Core Archival Functions

A. Acquisition

In an institution with a records management (RM) program, the archivist monitors the incoming records to insure that all records series arrive on time; periodically reviews the program to ensure that it adequately documents the school's operations as functions and units change; and seeks to acquire the records of student and other groups outside the formal program. If the school has no RM program, the archivist must perform some RM functions (see the section above) to obtain the records of enduring value.

Archivists will pay special attention to the development of digital records and work closely with units, offices, and computer centers to preserve and make these records accessible. This may require the archivist's involvement with systems design and implementation. Archivists will base their appraisal, acquisition, and retention of records of enduring value on the archives' mission statement, which is a function of the institution's mission. Through appraisal, archivists determine which records belong in the archives, based on their long-term administrative, legal, fiscal, and research value.

  • Archivists should give priority to official records and publications, especially those reflecting the development, policies, and activities of offices, units, or committees that:
    —involve more than one department;
    —formulate of approve campus-wide or division-wide policy;
    —document administrative, faculty, student, and external involvement in those activities.
  • Records of departments, individuals, groups, or programs which substantially influenced the institution's development or reputation also belong in the archives.
  • Archives may:
    —accept other records in imminent danger of loss or destruction pending a decision on their ultimate accession or disposal;
    —house vital records and microfilm or digital, duplicate, security copies of records.

Through acquisition, archives obtain those records which meet the appraisal criteria. (See Appendix I for types of college and university archival records.)

Using their appraisal criteria, each archives should develop:

1. A regularly updated, written acquisitions policy, including:

  • an analysis of the archives to identify any gaps or areas of weakness by unit or chronological period;
  • a statement that outlines the archives' acquisition responsibility;
  • definitions of acceptable donor restrictions indicating circumstances under which they may be imposed—for set time periods, if possible;
  • descriptions of copyright and literary rights, which should be assigned to the institution or its appropriate governing board.

The Society of American Archivists' self-evaluation document may be helpful here and in other archival activities.

Archivists should:

  • consider federal and state laws and institutional policies while balancing freedom of information rules (where applicable) and researchers' need for access with personal privacy or confidential matters;
  • accept as few restrictions on records as possible, consistent with the legal rights of all concerned. Restrictions may be necessary on executive decision processes, personnel and student records, certain financial or institutional proprietary matters; and decisions on discipline, termination, promotion, rank and tenure. Archivists may have to accept other restrictions from the office creating the records or the donor of personal papers. Both the donor/creator and the archives should retain written copies of such restrictions. Only the donor, office of origin, or an executive officer/board may grant access to some restricted material. The officer or person granting access should sign these permission documents which then become part of the archives' permanent records. Restrictions should not discriminate among potential users. Limits should be for a fixed time period, not for anyone's lifetime. Avoid any provision which may be difficult or impossible to administer.

2. A written plan to improve documentation of weak areas by establishing acquisition priorities to target the records of key offices and groups.

3. A contact or "pursuit" file on every office or individual with which the archivist has discussed transfer of records or the donation of papers; this file should record dates of contact, agreements on transfers or donations, the current status of contracts, and supporting correspondence or phone memoranda.

4. A short brochure outlining archival services and records transfer procedures for campus offices.

B. Processing Archives

Processing includes all the archivist's activities to accession, arrange, describe, preserve, and make available the documents in the archives.

Through accessioning, the archivist usually takes physical control of records by transferring them to the archives repository and begins establishing intellectual control. In the case of some digital records, other campus offices (e.g., the computer center), may maintain the physical records while the archives provides access through systems of intellectual control.

A holistic approach, i.e., remembering that all archival functions are interconnected while performing each activity, is important throughout archival work. The following sections emphasize this interdependence of archival functions.

1. Accession record.

Archivists create an accession record—noting the records' date, title, bulk, condition, transferring office or donor, conservation needs, and access restrictions—when records come into the archives. This record is not functionally unique to accessioning. It also includes elements of rudimentary arrangement, description, and preservation. The form of the accession record, especially if recorded in a database or other digital format, may become the base or platform for the later functions of arrangement and description.

2. Preservation is also not just a one-time procedure when records "come of age" as they arrive in the archives.

  • Archivists must ensure that incoming records are free of dangerous or bulky, extraneous matter such as metal fasteners, acidic or otherwise unstable or fragile containers, mould, dampness, vermin, or their remains.
  • Preservation may even begin before a record's "birth," as archivists help plan systems to ensure the long-term existence and accessibility of digital records.
  • Preservation both begins before and continues throughout the records' life when archivists
    —design and maintain the archival building or area to provide security and access;
    —provide adequate shelving, alkaline-buffered containers, and control of humidity and temperature;
    —ensure conservation treatment of damaged or fragile materials;
    —reproduce records for display or to extend their life.
  • Preservation even gives records "new life" after the "death" of their original medium by migration of records from one medium to another, e.g., photocopying to alkaline-buffered paper, microfilming or digitizing records, or periodic re-copying of film-based or digital records.
  • While all archivists perform basic preservation functions, such as those noted above, they should pay special attention to two areas of caring for documents:
    —Archivists should consult or employ trained specialists for document conservation, such as deacidification, repair or reinforcement, aqueous treatment, or fumigation.
    —Archivists must use special techniques for preserving and providing access for non-print items, such as film or tape. Even more care may be necessary in dealing with digital/electronic records.

The preferred procedures for dealing with such items often change and are too specific and detailed to describe here. (See Ritzenthaler in Appendix II, as well as the National Media Lab, AIIM, and SAA Web sites for guidance in this area.)

Through arrangement, archivists deal with records according to the principles of provenance, respect des fonds, and original order to maintain the records' context and natural, organic order to document the transactions of their creating or assembling office or individual in the office's or person's regular, daily activities.

If the materials have no discernible order or have been re-arranged or mixed, the archivist should first try to re-establish their original order. If this is not possible or if the items have no original order, e.g., posters or publications of ad hoc or transitory campus groups or other ephemera, the archivist may arrange the materials in whatever order would best facilitate their use.

The final arrangement of materials will usually be alphabetical or chronological within record groups or series, showing the hierarchical relationship of each fond (creating office or individual) to the institution's other fonds. Archivists should clearly label all folders and containers of records, papers, and other materials to show their proper location within the record groups or series.

Through description, archivists use a variety of finding aids to:

  • inform users of the contents of the archives;
  • permit archivists to retrieve requested documents or information.

Description begins during accession as the archivist develops the basic record for each incoming unit of materials. This record usually includes the title, bulk, inclusive dates, condition and restrictions on the record group, series, or collection of personal papers arranged by title in the institution's organizational structure and placed on a computer list, database, or other format to permit quick, easy access to relevant information. A finding aid for each archival unit should be available to researchers on external, even worldwide networks, in the campus online public access computer, and at the archives. The detail in the finding aids will vary depending on:

  • funding;
  • the extent of network or other digital access;
  • the archivist's judgement of the importance of the records, their potential volume of use, and whether or not the records have been processed or are available for immediate use.

Full record description is one of the most complex and challenging archival tasks. It may by the most rapidly changing and developing area of archival theory and practice in the 1990s; so only a brief summary is possible here. (See also Miller in Appendix II.)

As Miller notes, the full description includes information about:

  • records' intellectual content and access and their physical description and access;
  • records' origins and and context;
  • archivists' actions and descriptive control.

Archivists usually present this information on several levels:

  • general guides describe the repository;
  • they refer or provide electronic links to more specific, detailed finding aids on record groups;
  • these refer or offer links to series finding aids which provide even more specific information.

While this is probably the most common structure of description, Miller outlines a system without repository guides or record group finding aids. This system focuses on the basic archival unit, the series; then uses electronic linking to indicate hierarchy and context and electronic finding aids to provide access.

Influenced, if not driven, by computer and network—Internet and World Wide Web—technology, archival description in the 1990s has focused on standardization of language and information, authority control, and ways of presenting information through such formats as MARC (machine-readable cataloging) and EAD (Encoded Archival Description).

Arrangement and description need not be to the same extent or level for all materials. Archivists must keep careful, constantly updated, permanent records of both the intellectual arrangement and physical location of all items, processed or not, as long as they are in the archives and, especially, if items are temporarily removed, e.g., for copying or exhibition.

While these principles should guide the intellectual arrangement and organization of archival materials, practical considerations may determine records' physical arrangement within the archives. Once the archivist has established intellectual control of the records:

  • special format materials; e.g., digital, film, map, audio, or audio-visual, blueprint, poster or other oversized items; may be physically removed from their record groups or series—with proper notice of where they may be found—and placed where they may be best preserved;
  • all records may be physically placed to take maximum advantage of existing space or to most conveniently retrieved them for use.

C. Controlling and Promoting the Use of Archives

1. Controlling Archival Use.

  • Archivists should consider possible theft and preservation when planning procedures for the use and storage of archives.
  • Access to unrestricted archival materials should be on equal terms to all persons who abide by the archives' rules and regulations. (See the section on Accessioning for details on access to restricted items.)
  • Before persons use materials, archivists should:
    — inform users of the archives' policies and rules and have users sign a form agreeing to follow these rules;
    —require users to provide identification (including a photograph) and complete a standard registration form recording the user's name, address, and the records requested. These forms should be permanently retained in case of theft or misuse of items and for the archives' statistics.

Policies for using archives should include items such as:

a) Researchers may:

  • use materials only in the supervised reading room;
  • bring only a pencil and note paper into the reading room after storing all coats and bags near the entrance; (Some archives provide paper and check it before users leave.)
  • use only one folder or box at a time
  • not smoke, eat, drink, or use audio equipment which would disturb others.

b) Archivists should:

  • return each container to the stacks or to a restricted, temporary storage area immediately after its use;
  • limit photocopying, photographing, or scanning of archival documents to ensure preservation and security, respect copyright law, and best utilize their limited resources;
  • permit only staff to enter the stack area.

Maintaining statistics of use and records of entrance/exit interviews is important for reports and publicity, as well as for evaluations and planning future policies and practices. (See also Pugh in Appendix II)

2. Promoting Archives: Outreach Through Service and Publicity.

Archivists may use a variety of methods of outreach to inform resource allocators, campus units, and potential donors and users about the value and contents of archives and to facilitate their use. In a sense, everything archivists do—including all the sections above and documents such this—are aspects of outreach. The areas of service and publicity deserve special consideration.

D. Service

Academic archives provide administrative, research and educational services. By performing these functions, archives clearly establish their role in contributing to the information needs of their institutions and those of the larger research community.

1. Administrative Service.

Academic archives perform several basic services to administrators, faculty, student governing bodies, and other campus units, e.g., alumni, development, physical plant, and public relations:

  • providing answers to questions about the history, policies, procedures, and decision-making processes of the institution, its academic and support programs and services, and individuals while they were there;
  • providing copies of documents, images, and other items;
  • providing finding aids to facilitate access to specific information;
  • retrieving and returning segments of record series to their office of origin;
  • In institutions without formal records management (RM) programs, the archives may provide some basic RM functions;
  • Academic archives should provide all offices with information about the nature and extent of the archives' documentation, access, and reference service policies and procedures.

But academic archives are not only information sources. They also help sustain colleges and universities by serving as a repository for treasured items from former students' school days; by providing students, alumni, and their friends and relatives with unique items, images, and information; and by helping celebrate anniversaries to strengthen emotional ties to their college or university.

2. Educational and Research Services.

Archives should serve all interested persons as a source of images and information about the institution. The scope of reference service will vary with the amount and type of requests; but should, at least, provide guidance on possible sources of information and on how to use them. Academic archives should also serve as an educational laboratory where students may learn about:

  • a particular subject;
  • the different types of available resources;
  • the proper procedures and techniques for using primary archival resources in their research projects.

(The level and availability of educational and research services will differ in private and public institutions. For other appropriate restrictions see "Access" above.)

3. Publicity and Public Programs.

There are many possible types of outreach. Each archives' resource and archivist's imagination and ability will shape how they use opportunities such as:

  • general or subject handout brochures on the archives;
  • attractive and clear directional signs to guide users to the archives;
  • meetings and programs by "Friends of the Archives" groups, if space permits;
  • exhibitions or displays of subjects or items in the archives and exhibit brochures, especially when the exhibit can be associated with key anniversaries or celebrations. Such displays can also serve archives' service and educational functions. They could be mounted in the student union or other highly visible campus locations as well as in the library or near the archives;
  • campus broadcast media (radio or television) or publications, e.g., catalogs, directories, newspapers, library handbooks, and other media to describe the archives' holding and services or provide historical sketches;
  • networks (such as campus, Internet, World Wide Web—especially establishing an archives Web site); statewide, regional, and national databases, like RLIN and OCLC; public access television or library, historical, or archival journals for publicizing bibliographic records, repository guides, finding aids, or notes on accessions or on discoveries in or publications using the archives.