You are here
Every historical records repository is involved in acquiring records or manuscripts. You may collect materials from your local community, or materials pertaining to certain subjects or time periods. You may also acquire administrative records from your parent organization. Regardless of the source of your records it is important to consider how you acquire records, why you acquire them, and what records you collect.
The sheer abundance of modern records requires you to define specific criteria for collecting records. Adhering to a collection policy and appraisal criteria may occasionally require you turn down interesting or valuable collections offered to you. However, not following them ensures you will steadily reach the limits of your ability to care for your collections and you can find your staff overwhelmed by a processing backlog, your storage space full, and your budget depleted.
With increased opportunities for making your collections available online, documenting ownership of your collections, and obtaining the legal title to your records is essential. Without documenting ownership and title to your records you may not be able to reproduce them for an exhibit, or even make them available to researchers in your reading room. Luckily, if you exercise appropriate diligence, acquiring rights to your collections through a Deed of Gift is relatively simple.
Collecting and acquisition procedures allow your repository to increase the scope of its holdings. Most importantly following these procedures ensures your repository will hold coherent and related groups of records rather than a collection of interesting but unrelated documents.
In the following video, Todd DeGarmo, Founding Director of the Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls, NY discusses strategies for working with donors to acquire historical records for your collection.
In this section you will assess the following:
A collecting policy is a written statement that, in accordance with your mission statement, guides the acquisition of records by your historical records repository. It defines the geographic areas, subjects, chronological periods, and types of media you aim to add to your collection. In addition to outlining the scope of your collection, a collecting policy also describes the programs supported by the collection (exhibits, research, and publications), the audience for your collection (e.g. students, researchers, administrators) and how you collaborate with other repositories with similar collecting priorities.
While your collecting policy is an essential tool for evaluating if a collection is appropriate for your repository it can also help you identify gaps in your collection as well as the people, groups or organizations that may hold records to fill those gaps. If you intend to actively pursue records in your community, follow the project documentation policy.
Without a well defined collecting policy your repository runs the risk of accepting any and all materials. Accepting everything you are offered will quickly sap your resources and potentially jeopardize materials that could be better cared for by another organization. For example, if your collecting policy defines your focus as nineteenth century manufacturing, you should not accept a collection of photographs of France during World War II.
Similar to your mission statement, strategic plan, and other policies, your collecting policy must be periodically reviewed and revised as your organization evolves.
A collecting policy:
- Improves research by locating related collections in one repository
- Ensures your repository accepts materials you are capable of caring for
- Facilitates cooperation with other repositories
- Improves communication with donors by establishing clear guidelines for accepting or rejecting collections.
Standards and Best Practices
- Faye Philips “Developing Collecting Policies for Manuscript Collections” American Archivist, v 47 no 1 1984
- Cynthia Sauer “Doing the Best We Can? The Use of Collection Development Policies and Cooperative Collecting Activities at Manuscript Repositories” American Archivist v64 no 2 2001
- National Archives of the United Kingdom Archive Collection Policy Statements: Checklist of Suggested Contents
- New York State Archives Documentation Basics: A Guide to Planning and Managing Documentation Projects
Appraisal is the process of determining the long-term historical value of a group or series of records and deciding whether to accept and retain them in your repository. Archival appraisal is not concerned with the financial value of a collection. Instead, it weighs the value of the information in the records against the costs of retaining those records and the implications to your organization of deciding not to accept the records. Commonly records are appraised before you take custody of them however there may be times when you need to reappraise collections that were previously acquired. Regardless of when appraisal occurs, it is important that your evaluation be systematic and well documented.
The value of the records for your repository depends on how closely they conform to your collecting policy and mission statement. You may be offered a collection with obvious historic value that falls outside the scope of your collecting policy and mission statement. Rather than ignore your collecting policy and accept the collection you can work with the donor to find an appropriate repository for the materials.
In addition to materials outside the scope of your mission you may be offered a collection that requires expensive conservation treatments or special storage conditions. Similarly, it may be difficult to make records in certain formats such as electronic records or audio visual materials accessible to researchers. Determining if you have the resources to provide these storage conditions, make the necessary repairs to the records or have the ability to make them available to researcher are all important criteria to consider during the appraisal process.
Most appraisal decisions will be fairly straightforward but in some situations it may be necessary to consult historians, colleagues, records creators and subject specialists. Appraisal can be challenging but you shouldn’t let the fear of occasional errors prompt you to keep everything. This will quickly fill your storage space and drain your financial resources.
Written appraisal procedures that reflect your mission statement and collecting policy are an invaluable guide through the appraisal process.
- Ensures the records in your repository support your mission and conform to your collection policy.
- Helps your repository retain the most appropriate records for your repository.
- Enables you to make effective use of space, staff time and financial resources.
Standards and Best Practices
- NYSA Appraisal of Local Government Records for Historical Value
- Terry Cook “We Are What we Keep, We Keep What We Are: Archival Appraisal, Past Present and Future” Journal of the Society of Archivists v32 Issue 2, 2011
- Randall C. Jimerson,"Deciding what to save", OCLC Systems & Services, Vol. 19 Iss: 4 pp. 135 – 140, 2003
- Ham, Gerald F. "Archival Choices: Managing the Historical Record in an Age of Abundance," American Archivist 47 (Winter 1984): 11-22.
- Lyrasis Groups of Archival Records
- Barbara Craig, Archival Appraisal: Theory and Practice KG Saur (2004)
- Frank Boles, Selecting and Appraising Archives and Manuscripts Society of American Archivists (2005)
Once you have decided to accept a collection and add it to your repository you must take steps to understand exactly what it is you have. The first step in establishing basic physical control and intellectual control of a new collection is accessioning. Accessioning documents the receipt of the collection, records general information about its contents, its origins, its condition and its arrangement. Accession forms collect enough information for you to establish processing priorities and make preservation decisions. Information about the collection’s contents origins and arrangement collected during accessioning can be reused in your collection descriptions and inventories but does not require the same level of detail as your finding aids. An accession number connecting materials to their accession records will help your users understand these origins and context for your collections.
Keep your completed accession forms together with any correspondence from the donor, the deed of gift (if required), and any purchase agreements or receipts documenting ownership of the collection. Because they document the ownership of your institution’s collections, accession records are permanent records and must be kept indefinitely.
- Document ownership of your collections
- Help you establish preservation and processing priorities and assess your storage needs.
- Collect information that forms the backbone of your finding aids.
Standards and Best Practices
- SAA Guide to Deeds of Gift
- SAA Donating Your Personal or Family Papers to a Repository
- SAA Donating Your Organizational Records to a Repository
- Sandra Florand-Young “Don’t Throw It Away: Documenting and Preserving Organizational History”
- Menzi L. Behrnd-Klodt Navigating Legal Issues in Archives Society of American Archivists (2008)
- Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, “Accession Forms: Representative Samples”
Deacessioning is the process of removing entire series or collections from your repository. Deacessioning differs in scope from weeding duplicate or ephemeral material during processing and is not something that should be done hastily. Because of the legal and ethical complexities, deaccessioning requires a systematic, transparent and thoroughly documented process to protect your institution and the historical record.
The most common time to reappraise your records is after you adopt or revise your collection policy. In addition to referencing the criteria of your collecting policy, a reappraisal should evaluate the materials against additional criteria. Are the collections frequently used? Do the costs of preserving the materials outweigh the benefits of retaining it? Are there restrictions placed on the collection that profoundly limit its use?
In addition to conducting a reappraisal it is essential that you evaluate federal, state and local laws governing ownership of historical collections. Specifically you must establish ownership of the collection and your right to remove it from your holdings before you deacession it. In some cases the deed of gift can restrict your ability to deacession a collection.
If, after thorough evaluation, you decide to deacession a collection, you can transfer the materials to another repository, return it to the original donor, dispose of it, or in exceptional cases, sell the collection. Transferring the collection to another repository willing and able to care for it should be your preferred option, but may not always be possible. In New York State, chartered organizations such as museums or historical societies should consult section §3.27 of the Rules of the Board of Regents before undertaking a deaccessioning project. Section §3.27 defines deaccessioning and establishes rules for using the funds raised form collection sales.
- A systematic and well documented deacessioning process protects your repository from legal action resulting from decisions to remove collections from your repository.
- Deacessioning and reappraisal help your repository maintain its focus by ensuring your collections continue to support your mission and collecting policy.
- Deacessioning collections relieves your repository of unnecessary preservation costs.
Standards and Best Practices
- Society of American Archivists Guidelines for Reappraisal and Deaccessioning
- Daniels, Maygene. “Records in the Repository: The Case for Reappraisal,” ICAM 14: International Confederation of Architectural Museums, 2008.
It is important to ensure your organization owns the physical and intellectual contents of its collections to the greatest extent possible. Traditionally, materials donated to a repository are accompanied by a deed of gift. A deed of gift is a legal agreement between the donor of the records and your repository that transfers ownership of the materials to your repository. A deed of gift may also restrict access to all or part of the collection for a defined period of time. Like any legal agreement a lawyer should review your deed of gift before you sign it.
While some donors may not understand its importance, a deed of gift is the primary means of establishing your right to manage and make available the collections in your repository. In a perfect world you will have a signed deed of gift for every donated collection. The reality of collecting historical records is never that simple and it is likely you won’t have a signed agreement for every collection. If your deed of gift is missing or never collected in the first place, you should compile as much information (letters, memos, and acknowledgements) as you can to document the transfer. For these collections you should also consult New York State’s abandoned property laws as they pertain to historical materials for museums, libraries and archives. These laws can offer guidance on claiming ownership of historical records.
If your repository is part of a larger organization and you preserve the records of that organization, it is not necessary to document the transfer with a deed of gift. This does not mean that you do not need to document the transfer. In the best case scenario, records are transferred to your archives according to your records management program. If you work for a smaller organization you may not have a records management program and will need to use records transfer forms or memos to document internal records transfers.
You may be offered a collection on deposit where the donor retains ownership of the collection and you have physical custody of the materials. Generally, deposit agreements are legally complex and financially burdensome. Most repositories try to avoid them and only accept deposits when the material is in jeopardy or when ownership will pass to the repository after a defined period.
- Ensures your repository owns the records in its collection
- Provides important information about the source and custody of records in your collection
- Provides you the freedom to use the collection as you see fit or clearly defines any restrictions placed on the collection by the donor.