Establishing an Institutional Archives

Margot Note

Margot Note

November 20, 2023

Establishing an archives involves answering a pivotal question: “What do we save?” This query forms the basis for decisions regarding the repository’s organization, storage, conservation, and access.

Organizations typically establish archives when they accumulate substantial records or materials of historical, administrative, legal, or cultural significance. The timing of archives development varies, with some organizations doing so from their inception to document their history and activities. Others may create archives during periods of growth in response to legal requirements, significant events, or moments of crisis or transition. Some organizations recognize the value of their records and archives over time, prompting the establishment or expansion of archival programs. Institutions with educational or research missions often maintain archives to support scholarly pursuits. Donations or bequests of valuable historical materials can also prompt organizations to develop or expand their archival facilities. In all cases, archives preserve institutional memory, enhance transparency, and provide valuable resources for research and education.

Permanent Preservation

Records find their place in institutional archives for future utility and historical significance. Records are retained because they are valuable for the organization’s future operations. These documents provide insights, guidance, and information crucial for ongoing activities. Certain materials gain archival status due to their historical value. This category encompasses records containing detailed information about the organization’s origins, key personnel, and the evolution of its programs. These records paint a vivid picture of the organization’s history.

Common Categories

Archives commonly retain several specific types of records. Records of administrative significance offer insights into the daily activities of the organization and the decision-making processes. These include minutes of the board of trustees, which provide a comprehensive record of important decisions and discussions; office memoranda documenting significant decisions made; and policy papers offering an understanding of the organization’s overarching strategies. 

Materials include correspondence encompassing incoming and outgoing communications and grant-related files detailing the organization’s support of projects. Other records of enduring value include reports from committees reflecting collaborative efforts, minutes of staff meetings offering a glimpse into internal discussions, and office subject files holding valuable information. 

Materials of enduring value contribute to the organization’s legacy and often include annual reports providing a snapshot of the organization’s activities. Personal papers of key officers offer unique insights into the thoughts and decisions of critical figures within the organization. Photographs and audiovisual materials bring history to life. 

Being Selective

While this list may seem extensive, it does not imply that everything should be preserved. An effective records management policy helps identify materials that can be discarded. Materials not unique to a specific organization, such as magazines, newspapers, or clippings, are available at major research libraries and do not warrant preservation. Duplicate files can often be disposed of, reducing clutter and streamlining the archives.

Institutions must exercise selectivity in their archives due to space limitations, preservation needs, and resource constraints. This selectivity prioritizes historically and culturally significant materials, aligns with the institution’s mission, and ensures the practicality and usability of collections. It also considers legal and ethical considerations, guiding the acquisition and preservation of valuable items while optimizing resource allocation and promoting user access.

Protecting Assets

Determining what to include in an archives is not straightforward. The proliferation of records output means even an archives with ample storage can become overwhelmed. Conversely, institutions without archives risk losing valuable insights from their past, hindering their ability to learn from their history and build on their achievements. This oversight can prove detrimental, hindering their ability to learn from past experiences and build upon their accomplishments. Without a structured repository for historical records and documentation, institutions lack the context and knowledge to inform decision-making, foster growth, and provide a solid foundation for future endeavors. 

Archives serve as the custodians of an institution’s collective memory, ensuring that past lessons are not forgotten and empowering institutions to navigate the present and shape a more prosperous future. Balancing the preservation of historical records with responsible management and resource constraints remains challenging, but ensuring the institutional memory endures and continues to inform the future is critical.

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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