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Acquiring Historical Records
Is documentation for you?
Documentation is the process of locating, identifying, and acquiring unique, historical records that are not yet in a historical records repository. You should consider a documentation project if:
- You represent a historical organization, museum, or library that is interested in expanding its collection, OR
- You represent an organization or group that is doing important work, and you want to be sure that the record of your work survives as part of New York's history
Before you begin the documentation process, be sure your organization has a collecting or acquisitions policy. This policy should spell out in detail the geographical or topical scope of the records that the repository will collect (e.g., history of Seneca County, development of professional nursing). For more information on developing a collecting policy, consult the following State Archives resource: Strengthening New York's Historical Records Programs: A Self-Study Guide.
Plan the project
- Select, define, and research the documentation topic-Pick a topic that is not already well documented. Define its boundaries (for example, if the topic is health care, will it include health-related services provided by non-medical agencies?). Research its history. Make sure it is relevant to your mission and collecting policy.
- Develop a project plan-Set goals, objectives, and expected outcomes. Determine the resources needed (personnel, funding, space, equipment, and supplies), the steps necessary to carry out the project, and a timeline.
- Publicize the documentation effort-Publicizing your documentation efforts can educate the public about historical records and the topic, draw attention to your organization, and help you learn about the existence of important records
Identify stakeholders and participants
- Work with stakeholders and create an advisory committee-A successful documentation project depends on the active engagement of stakeholders, that is, the people and groups to whom the project and its outcome will matter. The advisory committee will help you understand the topic and work with the community you are documenting.
- Identify and assign project personnel.
- Develop a contact list of people and organizations likely to hold historical records.
Survey the records
- Develop and test the survey instrument-This is the form and process you will use to gather specific information about records you find in organizations and in private hands that are relevant to your topic.
- Conduct the survey and assess the results- What records did you discover? Which are historically valuable?
Make the records available
- Negotiate the donation and transfer of records-People who have created and hold records may be reluctant to part with them; it often takes time and regular communication for a potential donor to develop trust and confidence in the repository. When the time is right, the person or organization that owns the records and the repository that collects them sign an agreement that transfers ownership of the records to the repository and spells out any special terms. Then the records are physically moved to the repository.
- Project follow-up: Cultivate future donors of records-Documentation is an ongoing process that involves building and cultivating relationships. People who learn about your project may not be ready to give up their records right away, but if you stay in touch, they may choose to donate them later.
Benefits of a documentation project
A successful documentation process will benefit the organizations and individuals directly involved, the stakeholder communities related to the topic, and the historical record of New York State.
Some important outcomes of documentation projects are
- Knowledge about the existence and content of historical records that document an important topic.
- Standardized records descriptions that can be made available to researchers worldwide via the Internet and in published guides.
- Transfer of important historical records to a repository where they can be preserved and made available for research.
- Increased public awareness about the group or topic, the repository and its work, and historical records and their value.