Archival Collection Policies: Writing the Best One for Your Needs

Margot Note

Margot Note

November 04, 2019

Archival repositories tend to fall into three categories. No matter what type of archives you have, a collection policy allows you to make sound acquisition decisions.

Institutional archives acquire and maintain the records of the parent organization or inter-related organizations. Collecting archives gather materials about a defined area, be it geographic, such as a state historical society, or topical, such as the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, which collects material on women’s history. Finally, combination archives collect both institutional records and outside materials, such as a university archives—which collects official institutional records and faculty papers and materials, as well as documents a subject specialty.

The Importance of a Collection Policy

In many respects, a collection policy defines the nature of the archives. The policy is an opportunity to examine:

  • the purpose of the institution, its mission, and the users it serves.
  • the types of programs sponsored, such as research, publications, exhibits, and outreach.
  • the priorities in terms of what the resource allocators want. For example, a historical society might switch its focus from a scholarly one to one emphasizing outreach or public history.

The policy also provides continuity over time for staff, administration, and donors. Staff members change, and distinct parts of an institution may need to coordinate with each other. The policy allows for a sustained effort and a streamlined mission.

Since it’s not etched in stone, a policy can evolve to reflect institutional changes, societal transformations, and research trends. For instance, if an institution shifts focus towards a more public history approach with more exhibits, the types of collections desired might shift in response.

Characteristics of Archival Collection Policies

Collecting policies should be reflective of the objectives and plans of the organization that they represent. If the acquisition policies of the archives don’t reflect the goals of the larger institution, problems emerge. Policies should also be consistent with providing balance over time and a way for the archives to maintain control over their growth. They should be flexible as research topics shift, and diverse needs arise.

Policies differ from rules and procedures. Policies are more thematic and allow for interpretation, while procedures are more rigid. Most importantly, collection policies should be written. Policies are unsound or indefensible if they are only in the heads of directors or archivists. An agreed-upon policy allows you to turn down requests—sometimes even from influential donors—that don’t benefit the archival repository.

Collecting with Context

Archives, however, don’t work within a vacuum, so archivists must keep other factors in mind when they develop collection policies. For example, what are the similar repositories on the subject? How much room is there for another archival institution covering that topic? Review the other repositories in the geographic area. Multiple repositories may concentrate on a specific topic, but geographic proximity implies greater competition.

Think about your cooperative arrangements. What agreements does your institution currently have with other repositories that would affect your acquisition efforts? Remember that larger institutions may have agreements that are outside the archives, such as public programs.

Determine your current strengths and weaknesses. It’s easier to build on métiers and to fill identifiable gaps. Sincere consideration should be taken before embarking on a whole new research area.

What’s your secondary source support? Primary source collections benefit from having secondary sources at hand, which is essential for both researchers who can use the sources in conjunction with the archives, and staff, who need access to secondary sources to process the collections and do reference work. In addition, substantial holdings serve as a magnet, attracting more materials.

Who are your potential audiences? Remember that archives often have a primary audience and secondary audiences. Collecting policies need to consider both.

Lastly, consider your fiscal and administrative support. Building and maintaining archival collections can be resource intensive. Cultivating donors can be expensive, as well as costs related to supplies, storage, and conservation treatments. Most importantly, archival labor requires advanced skills developed over years of education and experience, and archivists should be paid their worth.

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. Read more of Margot’s posts here, and get your free copy of Margot’s recent book for Lucidea Press, Demystifying Archival Project Management: Five Essentials for Success!

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