A Guide to Planning and Managing Documentation Projects
By John W. Suter
Welcome to this brief introduction to Documentation Basics: A Guide to Planning and Managing Documentation Projects. The New York State Archives is committed to helping create a balanced, comprehensive documentary record of New York’s history that reflects the contributions and stories of all New York’s peoples and addresses all important topics in the state’s history. Although more than 2,500 historical societies, libraries, archives, museums, and other organizations in New York State hold valuable records, large gaps still exist. Important events, people, cultures, industries, and organizations are still virtually undocumented and therefore unknowable for the future.
Documentation is the process of identifying, collecting, and making publicly available unique records that can help fill these gaps. Documentation Basics is your guide to being an active, effective participant in this process.
The basic principles of documentation are easy to grasp, yet there is lots to learn about how to put the principles into practice. The full version of the guide, 78 pages long, takes you through the process in detail; this brief synopsis will give you an overview of the main points. You can view the complete version of this publication in PDF or an accessible format.
- How to use this guide
- Why might you undertake documentation work?
- Summary of the Documentation Process
Most users of the guide will fall into two broad groups:
- Those with knowledge of records—usually people from historical records repositories such as historical societies, libraries, museums and other organizations with archives
- Those with knowledge about the topics of documentation but with a limited background in archives and records—people from organizations that generate records and who are interested in having their group or activity better documented
People will bring to this manual varying degrees of knowledge and experience, different perspectives, and diverse needs for information and guidance. We have written the guide to accommodate to these wide-ranging needs and interests. We invite you to look through this summary, and if you think the guide can help you with planning or carrying out a documentation project, we urge you to view the complete version of this publication.
If you represent a historical records repository with a clearly defined organizational mission and collecting policy, documentation is a crucial way of furthering your mission while helping improve New York State’s documentary heritage. Documentation projects can help you build valuable relationships with existing constituencies and develop new constituencies, patrons, supporters, and advocates.
If you represent an organization or group that is doing work in your community or the state, and you want to be sure that the record of your work and its impact survives as part of New York’s history, initiating a documentation project can help make that goal a reality.
The usual steps of the documentation process are listed below. They are discussed in detail in the guide.
Select the Topic, Plan and Publicize the Project
- Select, define, and research the documentation topic
- Develop a project plan
- Publicize the documentation effort
Identify Stakeholders and Participants
- Work with stakeholders: create an advisory committee
- Identify and assign project personnel
- Develop a contact list of people and organizations likely to hold historical records.
Survey the Records
- Develop a survey work plan
- Develop and test the survey instrument
- Conduct the survey
- Assess the survey results: What records were discovered? Which are historically valuable?
- Make information about the surveyed records available
- Survey follow-up: Cultivate future donors of records; write archival descriptions and make them available.
Find the Right Homes for Historically Valuable Records
- Steps for a historical records repository or an institution with its own archives
- Steps for an organization without its own archives
Determine Which Records to Save
- Appraisal: Decide what to save
Make the Records Available
- Negotiate the donation and transfer of records
- Arrange and describe the records
- Publicize the availability of the records
A successful documentation process will yield products of lasting value and generate other valuable outcomes that benefit the organizations and individuals directly involved, stakeholder communities related to the topic, and the historical record of New York State.
Products. The most important products of documentation projects are
- Standardized records descriptions: These describe in a standard format the contents of groups of records. They are the basis for electronic records that can be distributed via the Internet and in published guides, so that researchers anywhere can learn about the records.
- Guides or other finding aids to the records: In print and/or electronic formats
Other outcomes include
- Increased public awareness about the group or topic
- Increased public awareness of the repository and its work
- Increased public awareness of historical records and their value
The documentation process is, at first glance, about historical records: What they are and why they are important, how to locate and identify them, how to determine which are most important to preserve and make accessible, how to find an appropriate repository for them, how to make them accessible for researchers.
But fundamentally, documentation is about people: Citizens of the recent and distant past whose lives and work, ideas and aspirations, values and expressions, organizations and institutions, and contributions to New York’s history are reflected in and illuminated by records that are not yet publicly accessible. It is about people who become directly engaged in the documentation process itself. And it is about the people of the present who care about and are engaged in the topics that are being documented. Effective documentation relies on knowledge and skill dealing with both records and people.
We encourage organizations, individuals, and groups to make use of this guide. The complete guide is available as a PDF on this site, and individual copies on paper are available by request. The State Archives is eager to help with advice, encouragement, access to resources, and funding through its Documentary Heritage Program. DHP grant guidelines are available from the State Archives via e-mail, on our website, or by regular mail.