There are several basic collection management activities that play a crucial role in the preservation of collections. These include development of an institutional mission statement and collecting policy, as well as organization and cataloging of collections.
Planning a comprehensive preservation program requires a manager to set priorities and make choices by looking at the resources available for preservation and weighing the condition, needs, and value of materials against them. When time and resources are limited, it makes most sense to concentrate preservation efforts on materials that serve the mission of an organization. To do this, a repository must have a detailed understanding of its goals and objectives for its collections—exactly what it wishes to document, who it wishes to serve, and what types of material it will collect to accomplish those goals.
Making effective preservation choices also requires good intellectual control of collections, since relative values and preservation priorities cannot be assigned unless staff is familiar with the content of collections. In addition, intellectual control is crucial to providing access to your collections. Your collections may be housed in archival boxes, stored in a moderate environment, and protected from disaster, but if they are not accessible to users, you have neglected a basic responsibility.
While it is easy to jokingly dismiss the institutional mission statement as a gathering of buzzwords with little real meaning, in fact, the importance to preservation activities of a carefully thought-out mission statement and collecting policy cannot be overstated.
In an ideal world, you would devise a basic statement of your repository's mission and collecting goals before actually identifying and acquiring collections. In reality, however, at least some collections may have been gathered over time without guidelines or a specific focus. Devising a mission statement and collecting policy will help you to look critically at all the materials you hold and decide whether they really belong in your collection.
A mission statement should spell out your repository's overall goals. It may be short or extensive, depending on the size of your repository and the circumstances. In repositories such as public libraries, museums, or historical societies, where paper-based historical collections (e.g., a local history collection or a museum archives) are part of a larger institution, it may be helpful to prepare a separate mission statement and collecting policy for the historical paper-based materials, because they need to be managed differently from general circulating books or museum objects. You must, however, ensure that these policies support the overall repository goals.
Your mission statement should articulate in general terms the purpose of the repository or collection's existence (usually to collect and make available some type of resources). What types of people, activities, and/or subjects do you wish to document? Will you focus on a specific time period or geographical area? Will you collect materials relating only to your institution, or will you collect materials from other sources as well? What users will you serve? If your repository is part of a larger institution, such as a university, how does your mission statement relate to that of the larger entity?
It is also very important to include a reference to the preservation of collections within your mission statement, along with references to collecting materials and making them available. For example, a historical society might be "dedicated to collecting, preserving, interpreting, and promoting interest in the history and culture of the local area." The presence of such a reference gives preservation equal status with other institutional activities, and demonstrates a commitment by the institution to long-term maintenance of collections.
A collecting policy expands upon the mission statement, providing specifics about the current scope of the collection, the areas in which additional materials may be collected in future, and the audience to be served. A good collecting policy will take into consideration the holdings and collecting activities of other local (and national, if appropriate) repositories. It is also crucial for a repository to have a clear sense of what it will not collect, since collections must be limited to those items that serve the real needs and mission of the repository.
Subjects to be discussed in a collecting policy include:
- the type of programs and activities that will be supported by the collection (e.g., research, exhibits, publications, outreach to the community);
- potential user groups to be served (e.g., scholars, genealogists, undergraduate students, local schoolchildren, the general public);
- specific materials to be collected (e.g., subjects, geographic areas, time periods, formats, languages) and levels of collecting (e.g., existing strengths and weaknesses, desired levels of collecting in different areas, materials that will not be collected); and
- information about acquisition policy (will you acquire materials by donation only, or also by purchase?), cooperative collecting efforts with other institutions, deaccessioning/weeding policy, and procedures for periodic review of the overall collecting policy.
For more information on preparing a mission statement and collecting policy, see the NEDCC Preservation Leaflet Collections Policies and Preservation.
Effective selection of collections for preservation requires good intellectual control, since relative values and priorities cannot be assigned unless staff are familiar with the collections' contents. An inventory of collections using standard library and archival descriptive practices can also assist systematic comparison of an institution's holdings with those of other repositories, especially when cataloging has been automated using the standard MARC (Machine-Readable Cataloging) format. Whether or not materials are preserved elsewhere can be an important factor in determining your own priorities.
Organizing Library Collections
Most institutions with library collections will be familiar with standard procedures for cataloging and classification of library materials. Recently, the Resource Description and Access (RDA) standard was introduced as a more comprehensive set of guidelines and instructions on resource description and access covering all types of content and media, including digital as well as traditional library materials. Based on the conceptual models of FRBR (Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records) and FRAD (Functional Requirements for Authority Data), RDA is designed to respond to the challenges and opportunities of digital resources and is the successor to the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules (AACR2), which was first published in 1978 and designed for a library environment dominated by the card catalog.
Metadata or encoding standards such as Dublin Core, VRA, MODS, or MARC describe resources by marking up or encoding information about a library resource. The MARC format was established by the Library of Congress in the 1960s, when it began to computerize its catalog records. Using numbers, letters, and symbols to mark the information within a cataloging record (e.g., title, author), the MARC format has become the standard for library computer cataloging. Having undergone many incarnations since its inception, the version currently in use is called MARC 21 (see LC's MARC Standards page). Online cataloging records are shared among libraries nationally and internationally through the OCLC WorldCat database.
See the Library of Congress online resource Understanding MARC Bibliographic: Machine-Readable Cataloging for more detailed information on the format.
Organizing Archival Collections
Archival materials are generally organized in groups, with related materials cataloged together as one unit instead of individually. When arranging collections, archivists follow two primary principles:
- Provenance requires that records created or accumulated by the same source—whether an organization or an individual—be kept together, since as a whole they shed light on the activities of the records' creator. For institutional collections, maintaining provenance allows the researcher to discern where certain types of information might be found by determining what organization, department, or person would have produced that information.
- Original order requires that the archivist maintain the original organization of documents within a collection. This can provide useful information about the routine activities of an organization and also help date documents or attribute documents to an author. If, however, there is no discernible order to the collection, the archivist will impose as straightforward an order as possible.
Archival description enables the researcher to find both the collection he or she needs and the information within the collection by using various types of guides (e.g., summary catalog records, detailed finding aids, subject indexes). These guides prevent researchers from rummaging through large numbers of boxes and documents, which can cause handling damage and general disorder. Furthermore, the researcher is not solely dependent on the personal knowledge of the archivist or other staff member(s) present to access the materials.
To improve access to a significant backlog of material that has never been organized at all, begin with a basic collection-level inventory of all materials (e.g., the Smith Family Papers, the library scrapbooks, the school yearbooks, the Ladies Benevolent Society Collection). Provide information about the records' creator, the dates of the collection, the amount of material in it, and a general paragraph about its contents. Eventually, all these materials will require further arrangement and detailed description using standard archival practices.
Sharing Cataloging Data for Archival and Manuscript Materials
If possible, cataloging data for archival and manuscript materials should be automated at the local level using the MARC format. This might be done through an existing online library/museum catalog or through a stand-alone system unique to your institution. In addition, there are a number of state-level databases of historical records (e.g., the New York State Historical Documents Inventory) that create automated cataloging records from information submitted by the repository.
For unique materials, cataloging records should be entered into the RLG or OCLC bibliographic databases. For smaller institutions without the ability to input records into these databases, cataloging information can be submitted to the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, a cooperative cataloging program operated by the Library of Congress. Based on information submitted by the repository, NUCMC's catalogers create MARC records in the RLG database and establish pertinent name and subject authority headings. The submitting institution must then be prepared to make the cataloged materials available to researchers on a regular basis.
DACS, Describing Archives: A Content Standard, is the official content standard of the U.S. archival community, and is supported by the Society of American Archivists. It is designed to make record description and sharing among institutions, particularly between different international organizations, more uniform. DACS is applicable on various levels of specificity for archival collections of all types and sources.
Many archives provide comprehensive access to their collections by digitizing finding aids and sharing these on their websites. Standards have been developed for encoding finding aids for the Web. The Encoded Archival Description (EAD) standard guides the encoding of finding aids for online access and is maintained by the Society of American Archivists in partnership with the Library of Congress Network Development/MARC Standards Office.
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