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Basic Elements of Records Programs

Many different types of organizations collect and preserve historical records, include local historical societies, public libraries, museums, and colleges and universities. There are thousands of these collections in the United States and they play a vital role in keeping our nation's heritage alive and available for researchers of all kinds.

There are no official or formal professional standards for historical records programs. But even without hard and fast standards as benchmarks, the Iowa Historical Records Advisory Board (IHRAB) wants to help strengthen repositories and improve the management of historical records throughout the state by making good, basic advice readily available.

The Basic Elements of Historical Records Programs described in this pamphlet are based on guidelines and canons of good practice developed by the archival profession in recent years. They make it possible to establish expectations for performance and to begin to evaluate historical records programs. Recent studies have shown that many programs are underdeveloped and undersupported.

IHRAB hopes these guidelines make a useful starting point for examining your historical records program and services.

This brochure is part of the overall effort to set expectations for historical records programs. It discusses the basic elements that these programs should develop and maintain in order to do their work in a responsible manner. The elements are described in general terms and should be flexibly interpreted to fit a given program setting. Taken together, however, they define a framework of minimally acceptable attainment for historical records programs. Repositories that cannot presently sustain these elements should consider upgrading their efforts, cooperating with other programs in selected areas, merging with other programs, or withdrawing from historical records work altogether.

Administrative Elements

These elements are the foundations of the program and determine its basic direction.

Operating Authority and Mission Statement

Every historical records program should have a law, charter, or other legal document that defines its authority, purpose, and program setting. There should also be a mission statement that describes why the program was initiated; its relationship to the parent agency's basic work and goals; what geographical area, groups, activities, developments, experiences, or other topical areas it aims to document; what types of records or information it aims to collect; and what types of research groups or interests it exists to serve and to support. The mission statement provides the basis for the structural framework for the rest of the program.

Adequate, Continuing Financial Support

Every program needs a continuing source of funding in order to plan activities and operate responsibly on a continuing basis. For most historical records programs, this should mean a regular budgetary item that is part of the parent agency's budget. This steady, reliable source of financial support may be supplemented by grants and other outside funding to carry out additional program activities, beyond the essentials.

Secure Storage and Other Facilities

Historical records are invaluable cultural and informational resources. Collecting, maintaining, and making them available carries responsibility to preserve and protect. Programs need secure, fireproof storage facilities. Temperature and humidity controls are essential; air conditioning is highly desirable. These atmospheric controls help extend the life of fragile paper and other records. There should also be enough room, equipment, and other facilities for staff to work on the records. Also essential is a search room large enough to accommodate researchers who use the materials and providing for surveillance and other anti-theft measures.

Sufficient, Qualified Staff

Every program needs at least one person who, t tong training and experience, understands how to administer historical records in line with commonly accepted professional archival guidelines and practices in the core archival functions: appraisal, arrangement and description, preservation, reference services, and public programs. Beyond this minimal expectation, additional professional and support staff probably will be needed, depending on the size and nature of the program, to carry out the operational elements described below.

Planning and Balanced Program Administration

Successful historical records program administration presupposes at least a general planning process that proceeds from the mission statement and addresses, on a continuing basis, the questions "What do we want to accomplish?" and "How can we make sure we will accomplish these things?" Planning enables those responsible for programs to establish direction and maintain control, encourages effective marshaling of staff and other resources, and helps ensure progress toward defined goals rather than merely reaction to everyday pressures and problems. A plan should define overarching goals, intermediate objectives to reach them, and more discrete activities to move to the objectives. It should provide for a balance - some resources and activities devoted to each operational element of the program rather than excessive preoccupation with some elements and neglect of others.

Operational Elements

These elements define and make up the historical records program's day-to-day operations and encompass the actual work of handling historical records.

Systematic Approach To Appraisal And Selection Of Records

Historical records programs should have a systematic approach to selection of records that is based on three considerations. The first might be characterized as documentation objective. What does the program aim to document, and how does its work relate to work of other repositories or programs that seek to document the same or closely related geographical areas or topical field? The second is collection policy. This should be consistent with both the documentation objective and the program's mission statement which defines what sorts of records the program is most interested in retaining or collecting and generally how it will operate to accomplish this. The third is appraisal. This refers to the process of systematically analyzing each given set of potentially valuable records to determine which, if any, have enough continuing research value to warrant making them part of the repository's collection.

Appropriate Finding Aids and Provisions for Access

Historical records should be arranged and described in accordance with standard professional archival canons. In general, records should be arranged and described, at least in summary fashion, as soon as possible after they are collected in order to make them available for research. The repository should maintain a summary of its holdings and produce more detailed finding aids to assist staff members in working with researchers and to assist the researchers themselves locate desired records. Where appropriate, descriptive information should be entered into a bibliographic database available throughout the state or even nationwide, like 0CLC or RLIN. Repositories need to be open for research on a regular basis.

Preservation of the Records and/or Their Information

Every program has a basic custodial responsibility to preserve the records in its charge. This means appropriate environmental, anti-fire, and security provisions, as noted above. It also means requiring careful use by researchers and provisions to prevent theft. It should also include basic conservation and handling provisions such as storage in acid-free folders and cartons. Many programs use microfilming or other reproduction methods to ensure that the information in the records are reproduced onto a medium that is longer lasting than the original (paper) medium.

Promoting Use

Programs that collect, arrange, describe, and make available their records have, in effect, only done part of their jobs. The fact is that most historical records are underutilized or not used at all by researchers whose information needs could be met through historical records. Historical records programs need to devote some time and resources to providing information directly to researchers on their holdings and program services. This can be done through the distribution of materials that describe holdings and emphasize research potential; through talks to researcher groups; through provision of material for their newsletters, journals, or other publications; and in other ways.

Continuing Campaign for Public Awareness

A historical records program needs one final dimension: efforts to reach out to and inform the concerned public about the importance and usefulness of the historical records the program holds and about the program itself. These efforts do not only encourage greater appreciation of historical records. In the long run, they also bring attention to the program, appreciation of its work, and, indirectly, greater support for that work

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