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Planning and Prioritizing
1.3 The Needs Assessment Survey

Needs assessment surveys are essential to preservation planning. A preservation plan is based on the needs of an institution and the actions required to meet these needs. This information is provided in the reports of the surveys. Many institutions have only one survey that considers the needs of all the collections in general terms. For some institutions with numerous diverse collections and complex planning needs, additional surveys that address particular problems or the needs of specific collections or types of materials may be required.

Since surveys are the foundation of preservation planning, having a survey that meets the institution's planning needs is critical.

  • A survey must evaluate the policies, practices, and conditions in an institution that affect the preservation of all the collections.
  • It must address the general state of all the collections, what is needed to improve that state, and how to preserve the collections long-term.
  • It must identify specific preservation needs, recommend actions to meet those needs, and prioritize the recommended actions.

A survey covers the entire building in which collections are housed. Hazards to collections are identified, considering such factors as environment, storage, security and access, housekeeping, conservation treatment, and policies and practices. It is important to note that the building in which collections are housed is often itself a part of the collections. This is the case with an historic or architecturally significant structure. In this instance, the actions required to preserve the building as well as the collections it houses must be considered.

All this information should be recorded in a formal survey report. The report should be written in clear direct language and should be formatted in such a way that information can be easily located and extracted from it. The report is the tool you will use when drafting your preservation plan; it must contain the information you need in plain language and in an easily accessible form.

A needs assessment survey can be conducted by an outside consultant or by qualified in-house staff. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, which should be considered before a decision is made to hire an outside surveyor or to begin the process in-house. If contracting an outside person, be certain to check the credentials and experience of the surveyor. Ask for and check references before hiring.

Outside Surveyor Versus In-house Staff

Outside Surveyor/Advantages

  1. An outside surveyor may be more experienced than anyone in your institution. A consultant from the outside may have done more surveys, may be more familiar with the survey process, and may have dealt with more diverse situations. Also, an outside consultant may be more aware of outside resources that would enable projects to be accomplished. This gives the surveyor a broader, more comprehensive base for making recommendations.
  2. The surveyor may be a specialist in a particular area or type of collection. This is also useful in making recommendations.
  3. An outside consultant comes without preconceptions and biases and can usually see situations objectively.
  4. An outside surveyor can say things that may be interpreted as critical without fear of being penalized. Thus a consultant is more likely to point out situations that need to be changed even if the change is an unpopular one. Likewise a consultant is not limited or hampered by the political situation of an institution.
  5. Often an outside surveyor has more credibility with the staff and administration, even if this is not justified. The surveyor is viewed as an authority.
  6. Perhaps the greatest advantage to using an outside surveyor is that this person has the time to do the job. A consultant can be scheduled to come at a certain time and be expected to complete the survey and produce a written report by a specific date.

Outside Surveyor/Disadvantages

  1. An outside surveyor does not know the history or institutional framework in which situations exist. A consultant is unfamiliar with institutional traditions and idiosyncrasies and, as a result, may make recommendations that are unrealistic or out of scope for a particular institution.
  2. Hiring an outside consultant requires an outlay of money for consulting fees. This money may not be available. This makes the surveyor seem more expensive even though in reality an in-house survey may cost as much, or even more, in staff time.

In-House Staff/Advantages

  1. An in-house surveyor knows an institution's values and functions and understands the institutional framework and background of existing situations. For this reason a staff member may be able to make more realistic recommendations than can an outside person.
  2. An in-house surveyor tends to know where all the collections are housed, the peculiarities of the storage spaces, and how the facilities work. This enables the surveyor to work faster, and to make more appropriate recommendations.
  3. An in-house surveyor may be more thorough, if there are no limitations on the staff member's time, compared to the outside consultant whose time is limited.
  4. Using in-house staff avoids an additional cash expense; an outlay of money is not required. This makes the survey seem less expensive, although it may actually cost more in staff time.

In-House Staff/Disadvantages

  1. In-house staff come with their own prejudices and agendas, which may cloud their interpretation of situations and influence their recommendations.
  2. It is harder for an in-house person to be an instrument of change than it is for an outsider. In-house staff may be reluctant to recommend certain changes because of the negative impact this may have on themselves or others. Also, they may be reluctant to recommend a change because they assume, based on previous experience, that changes will not be made.
  3. In-house staff may take longer than an outside consultant to conduct a survey and produce a report, because they must carry out their regular job responsibilities while doing the survey.
  4. An in-house person may be viewed by the administration and other staff as not having the same level of expertise and knowledge as an outside consultant, even if this is not true. A staff member may not have as much credibility.

Sources of Help

Outside Consultants
Funding for surveys is available from state and federal agencies. To obtain the names and addresses of appropriate state agencies, contact local cultural institutions and preservation organizations. Federal funding for surveys is available through the following:

Conservation Assessment Program
Heritage Preservation
1012 14th Street, NW Suite 1200
Washington, DC 20005
Telephone: (202) 233-0831
Fax: (202) 233-0807

Museum Assessment Program
American Association of Museums
1575 Eye Street, NW, Suite 400
Washington, DC 20005
Telephone: (202) 289-1818
Fax: (202) 289-6578

Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)
1800 M Street NW
9th Floor
Washington, DC 20036-5841
Telephone: (202) 653-IMLS
Fax: (202) 653-4600

Referrals for consultants who provide surveys can be obtained from: American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works
1717 K Street, NW, Suite 200
Washington, DC 20036-5346
Telephone: (202) 452-9545
Fax: (202) 452-9328

In-House Surveys
For assistance in doing an in-house survey, obtain a copy of the publication The Conservation Assessment/A Tool For Planning, Implementing, and Fundraising, 2nd. ed., edited by Sara Wolf Green, and published in 1991 by the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property (now Heritage Preservation) and The Getty Conservation Institute. The publication is available from either organization at the following addresses:

Heritage Preservation
1012 14th Street, NW Suite 1200
Washington, DC 20005
Telephone: (202) 233-0800
Fax: (202) 233-0807

Getty Conservation Institute
1200 Getty Center Drive
Suite 700
Los Angeles, CA 90049-1679
Telephone: (310) 440-7300
Fax: (310) 440-7702

For assistance in surveying archival collections, obtain a copy of the publication The Conservation Assessment for Archives, published in 1995 by the Canadian Council of Archives. It is available from:

Canadian Council of Archives
130 Albert Street, Suite 501
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada  K1P 5G4
Toll-Free Telephone: (866) 254-1403
Telephone: (613) 565-1222
Fax: (613) 565-5445

For surveying library and archival collections, contact the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) for a copy of the self-survey guide What An Institution Can Do To Survey Its Own Preservation Needs by Karen Motylewski. This guide provides an outline of the information gathered in a survey, along with basic information needed to interpret observations and find solutions. It draws on a number of sources, including the 1982 edition of Conservation Survey Manual, the survey protocol designed by George Cunha when he was the director of the NEDCC, writings on the subject of library binding by Jan Merrill-Oldham, and the experience of the NEDCC and Southeastern Library Network (SOLINET) survey programs under the direction of Mildred O'Connell, Karen Motylewski, and Lisa Fox. The address to contact is:

Northeast Document Conservation Center
100 Brickstone Square
Andover, MA 01810
Telephone: (978) 470-1010
Fax:  (978) 475-6021

Automated needs assessment tools have been developed for library and archival collections. One, CALIPR, recently became available at no charge over the World Wide Web. It is available at

Additional publications that may prove helpful are the Standard Practices Handbook for Museums (1990) and the Self-Evaluation Checklist (1991), both published by the Alberta Museums Association. These are available from:

Alberta Museums Association
9829 103 Street
Edmonton, Alberta
Canada T5K 0X9
Telephone: (780) 424-2626
Fax:  (780) 425-1679

A publication that is part of the Museum Assessment Program that may be useful is Shaping the Museum: The MAP Institutional Planning Guide (1993), produced by the American Association of Museums (AAM). This publication is available from:

American Association of Museums
1575 Eye Street, NW
Suite 400
Washington, DC 20005
Telephone: (202) 289-9127
Fax:  (202) 289-6578

Another useful publication is A Preventive Conservation Calendar for the Smaller Museum, published in 1997 by the International Centre for the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property. It can be obtained from:

International Centre for the Study of the 
Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property
via di San Michele, 13
I-00153 Rome
Telephone: +39 06 58553 1


This preservation leaflet is from Preservation Planning: Guidelines for Writing a Long-Range Plan, by Sherelyn Ogden, produced by NEDCC with the assistance of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It is available from the American Association of Museums.


Written by Sherelyn Ogden 


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