Acquisition Strategies for Archives

Margot Note

Margot Note

January 25, 2021

Many archival repositories have acquisition programs. These programs also work in collections that collect a little of everything, such as local history institutions that acquire primary source materials and published monographs and serials. 

For institutional archives, selection and appraisal are also linked as archivists are dealing with ongoing series of records, such as open-ended runs of files in active organizations, rather than a finite body of material that a manuscript repository might solicit. In that respect, the acquisition and appraisal processes relate to the field of records management. 

In any case, acquisition needs to be a conscious decision-making process, as processing, storing preservation, and providing access are labor-intensive and costly. Regardless of the source of the repositories’ records, archivists need to consider how to acquire records, why to acquire them, and what records they should collect. 

Who Decides?

The major question is who has the responsibility to collect for the repository. Does it lie in the hands of the director, curator, archivist, faculty members, the board of trustees, or a committee? The answer depends on the institution. 

Every repository needs clear lines about accepting materials and safeguarding its ability to return unwanted materials. For example, some repositories use receipt forms when a potential donor shows up and the person with authority is not present to vet the donation. The form indicates receipt of materials but explicitly states that the receipt is not a final agreement. These are also useful when time is needed to decide whether the gift is appropriate.

Archivists base decisions on the repository’s collection policy, which offers an opportunity to examine the institution’s purpose, the types of programs sponsored, and its priorities. Collecting policies are never etched in stone; they should change over time as the institution changes. They provide continuity over time for staff, administration, and donors.

The sheer abundance of modern records requires archivists to define specific criteria for collecting records. Adherence to a collection policy may cause repositories to turn down collections offered to them. However, not following a policy limits the ability to care for collections, by wasting valuable labor, storage, and funding resources.

Types of Repositories

The type of repository defines the framework for collecting. Most archives fall into one of three categories. Institutional archives have in-house archives that acquire and maintain the parent organization’s records, or those of inter-related organizations or subsidiary groups. For example, a diocese might preserve its organizational records, as well as those from any schools or hospitals it runs. Collecting archives collect material of a defined area, be it geographic, like a state historical society, or topical, such as the Schlesinger Library at Harvard that collects women’s history materials. Lastly, a combination archives is an institutional archives that collects more broadly in the manuscript area. For example, college and university archives often collect beyond official records of the university and its faculty. 

These institutional scopes, and even collecting policies, tend to be broad and do not provide definitive answers on the pros and cons of a specific potential acquisition. Archivists tend to view materials in terms of format. For example, archivists consider correspondence, photographs, or annual reports as artifacts in themselves, not necessarily for the information they hold. Archivists describe materials in that manner; format terms are often noted in finding aids or descriptions of collections. However, the format terms only hint at what the documents might reveal. 

Coherent Collections

Acquisition procedures allow repositories to increase the scope of their holdings. Most importantly, following acquisition and collection procedures ensures archival institutions will hold coherent, related groups of records of enduring value—rather than a collection of interesting but unrelated documents that may or may not be historically significant. Given that archival collections require so much labor, skill, and resources to preserve them, these policies help guarantee that the most appropriate and historically significant materials are safeguarded.

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and author is a regular blogger and webinar presenter for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here. 

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