Archives Assessment Questions

Margot Note

Margot Note

September 12, 2022

An accurate assessment of archival collections assists organizations in strategically meeting user needs, allocating resources effectively, and securing funding. Simply put, archivists cannot manage collections if they do not know what they are managing.

An Eagle’s View

The assessment of an archives program—or the pieces of a potential program that may be transitioning into a more formal program—encompasses the establishment and alignment of performance expectations, policy review, discussion on strengths and opportunities, and discourse on enhancing archival competencies. When performing an assessment, archivists should review, advise, and suggest updates on documents related to the archives, including policies and procedures, finding aids, past evaluations, grant proposals, and marketing materials.

Because archival work requires granularity, it is easy for archivists to get caught up in the unique details of each collection. However, to perform archival alchemy—that is, changing chaotic files into cohesive collections—archivists need to have a bird’s eye view of the cultural heritage materials they are responsible for.

Querying the Organization

Asking common questions ensures that the organization comprehensively gathers information and maximizes meeting times with archival members to synthesize findings. Therefore, archivists should use the following questions to conduct a survey that will constitute a preliminary archives assessment:

  • What materials are present?
  • What formats do they have?
  • Who created the materials? 
  • What are their quantities—records boxes, shelves, filing cabinets, storage sizes?
  • What are their conditions? 
  • Who currently stewards these materials, and why? Who has stewarded them in the past?
  • What materials are missing, and why?
  • How are the materials stored?
  • What records are located off-site? 
  • What databases or other inventory systems are in use? 
  • How are materials maintained?
  • What filing and labeling systems does the organization use? Are they uniform or unique by department?
  • Are there specific servers dedicated to the archives or electronic backups? Who maintains them?
  • Are there regularly scheduled purges? Who determines timing and materials?
  • What records management practices exist?
  • Who regulates and enforces these practices?
  • Is there a retention schedule? Can it be amended to include archives?
  • How are the legal concerns of the materials managed?
  • Are there privacy or security concerns? 
  • Does the organization own the materials it keeps? If not, who does?
  • Are licensing processes and rights for the holdings outlined?
  • Is there documentation of deeds, gifts, or other donation materials?
  • What environmental factors affect the materials?
  • Is the preservation of any materials threatened?
  • What materials need preservation?
  • What resources are in place to arrange for conservation?
  •  What supplies are used or needed to store materials?
  • What are the space limitations?
  • What short-term goals have colleagues articulated for the archives?
  • What long-term goals do the archives have?
  • What stakeholders are interested in the materials?
  • Are the materials publicly available, in part or whole?

Putting it All Together

By asking these questions, the archivist can evaluate the collections’ preservation issues, including environmental monitoring, lighting, security, and fire protection in the exhibition and storage spaces. In time, the archivist can develop detailed plans for improving storage and reducing the damage to collections. In addition, they can assess the conservation treatment needs of selected items in a collection and identify archival supplies to protect the collections. Finally, as well as evaluating the analog collections, they can recommend best practices for digitized and born-digital materials and digital preservation.

The assessment will describe the status of the archives and address their needs. An action plan with recommendations for short-term improvement and long-range vision can be used as a dynamic planning tool. By asking questions to better understand an organization’s archival management, the institution can make strategic choices about how it would like to move forward on the preservation path.

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and Lucidea Press author is a regular blogger, and popular 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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