Archival Program Management

Margot Note

Margot Note

April 13, 2020

The management of the archival program connects to the hosting institution’s mission; it cannot be an afterthought. Unfortunately, management is an area where archivists traditionally lack experience, but, recently, most LIS programs require students to take at least one management course.

Archivists usually reside in organizations whose primary mission is something else, which can isolate them. Archivists often lack control over matters related to budgets or facilities; they need to be able to find and explain costs so resource allocators can understand them.

In addition, operations and daily practices and procedures often preoccupy archivists. Because there’s usually a lack of resources, keeping the archives functioning and making the collections available becomes more urgent than long-term planning and quality management.

A Coordinated Effort

Coordination depends on the size and nature of the institution, but there’s always a level of service duplication within institutions. Functions such as public relations, procurement, facilities management, and human resources are often centralized. Other duties, more central to the archives, such as IT and conservation, often cross institutional lines. Sometimes there’s also coordination across functional areas, such as when a centralized office manages cataloging outside of the archives. In some institutions, there are multiple archives with differing levels of independence.

In addition, professional boundaries have grown blurry because of the overlap of archives with records management, knowledge management, and IT. Executives making decisions often misunderstand what exactly archivists do, and why their duties are distinct from allied professions.

Placement = Power

The organization’s mission statement should outline the purpose of the archives, and placement will determine that focus and scope.

Proper placement within the organization is essential. Where is the archives department found within the organization’s hierarchy? To whom does the archivist report? Placement begins with differentiating between what occurs within the archives and the larger institution. These lines differ according to the nature of the institution.

For example, within a university setting, the archives can be part of the library, the registrar’s office, the President’s office, or the legal or public relations departments. The library is the most common location, where archives can be part of special collections or exist as a separate unit. Archivists often report to library administrators who may know little about the archives.

Within the government, for instance, the archives could be considered part of the cultural wing, another organizational structure, or part of administrative information services. Some state archives relate to the state library; others are separate agencies. Some report to the Secretary of State.

Staffing and Archival Labor

Surveys of archival repositories show that many archivists work in small departments, with one to three full-time employees. For “lone arrangers,” it becomes clear how difficult it is to run an archives without help. This responsibility makes it important to prioritize, but it also means that archivists often get limited management experience.

Archivists managing multiple staff members face challenges, such as balancing professional and support staff. Academic institutions have categories of support staff, including students. Historical societies and public libraries may have volunteers, which bring their issues.

With multiple staff members, outline reporting structures and responsibilities. The tendency is to assign support staff to the desk and to assign processing responsibilities to non-professional staff, which from a quality point of view is illogical.

Work responsibilities also relate to the separation of functions. Does one person do collection development? Is there a separate reference department, or does everyone sit on the desk? What about dealing with special format materials?

Other staffing issues relate to hiring criteria, professional development, and promotion. Institutions often require the ALA-accredited MLIS. Some places value certification. It’s challenging to get the human resources team to understand the needs for hiring in an archives—where job titles can vary wildly—let alone to offer a competitive wage

Management Done Right

Management assures that everyone has clear responsibilities and enough information and support to conduct assigned tasks. Delegation is crucial. In addition, the department needs regular staff meetings, frequent communication, and written guidelines for staff members and researchers. Over time, the profession has focused more on improving the management and administration of archival departments, which will make them more functional, more initiative-taking, and more responsive to contemporary research needs.

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and author is a guest blogger for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here, and get your free copy of Margot’s whitepaper, Digital Sustainability: the Archivist’s Path Forward


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