A Guide to Documenting Environmental Affairs in New York State
Note on statewide, regional, and local documentation This guide is written from the perspective of documenting topics considered to be of statewide significance. Most of this section, however, applies to documentation of environmental affairs at the local and regional levels as well. (See Appendix B)
Documentation involves a partnership between those who generate historically valuable records and those who collect them and make them accessible for use. These functions may be carried out by different parts of a single organization (for example, a university that maintains its own archives) or by different organizations (for example, an environmental organization that donates to a county historical societys archives the historically valuable records it no longer needs in its day-to-day work). Each party has responsibility for parts of the documentation process.
A logical first step toward good documentation for an organization that generates records in the course of its work is to manage its current records efficiently. This principle applies to organizations of all types and sizes, from tiny non-profits and businesses to huge institutions and corporations. A relatively small investment in setting up a records management system pays off quickly in the benefits to the organization:
An efficient and logical filing system saves time by making it easier to locate documents quickly.
A records management program describes which kinds of files should be kept in the office for how long and when they can be scheduled for recycling, removal to a storage area, or transfer to a permanent, accessible archives. This means that:
Precious office space is not taken up with storage of records that are never used.
Less expensive, more densely packed storage space can be used for records that must be kept for legal or policy reasons but that are rarely needed.
Records that have no long-term value and are no longer needed can be destroyed or recycled in a timely manner.
Records that may be "archival," meaning they have permanent historical value, can be stored separately, once they are no longer current, until they can be transferred to an archives.
Creating and maintaining a publicly accessible archives requires space, equipment, ongoing professional staff, and funding that may be beyond the capabilities or missions of most businesses and organizations. However, independent archives and many libraries, museums, colleges and universities have archival programs and may already collect or be willing to collect in the area of environmental affairs. (This guide is intended in part as a tool to help persuade repositories that documenting environmental affairs is critically important and beneficial to the repositories and the communities they serve.)
A word of reassurance
Two questions often come to mind when people contemplate transferring records to an archives:
- Do we have to reorganize all our old records and get them in perfect order before they go to the archives?
- Will we have access to them in the archives? Do we have any control over who else has access to them?
When you get ready to donate records to an archives, you will meet with the archivist, who will look at your records and discuss with you which kinds are likely to be of historical value. Archives generally keep records in the order in which they were kept by the donor, because the way you organized them reveals important information about your interests and methods of work. Once the records are in the archives, an archivist will describe them and produce a "finding aid" that will allow a researcher to get to the documents he or she is looking for. So generally speaking, you will not need to reorganize your records before donating them.
When you donate records to an archives, you will negotiate and sign an agreement, part of which can stipulate what kinds of access you and others will have to the collection. You will probably want unlimited access for your organization, but there may be parts of a collection that you would want to restrict others from using for a period of time to protect the privacy of living individuals or to prevent early dissemination of time-sensitive materials. You will also have the opportunity to negotiate ownership of the intellectual property, the informational content, of the materials.
Developing partnerships As an organization begins to think about and plan for the care and accessibility of its historically valuable records, it may make sense to talk both with potential repositories and with other organizations and businesses in the area that are engaged in environmental affairs. A repository, for example, might be more interested in beginning a collecting program in environmental affairs if there were a group of organizations prepared to contribute to the collection.
The State Archives can offer advice and publications to help guide you through this process and identify possible funding sources.
A repository contemplating collecting in environmental affairs for the first time or increasing its commitment in this area must evaluate this proposed direction in the context of its organizational mission, its current collecting policy, its existing programs, and its available resources space, personnel, and finances. Does environmental affairs fall within the repositorys mission and collecting policy? If it meets the mission test but is not within the collecting policy, should the policy be changed? Will an environmental collection complement or strengthen the repositorys current programs, or would it represent a new programming direction? Are some aspects of environmental affairs more relevant to the mission than others?
Such considerations, examined in conjunction with the priorities and other information found in this guide, will help a repository shape an environmental documentation effort that both strengthens its own work and helps fill the gaps in the states historical record of environmental affairs.
Organizations: Nearly all documentation topics, whether defined geographically, thematically, or by event or issue, will involve working with the records created by organizations or government entities. In some cases, when a specific organization devoted entirely to environmental affairs has had a particularly significant impact, it may make sense to document the organization as a whole. In other situations, only certain facets of an organizations work and records will be relevant to the documentation project. For example, a land trust whose entire mission and work is focused on protecting undeveloped landscapes, or an organization that concentrates entirely on protecting the rights of property owners against environmental regulations of the use of their land, might merit documentation of its overall activities. A law firm, on the other hand, that practices environmental law as just one of several areas of emphasis would have a sub-set of its records relevant to the environmental affairs project.
Very rarely would it make sense for an organization to send some of its records to one archives and the rest to another it is important to keep together the records of an organization. In the case of the law firm, the environmental documentation project might stimulate the firm to address the documentation issues for all its work. Their environmental records would stay with the rest of the firms records, but they would be preserved and accessible, which is the goal of the effort.
Organizations that might themselves be worthy of documentation or that may hold important environmental records are likely to be of the following kinds:
- State government environmental agencies or the environmental activities or programs of state or federal agencies in New York
- The early history and New York-focused programs of major national environmental organizations founded and based in New York
- Statewide environmental organizations with strong impact, including organizations with multiple chapters or affiliates in New York
- Local or regional organizations that have had statewide impact or significance
- Local government entities and programs related to the environment, such as environmental management councils (EMC) or zoning and planning boards, that are representative of similar entities found throughout the state
- Local or regional organizations that are representative of similar organizations found throughout the state (e.g., small, single-issue organizations that come and go; individually they may not have a large impact, but taken together, they represent a significant contribution to environmental affairs, and at least some should be included in the documentary record)
Individuals who have important collections, unique perspectives, or vital information that is not recorded elsewhere, or who have made particularly significant contributions to environmental affairs, are likely to come up in the course of documentation projects. Some may be appropriate to list by name as priorities for documentation in regional or local documentation plans. Others will be important to document in the course of documenting themes or issues.
Documentation and access projects may be undertaken by records creating organizations, archival repositories, or partnerships involving both entities. They may take several approaches to documentation:
Identify organizations and individuals that have been important players in environmental affairs and may have archival environmental records; conduct a survey of the records.
Match repositories with records holders and arrange for the transfer of records to the repository.
Arrange and describe environmental collections, making them accessible in house and online. This may apply to collections already in the possession of an archives but not yet made accessible, or it may refer to newly acquired collections as part of a larger documentation project.
Improve existing archival programs or establish new ones. This might mean creating an environmental affairs collection within a larger archives, establishing an archives for the first time within an environmental organization, or improving the capabilities or processes within an existing archives that collects environmental affairs.
Documentation projects should follow this statewide guide or a regional environmental documentation plan, if one exists.
Identify the records or the kinds of records that you are considering for documentation. If your organization generates records, this means selecting the records likely to have historical value (See What Is Documentation?) If your organization collects records, this could mean conducting a survey of environmental records in your area.
Compare the topics, events, and issues addressed by the records or by the organizations or individuals generating the records with the themes outlined in this guide. If there is a strong match:
Evaluate the records and topics according to the criteria for statewide priorities to determine whether the collection and accessibility of the proposed records is likely to be a statewide priority.
The State Archives staff are available to help you think through each of the steps in the documentation process, whether or not you intend to apply to the State Archives for funding. We strongly urge you to take advantage of these resources!
Records Management The New York State Archives offers a range of resources and assistance to governments that would like to establish or improve records management programs, including publications, workshops, and grants from the Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund. The Archives also has a Regional Advisory Officer in each of the states nine regions who can provide advice and consultation to local governments. See the State Archives web site (www.archives.nysed.gov, click on Records Management) or the contact information earlier in this guide.
The State Archives offers a range of programs and services to non-profit organizations for projects that will result in making archival records secure and accessible to the public for research. These include publications, documentation workshops, and grants from the Documentary Heritage Program (DHP). There are also DHP archivists in several regions who can provide free advice and consultation to non-profit organizations interested in documentation. The DHP also awards grants up to $25,000 for:
- Projects to identify, survey, and plan for the systematic collection of records relating to under-documented subjects, institutions, or activities.
- Projects to arrange and describe historical records
- Projects to evaluate and plan for archival program development
Environmental affairs is one of the priority subject areas for funding. These resources are described in detail on the State Archives website or see the contact information for the State Archives earlier in this guide.
For large statewide documentation projects, two federal government sources to consider are the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The State Archives publishes a guide to funding sources for archives.
This guide makes a case for the importance of documenting environmental affairs, and it presents a researched approach to determining priorities for documentation that is based on extensive input from people very knowledgeable and experienced in the field statewide. It is designed to stimulate and educate funders, as well as repositories and records creators, as to the importance of documentation in this critical area. The guide may help convince funding sources to apply some of their resources to environmental affairs documentation, and to particular projects that meet the criteria for statewide priority set forth below.