Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Local Government Records and Archives Consultants

This long (but hopefully not long-winded) post provides information I gave at a Massachusetts' Town Clerk's conference  over a decade ago. I thought this might be interesting to a wider audience and decided to post it here. I know it has been helpful to clerks. I think it will also be helpful to those considering pursuing work in archives consulting.


Archivist - The "mess" fairy
The biggest concern many of my clients have had when they brought me in to look at their archives is that their collection must be the messiest I have seen.  Everyone is concerned that they have the one collection of important records in the state that has received no attention and no funding for care up until this point.  

I just want to start by saying that every collection I’ve seen that is receiving attention for the first time is disorganized.  Most collections are dusty.  Most collections have been housed in attics, basements, abandoned buildings and warehouses.  I am not fazed by this and you shouldn’t let it bother you.  Archives consultants should expect to find records in these conditions.  

You shouldn’t be embarrassed or upset about bringing consultants in to see your materials.  That’s why you hired us.  We don’t expect things to be neat and orderly.  I’m impressed that you have the guts and foresight to choose to take care of the materials now rather than let them go to pieces.  It doesn’t matter what happened in the past.  We are all short on funding and time. We are all now working together now to save our history and information.

Additionally, I want to let you know that when you hire consultants, we are coming in to give you constructive criticism.  Nothing we say is meant personally.  We are not blaming you for letting your records get to the state they are in.  We just want to tell you how to fix the problems.  So if I come in and say “These records need to be moved out of this damp attic that has holes in the roof exposing it to the elements.”  I am not saying.  “How could you keep your records in a place like this?!!!”  I also don’t expect that because you brought me in that you now have the time and resources to spend focused only on the care of these collections of records.  “You will now drop everything else because this is a priority!”  A consultant should create a plan for the future care of your records that you are comfortable with.  She should make recommendations as to how you can find the money and time to care for the records as best as you possibly can.

Today I’m going to discuss the stages of evaluating your records, organizing them, preserving them and making the public aware of what you’ve got.  We’ll discuss why a town clerk should be involved with a project like this, what you can expect from your consultant and what your consultant will expect from you.

Why take care of your information? 

How do you justify this to your municipality? And of course this overlaps with, why should the town clerk be involved in this?

  • Save money in the long run – cut down on space requirements, supply needs with records and forms management
  • Save time – easier access to organized material
  • Ensure safety of vital records and information - Avoid fire hazards
  • Remain in compliance with state law
  • Promote your town, government, or your own position
  • Get your historical commission, historical society and other town organizations to work together 
Okay so you’ve got mess… 

And you’ve decided to take care of it…now what? It is not necessary for you to go it alone.  Consider hiring a consulting archivist to help you plan for the future of your information

What an archivist can do for you:

  • Conduct a records inventory that will give you a good idea of the types of records you have, how they should be organized, how much space they take up, what types of preservation / conservation is needed
  • Give tips on preserving your materials while making recommendations for proper storage
  • Help move your collections to proper facilities by properly labeling materials and ensuring its safety
  • Organize your collections and create finding aids
  • Create and implement a records management plan
  • Perform outreach to advertise your now wonderful and neat collections to the public and give your town the attention it deserves
There are grant resources available that may be able to assist you with hiring a consultant. [Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation supplies information about getting an archival project started, including grant funding that may be available for your town.]

Records Inventory

What does a records inventory do?  This is the first thing that a consultant should do for you.

  • Helps determine which records belong to whom and were created by whom.  Helps with tracking and maintaining provenance (documents the origin and life of the collection), determining record groups, series and subseries
  • Determines space needs
  • Determines current storage environment and preservation needs
  • Documents conditions of the collections with before and after pictures
  • Helps you locate all of your materials.  Gets you thinking about if other buildings or collections in town have your materials. Over time, many public documents have ended up in private hands – may want to get back your public records from a historical society for example (delicate issue that should be addressed with outreach.  Begin thinking about a collection development plan if you don’t already have one)

  • Consultant will explain storage needs from facilities to proper boxes, folders, cabinets etc.
  • Will point out preservation problems with current storage
  • Can provide a list of suppliers and types of materials needed for your specific collection
  • Can write an in depth preservation plan can also include a disaster plan once new housing is found a disaster plan should be a priority

Records Management

Records management involves creating a plan to control records from their creation to disposition.  Paper in offices is often overlooked when a town decides to tackle its preservation and records storage needs.  But it is important to consider materials that will one day be “archival” as well as the materials that are currently ready for the archives.

Why is records management important?:

  • Clear up office space
  • Ensure that archival materials are identified for future housing in the Archives
  • Make sure records are periodically cared for and thought about
 How do we get started with records management?

  • Archivist / Records manager can meet with individual departments to help them create individualized retention schedules so everything is clear
  • Follow state retention schedule – the records manager is the specialist, can work with an archivist to ensure disposition is smooth and efficient include this when creating your individualized retention schedule
  • I recommend hiring a permanent archivist on your staff to oversee accessioning of records into the archives.  If funds are tight, for now, consider appointing a current staff member to annually follow up on the retention schedules laid out for each department by a consultant.
  • Work with the state records office and a retention schedule before discarding anything

If you spent all this time and money to care for your archives and records, advertise your good work to your community. Flaunt it!

  • A consultant can create a web site or brochures advertising your organization, materials and services
  • Go to historical society meetings and other places where you can speak about your collections and good work or ask your consultant to do it for you.
  • Make your taxpayers feel good about what there money is going towards

What to expect from your consultant

  • Can provide references, MLS, MA, and / or Certification
  • Your consultant should keep you informed about what is going on every step of the way
  • Present your plan (written or otherwise) to your consultant.  If you don’t have a written plan (which is required for outside funding of your project) your consultant can help you create one.  
  • I am most comfortable going in and viewing the situation.  I do a brief survey of the collections and listen to the client / employer.  Then I write my preliminary observations to make sure we are all on the same page
  • Final Report – handed to client then followed up a couple of weeks later with a meeting to make sure they understand my comments and suggestions
  • Your consultant should complete things when she says she will, should be on time, but not expected to punch a clock.  Expect them to show up when they say they will, when you need them and to finish your project on the agreed time barring any unforeseen changes or complications.
 What your consultant may expect from you

  • May want a contract or written letter of your agreement
  • A consultant is an outsider, but may need access to things town employees have access to.  Make yourself accessible in case your consultant needs assistance or has questions.  Don’t expect your consultant to punch a time clock
  • Keep open lines of communication and be honest.  Let the consultant know your feelings and thoughts about the project.  Do you think things are going well?  Do you have any qualms about the process?
  • May need you to explain about different types of records – archivist’s specialty is in organization, preservation, planning, research and outreach – she may or may not have worked with your specific types of records before and the project may not be long enough for her to learn about every type of record you own.  Different states / towns call similar materials different names and the names of the materials may change over time.  In Westminster, tried to figure out which records belonged to which department and then sat down with each department head and asked questions
  • Pay your consultant on time.  Treat them with courtesy.

Keep up the good work! 

Don’t let it all fall apart once your consultant is no longer under contract.  Consider hiring a permanent archivist or make sure your consultant will be available (and willing) to assist you if / when you need more help.  I am always willing to answer quick questions by phone.  Consider hiring a consultant for different phases of the project.  My most successful client have completed their projects in manageable steps.  You may want your consultant to do a records inventory and advise on preservation needs. You may want hire them again to come back in a year to do arrangement and description once you’ve moved materials to a safe environment. Or, you may want her to help you move materials to that safe environment once a new building has been constructed.

Consider hiring specialists for different phases of the project if necessary.  Hire a records manager familiar with state retention schedules or a cataloging archivist who is especially good at automating collection information.  You can even hire someone who specializes in the type of records you have.  For example, if you work in an historic mill town, you may consider hiring someone who knows about mill history or records.  However, a good generalist can usually serve your purposes.  A good generalist will know the basics and knows where to go to find out more about the details.

If you have a records "problem", there is no time like the present to resolve it. Handle your paper records and then prepare to tackle computerized material. Be prepared to cross from hard-copy to the next generation of resources by caring for your public records now, no matter in what condition we might find them.

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