Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mission Statements for Cultural Heritage Institutions

I collect mission statements like some people collect quotes. In an effort to convince cultural heritage professionals of the importance of having a mission statement, I discuss the topic in my new book. I state, "A mission statement is a declaration of purpose that explains the role of an organization and whom it serves. It is an important tool that formalizes and establishes a tone for the functioning of a repository." Those who operate their institutions without a mission statement or with a weak one leave the health of the organization in peril with a cloudy vision. A strong mission tells your audience the principles on which you base your existence, justifies your work to governing bodies, and invites users in to see what you do.

The core elements of the mission include the organization's purpose in terms of what it collects and the activities it conducts, the role the organization plays in the community and collecting world based on its defined purpose, and a definition of the audience the organization serves. I am sharing here some missions that have caught my eye over the years, but didn't make my publishing cut. Each can serve as a model for creating a mission that drives the archives.

1. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign University Archives mission: To select, preserve, and make accessible an authentic record of the programs, people, and operations of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the central administration of the University of Illinois, and to provide archival management for records of external organizations and documents of individuals in support of the administrative, teaching, research, and service interests of the University of Illinois.

This is clear, straight-forward, and representative of many University archives and special collections. It clearly acknowledges its separate purposes for collecting the institutional archives of the University and those records of institutions that support the University's broader education goals. The mission also ties itself to that of its larger institutional body, the university itself. Smaller organizations with archives often forgo a separate mission for collecting, feeling that the institution's larger mission gives the archives purpose. This kind of thinking is dangerous. When archivists assume that everyone knows they are working to support their governing body, they are often the first one's cut when money becomes a concern. A separate archives mission, such as the one above, makes our raison d'etre clear to everyone.

2. Huguenot Historical Society Archives: The mission of the Archives is to support the Huguenot Historical Society through collecting, preserving and making accessible, materials in all formats documenting the history of New Paltz, NY, particularly when such materials concern the Walloon origins of the early settlers, their migration patterns, and the development of their church. Most important, the Archives seeks to make available any and all information bearing on the historical and architectural interpretations of the stone house museums maintained by the Society. The Archives also serves as the Huguenot Historical Society's corporate archives, maintaining the Society's business records, publications and memorabilia. Lastly, the Archives seeks to promote the education of all aspects of Huguenot and Walloon history and to a lesser extent, local history.

I like how this mission defines its geographic region and then hones in on particular areas of interest. Like many historical society missions, this one is broad, allowing for the collection of virtually anything related to New Paltz. Such a mission, balancing a wide-ranging view with specificity, will allow the organization to create a collection development plan that zeroes in on the materials that suit their niche. The organization can also create an outreach planning and other materials that tie themselves to the elements outlined here. This kind of mission is a bit wordy, but I like the way that they make sure they cover everything without being excessively wordy. The thoughts they present here can be bulleted (that's how I reorganize a paragraph like this in my head when I read a mission statement) to make each statement more poignant.

3. Burlington Massachusetts Town Archives: The purpose of the archives and records management program is to preserve and protect the town's history and to enable the town to fulfill its legal records management responsibilities. The archives organizes, preserves and provides easy access to records in a variety of media; administers information resources; transfers inactive and permanent records to the Archives; and disposes of obsolete records that do not have long-term value (General bylaw 7.1)

Serving a specific legal role to care for town records, this mission is short and sweet. It defines the archives roles to organize, preserve, provide access, administer information, transfer inactive records and dispose of obsolete ones (records management). I think the disposal portion of the statement is unique to archives in general (though maybe not to municipalities) and probably helps stave off controversy about discarding materials. The statement's authority is given more weight by the notation that it is a general bylaw of the town and not "just" an archival mission statement. More towns need archives missions such as this that show the significance of maintaining administrative records with long term value and a town's cultural heritage.

My book, Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation is now available in limited release. For more information see I will be posting excerpts and more information about it in this blog over the coming month for those who are interested. The book should be widely available in regular publication channels by August.

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