Blog Archives

Introduction to Archival Methods

C2C is well into its spring/ summer round of Archival Boot Camps, taught by members of the Society for North Carolina Archivists. The first three of five sessions in Greensboro, Greenville, and Raleigh, have been well attended and provided useful training for participants. The workshops are especially helpful for librarians and museum staff whose institutions contain archives they must oversee, but who have not been formally trained in that specialization.

Collecting, arranging, describing, preserving, and providing access are the major topics of information and discussion during the workshop.

  • Collecting: As in all cultural heritage collections, good policies serve as guides for both acquisition and maintenance. There are two types of archival collections. An organic collection is a set of records that an organization amassed over time in the course of its activities. An artificial collection has been assembled by a collector.
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    Arranging: Archivists need to make judgment calls about the appropriate order for the records they acquire. Organic collections often come to an archives chronologically arranged, or at least chronologically within categories. If a logical arrangement is pre-existing, then it is usually worth retaining. Artificial collection arrangements may be trickier. For instance, if accepting a group of trade cards, would you arrange them by chronology, region, or business type? Your own institutional mission and the anticipated research needs of your patrons should guide the arrangement decisions.

  • Describing: Depending on the research value of the collection and the materials it contains, descriptions can be collection-level, box-level, series-level, or item-level. Given the sheer numbers of individual items in most archival acquisitions, item-level descriptions are usually impractical. Archivists must analyze each collection to determine the level of specificity that makes the most sense. Archivists’ Toolkit is a data management system that supplies controlled vocabularies to assist in the description process. A variety of online sources can help with the task of developing finding aids that align with professional archival standards.  
  • Preserving: Acid-free folders and boxes and regulated environmental conditions are crucial for the preservation of paper and photographic materials. Whenever possible, provide dark, cold storage for most archival collections. In addition to the preservation tips that C2C provides through workshops and online materials, websites like the Image Permanence Institute’s and the Northeast Document Center’s offer a wealth of information relevant to archival holdings.
  • Providing Access: Archives usually exist as reference resources. In many cases, they are open to the public with certain schedules and handling policies. See the State Archives research room policies as an example.  In other archives, access is limited to internal users—usually employees of the institution generating and maintaining the archival records. Archivists need to be aware of laws such as FERPA  and HIPAA , which prohibit access to certain types of data. In some cases, archivists should redact social security numbers, health records, and other forms of sensitive information from photocopies of collection materials. Institutional Review Boards work with certain archives to determine whether individual researchers can access records containing potentially sensitive information.

The next Archival Boot Camp will be in Asheville on June 25th. If you want to learn more about archival methods, consider registering for the workshop in Belmont, which several Charlotte-area archivists will team teach on August20th. C2C looks forward to a continuing partnership with SNCA in order to perpetuate this valuable instruction.