environment for their records.
Separate storage. Whenever possible, local governments should segregate archival records from inactive records. This can be a special shelf or section within an inactive records storage area or a vault. There are several reasons for this:
Separate storage ensures the physical survival of critical archival records. Examples that typify storage alternatives include:
PRESERVING RECORDS FOR THE FUTURE
Preservation consists of general maintenance and other practices that reduce deterioration of records. Where records are stored and how they are stored and handled are key to prolonging their life. This means that archival records should be stored in a stable environment, protected from dust, mold and vermin. Activities that promote preservation include:
ARRANGING AND DESCRIBING RECORDS
The purpose of arranging and describing local government archival records is to help users locate needed information. Local government archival records should be systematically arranged and described following standardized practices that build on the methods used in the basic records inventory for all local government records. When local government records are well organized and managed to begin with, a solid foundation is provided for arranging and describing them if and when they are transferred to archival storage. The basic records management inventory worksheet briefly describes records based on the concept of a record series. A record series is "a group of identical or related records that are normally used, indexed and filed together and related to a similar function or administrative activity, and which are managed as a unit for disposition purposes."
To construct a more detailed record series description, archival description expands upon the rudimentary information provided in the inventory worksheet. Both the inventory worksheet and the record series description provide standardized information about each archival record series created, including:
Archival series descriptions provide more detailed information about the context, depth and extent of the records; they describe the office that created the records and explain why the records were created. Comprehensive series descriptions may also provide index terms that identify special subjects, geographic places, or people mentioned in the records, as well as a variety of other information. All archival records should be described at least at the series level. For some other records, greater descriptive depth will depend on their research value, anticipated level of demand, and physical condition. Further details about the process of archival arrangement and description may be found in the State Archives publication, Guidelines for Arrangement and Description of Archives and Manuscripts: A Manual for Historical Records Programs in New York State.
Finding aids are any descriptive tools, whether published or unpublished, manual or electronic, which provide better control and access to their information. These may include subject and institutional guides and local, regional and national databases. Information from series descriptions (or inventory worksheets if a government does not have the resources to develop series descriptions) can be assembled into a variety of finding aids including guides, card catalogs, special lists, shelf and box lists, indexes, and statewide and national databases. For instance:
MAKING RECORDS AVAILABLE
One excellent way to build support for archival activities is through reliable and helpful reference services. It is important to publicize when staff are available to assist users with requests for information, as well as to have clear policies that specify who may have access to what records, and notify potential users where and when records are accessible.
There is little value to expending the resources necessary to care for archival records if they are not tapped for the valuable information they hold. It is an important part of the overall records and information service of a local government to ensure that its archival records are utilized in ways that benefit the local government, the taxpayers, and the community.
OUTREACH AND PUBLIC PROGRAMS
Outreach activities are a method of drawing attention to a local government's archival records and its information services. Archival activities should include a deliberate effort, whenever possible, to attract potential users, including government staff, and to introduce the public to the value of archival records and the efforts to manage them. Outreach and public programs may include the use of local government records in informational brochures, local history publications, videos, exhibits, workshops and lecture series.
Archival activities are a tremendous asset to a local government. Such efforts provide local government officials with critical information, which helps them make decisions and continue ongoing operations. They also serve as an important resource to document the "community memory" for local citizens, teachers and students, community groups, and a range of researchers. Each local government needs to develop archival activities as a component of its comprehensive records management program, and to tailor that program to the needs of the local government and its citizens in a cost-efficient and effective manner.
FOR MORE INFORMATION AND ASSISTANCE
Further assistance in developing and maintaining the archival component of a records management program can be obtained from the State Archives' local government records workshops, through other technical publications in this series, or through consultation with Regional Advisory Officers and with staff of Archival Advisory Services (518-474-6926).
The New York State Archives provides records management and archival advisory services to local governments including technical advice and assistance, publications, training and presentations and consultations with local officials concerning records and information management issues. The State Archives has records specialists in Albany and in regional offices throughout the State to advise on these matters. These services are supported by the Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund. For further information contact your regional office or:
Government Records Services
New York State Archives
State Education Department
Room 9A47 Cultural Education Center
Albany, New York 12230
FAX: (518) 473-4941