Category Archives: Practical Steps

Toward a Community Records Management Program

For all the differences between independent, community collections and established collecting repositories, there are some areas of definite similarity. Collection development is often one such area.

Donations to community collections often come, just as they do in many manuscript repositories, in spurts. Sometimes it’s abrupt drop-offs containing multiple boxes of unsolicited and unmarked boxes. Sometimes its almost nothing of long-term value, despite the time and effort spent working with the donor.

One area of collection development that we rarely see  in community collections (correct us below in the comments if we’re wrong) is records management — the systematic approach to the life-cycle of records, to help ensure their proper care after their use is done (paraphrased from everyone’s favorite glossary).

Records management programs help ensure (among other things) that records of enduring value make it to the relevant archives. Such programs often exist in highly structured, bureaucratic environments, such as  business and university settings.

This seems like exactly the type of collaboration that community collections — often working with (very) minimal budgets and staff — could use.  Many hands, after all, make light work.

Records Management Programs represent that type of collaboration that is sorely needed for community collections.

What would a community records management program look like?

So, what would a community records management program look like? For starters, it would probably only deal with the latter-half of the records cycle. For example, in the fast-paced world of functioning social justice organizations (or, place your-area-of-interest here), no one is likely to listen to us if we were to tell them how their records should be created. The form the records take will be shaped by the needs they fill and all other relevant considerations.

We can, however, ask them to hold on to stuff they make. We can explain that it’s important to capture a full picture of the organization. We can even work with them to explain what about the organization we hope to document, and help them think about which records best do this. We don’t keep everything and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise.

So a community records management program might look like this: Donors agree to set aside copies of relevant paper-based material (fliers, say, or meeting minutes after a certain amount of time), and/or send emails to a specified email account if the records are created and dispersed electronically. The Archives then does whatever it needs to — further appraisal, etc.

Yea, but how feasible is any of this really?

We’re a practical-minded bunch here at Start an Archives!, and we assume the same of you. How likely is it to expect anyone to set aside stuff? After some work in this area, our official answer is “kind of likely, sometimes.”

How likely is all this? After some work in this area, our official answer is “kind of likely, sometimes.”

But honestly, how ideal are most records management programs? People might set aside things for us, especially if we have a designated space for it to go. Playing up the only-set-aside-what-is-actually-important angle will probably be a bit harder.

Just like in other settings, getting people to do things for you works best when it’s very, very easy for them. If you’re interested in just keeping standard notices of activity, you can, say, simply subscribe to mailing lists, and keep those emails as a record of events.  If you know that paper records are created, maybe a designated box is a good idea: “when these are made and distributed, please just drop a copy or two in our Archives box”.

With more time, failures and success we hope this will be easier to set up (and articulate) in the future. Until then, let us know if anyone has this figured. We hate reinventing wheels.


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Talking — but mostly listening — about your archives

The ability to succinctly describe your archives cannot be overrated. The ability to reach out to other people — potential researchers, fellow archivists, community members — is often the only way to keep nascent collections going.

However important it is to talk about your archives — to distill months of work and hours of thoughts into a few short sentences — it is more important to be able to listen.

Listening about your archives involves hearing what researchers would like changed, what donors would like promised and  what colleagues think you might be doing wrong — all of this is hard, and all of this is important. Of all the traps that new collections can fall into, self-isolation is one of the worst.

To stave off this isolation, seek out other people who are working on new collections. Ask them what they are doing, how they are doing it and why they are doing it that way. Be prepared to answer the same questions about your archives. Often it is by listening to questions that we learn to talk about our own projects.

There is much to be said about deciding on a track — policies, procedures, etc. — and sticking to it, but there is always more to learn. The ultimate goal of starting an archives is not to do everything perfectly the first time, but to ensure the material safety and usability of material for future generations.

PADILY is born!

Per the promise to keep the updates coming, I am happy to announce that the Philadelphia Area DIY Library Consortium (PADIYL) is officially created as of today.

The Consortium’s mission is to pool the resources of Philadelphia’s small, independent libraries and archives and serve as a resource for the creation of new collection.

Current members include the Radical Archives of Philadelphia, Soapbox Zine Library, the William Way LGBT Archives and the Radical Library of Philadelphia.

Over the coming weeks we’ll be putting together the usual: Website, Facebook page, etc., as well as polishing our mission statement and by laws. If you’re interested in learning more and/or want to help out, let us know.

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Getting Supplies

When one wants to start an archives, one will often do so with no budget. Below are a couple things that have worked for me and some of the archives I’ve volunteered with.

Turning Repositories into Donors; aka: Ask Colleagues

Established repositories of all sorts periodically re-house collections. Many of these rehousing projects are based on the observation that boxes and folders take on acidity though the years and should be renewed. Ask for the old boxes and folders. Many of them are still in perfectly usable shape. While it helpful if you know someone in the repository, you can always send out calls for used materials to local archives groups.

Collecting something you fear a potential donor-repository might not care for? (Dear Catholic institution, can I have used folders for my Gay and Lesbian Collection?) Be vague. Most archivists will appreciate that small, volunteer organizations need supplies. Hopefully they’ll be relieved to find something useful to do with all the old boxes and folders and won’t ask too many collection-specific questions.

Turning Future Patrons into Financial Donors; aka: Ask a Friend

A lot of basic supplies can be purchased for a reasonable price, assuming no one person needs to pay for everything. Split your supplies list into specific items with listed prices and appeal to like-minded people to choose one or two items to purchase. Having an event? Now is a great time to remind people who support your archives that disaster planning requires a tarp, paper towels and a hair-dryer. Have a donation jar with a description of needed item and the price and ask that people supply money to specific causes. Or have a jar for unforeseen needs.

Short, pithy donation signs tend to work the best:

Like your local community archives? Help us buy a box for only seven dollars!


Help us survive our first disaster — Donate to our emergency relief fund. After all, it’s only a matter of time…

When one wants to start an archives, one will quickly realize that this is a joint effort, which requires more than just the people actively working with the collections. Cultivate relationships with future patrons — the people who constitute the community your collecting for — and with colleagues at established repositories. Everyone has a lot to learn from each other. And when it comes to finding basic supplies, these connections can be invaluable.

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“Start an Archives”? Don’t you mean “Start an Archive”? — A note about terminology

When you want to start an archives, you’ll spend a lot of time talking about terminology.

Community archives are often started by people from many different backgrounds and experiences. This variation has many benefits. It also has a notable downside: the need to establish a coherent vocabulary.

‘Archives’ is a word that has become increasingly difficult to define. In computing, we often use ‘archive’ as a verb, as in the compressing of files for future use. In common vernacular we use ‘archive’ or ‘archives’ as a noun, for any material that will kept for long time.

In this blog, and the with projects that motivate it, ‘archives’ is defined as a collection of material created by particular individuals, organization or movements, and that are maintained with attention to provenance and original order. The material has value added when it is properly described and arranged to facilitate research use. And the material is intended to be kept in perpetuity.

This definition follows that of the glossary of the Society of American Archivists.

A coherent vocabulary is important when starting an archives, but it is a means to an end. I have found it useful to advocate this usage of the word ‘archives’ (and the use of the ‘s’ at the end). I have found it more helpful, however, to collect, preserve and promote the material history of organizations and causes that I believe in. When one want to start an archives, it’s the material that matters, not the title of the project .

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