Public Use of Organizational Archives

Margot Note

Margot Note

October 17, 2022

An archival program within an organization supports employees, allowing them to work more efficiently and retain organizational knowledge. 

While staff members have internal needs for organizational archives, individuals external to the institution may also have reason to consult the collection.

Accommodating Outside Researchers

In planning for researcher inquiries, archivists determine the means and extent to which the records will be available to those outside the organization. Many inquiries will relate to the organization’s mission, programs, and legacy. Most requests will be satisfied by placing a short organizational history and a timeline of significant events on the organization’s website. For many organizations, at least initially, providing onsite access to their records is impossible due to staffing, space, or other limitations. In those cases, the archives’ online presence is even more essential.

Additionally, a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) can be posted online and updated as questions arise. User statistics related to inquiries can inform decisions regarding priorities for adding content to the website. As researchers request specific documents, for example, archivists may choose to digitize those items and make them available online.

Speaking from my experience at a past employer, I offered access to archival materials virtually only. Most organizational files contained sensitive information that could not be shared. Instead, I provided what I could, digitizing materials for users and adding the digital files to the archives. Digitizing and posting all major publications onto the website also supplied enough material for users to browse on their own without archival intervention. 

Establishing Policies for Public Use

Establishing and publishing policies for outside researchers saves time and helps the organization handle unexpected requests. Information regarding how and when researchers may visit; how individuals register to use the archives; what kind of copying facilities, if any, are available; and permissions to publish material from the archives should be published online.  

While some organizations may not have the space or resources to provide onsite reference services for outside researchers, archivists should become familiar with these issues. The archives may require in-person researchers to schedule an appointment and identify what material they wish to see before arriving; this is often done via an online form. Registering readers enables organizations to track the archives’ use and the purpose of the reader’s visit and verify identity for security purposes.

Reading Room 

While having a formal reading room such as one at an academic library is not necessary, archivists should consider providing an area to check bags and coats safely and securely. There should be a table and chair large enough to accommodate the material they wish to see, preferably with an outlet nearby for laptops. The table should be within viewing of an employee for security purposes. Provide pencils for taking notes. Pens, which could permanently mark materials, should not be used by researchers.

Typically, reading rooms have rules that readers are expected to abide by. A copy of the rules should be reviewed and given to the user. These rules may also be posted on the organization’s website so that the researcher knows the rules in advance. After a user has identified, via the inventory, what boxes they wish to see, a staff member retrieves the material and provides it to the user. To ensure the preservation and order of the material, users should use one box, and one folder from that box, at a time. 

If the organization allows photocopying or scanning of material, archivists should be responsible for the actual copying to ensure careful handling; the researcher can use acid-free flags to identify items to be duplicated.

Keeping Statistics and Outreach

The organization should maintain a record of what material is used by users. In this way, use can be measured statistically rather than anecdotally. These statistics can be helpful when determining what material should receive additional preservation or digitization, when reporting on the activities of the archives to administrators and board members, or when applying for grant funding for the archives.

If an organization can regularly make its archives available onsite to the public, it may consider including a description of the archives for potential researchers in national, state, or local online catalogs. 

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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