From Attic to Archives: First Steps to Setting Up Your Archives

What Is an Archives?

An archives is, by definition, a place in which materials are housed, arranged, preserved, and made available for use. All archives, including government, academic, institutional, local history, or religious, rely on the same basic principles for their organization. The types of materials collected vary with the individual repository, but the rules they live by are the same.

What Materials Are in an Archives?

Intellectually, archives hold the papers of individuals and families, and the records of organizations, including businesses, corporations, governments, schools, churches, clubs, etc. These materials are generally unique, and are generated by the activities of an individual, a family, or an organization. Physically, the information is held in every possible medium, including handwritten and typewritten or word-processed letters and documents; photographs; maps; architectural drawings; printed materials; sound, video, and film recordings in many formats; computer files, artifacts, etc. A single archives will hold many of these materials.

Staffing an Archives

Ideally, an archives should be under the direction of an archivist with professional training, but this is not essential for the establishment of the archives. Dedicated volunteers with the willingness to learn archival principles and techniques can preserve original papers and records. What is vital is taking the first step of acquiring records with the intent to preserve them before they are lost forever.

Archives Location

The first step in creating an archives is to establish a safe and secure "home" for the materials. It should be in a permanent location that everyone recognizes as an archival repository to help encourage others to save materials and bring them to you. The storage area should be secure and outside heavy traffic patterns of the building. Basements, attics, and garages are unsuitable because of unstable temperature and humidity conditions, and the greater possibility of damage by water and vermin. For archival storage, use acid-free folders and containers, and baked enamel shelves and file cabinets.

The ideal environmental conditions for documents are 50% humidity and 68°F. If these conditions are not possible, strive for a consistent, stable environment that does not fluctuate.

Survey Your Holdings

Once you have a location for your materials, survey them so you can plan for processing, preservation, and future use. Be aware of two basic archival principles: provenance and respect du fonds. According to Duckett, these are "defined as the office of origin of records, i.e. that office or administrative entity that created or received and accumulated the records in the conduct of its business. Also, the person, family, firm, or other source of personal papers and manuscript collections."

The Mission Statement

All archives should have a mission statement that spells out the purpose of the archival collection. It can be used as a guide in deciding what to keep and reject. You must appraise all materials arriving at your archives for their historic value or appropriateness for your archives. Even gifts will cost you money in terms of storage space, acid-free containers, and your time. It is impossible to keep everything, nor should you want to. Basic questions to ask when considering adding materials to your collection should include: What is the significance of the material? Is it appropriate for my archives? Is another archives already collecting this? Are copies available elsewhere? Do I have the resources to take care of this material according to archival standards? Your answers to these questions will determine your next step.

Accessioning, Arranging, and Describing Collections

After you decide to keep the material, you must accession it immediately. Accessioning is the process by which the archives registers the collection, identifies the donor and type of donation, indicates terms of the gift and access, and reviews the physical condition of the materials.

Next, the materials must be arranged, both physically and intellectually, to provide proper storage and access. The arrangement of the materials depends on their physical format (generally, store like with like), their intellectual content, and their original order and arrangement (maintain original order whenever possible). When dealing with personal papers, or records of organizations that have undergone upheavals, it may not be possible to discover or restore original order. It is up to the archivist to decide which arrangement scheme is best for each collection.

Physically processing and arranging a collection includes cleaning, removing metals (staples, paper clips, etc.) and rubber bands, checking for vermin or mold infestations, and putting the materials in appropriate folders or other enclosures, and boxes.

Intellectual access is created by describing a collection in a collection guide. This should include the collection title; size; location number; a brief history of the individual, family, business, or organization around which the collection was formed; a scope and content note describing the contents of the collection in a textual way; and a box and folder inventory that lists the contents at the level of the storage unit. You may also want to catalog the collection, preferably using national standards (e.g., Library of Congress subject headings), and make this information available in a card file or database. Collection guides and cataloging records should be updated when materials are added.

An archives is not merely a warehouse for materials not wanted elsewhere, or a reference service for the governing body of your organization. Ideally, it should be open to researchers from beyond your organization. Archives provide rich research and educational materials, and exhibits and displays can raise historical consciousness on topics important to your group.

To become more familiar with archival practices, procedures, and terminology, read the archival literature, consult with other archivists, and attend professional meetings. State and regional meetings are especially good places to network. The Society of American Archivists (SAA) offers an excellent set of basic manuals for establishing and maintaining an archives. There are also numerous websites and listservs that can provide you with critical information.

Types of Archives

All types of archives should follow the same general principles, even though the materials collected by archives are quite diverse. Below is a brief description of some basic types of archives.

Academic Archives

Academic archives are created to preserve the records of a college or university. They include administrative records, such as correspondence files, financial and other reports, personnel and student records, and minutes of committees and boards. Also included may be materials from alumni and publicity offices, campus publications, and three-dimensional memorabilia.

Government Archives

The official records of local, state, and national governments are preserved in government archives, and are subject to records retention schedules. The types of materials held may differ with the level of government, but can include official papers of elected officials; meeting minutes; legislation, tax, and voting records; vital statistics; court records; and personnel, land, and military records.

Local History Archives

Local history archives often reside in a local historical society or a public library. Collections may consist of the personal papers of individuals and families; records of businesses, groups, and organizations; and materials about the history and geography of the area. Personal papers may include correspondence, legal documents, photographs, printed items, and artifacts. Business and organizational records are similar to those found in organizational archives. Because of the diversity of materials, local history archives can be especially challenging to create, maintain, and use.

Organizational Archives

These archives maintain the records of a business or special interest group. Types of materials include minutes, correspondence files, promotional materials, legal and tax records, and financial records. Often, the person who is responsible for the archives is also the organization's records manager and must set the lengths of time various records must be kept.

Religious Archives

The records of a religious institution form the collections of a religious archives. They may be located in individual churches, or sent to a regional or national repository maintained by the religious body. Records may contain information about membership and congregational actions of churches, as well as organizational records of the religious body at regional and national levels.

General Guidelines

  • Secure financial support from the highest authority in your organization (board, president, CEO).
  • Contact a professional archivist for advice.
  • Join the professional archival organizations at the state, regional, and national levels.
  • Create a mission statement and accession policy.
  • When creating your archives, remember to:
  • Physically secure your archives from theft.
  • Maintain a stable environment, ideally 50% humidity and 68°F. Higher or lower humidity/temperature levels are better than fluctuations.
  • Respect the original order of the materials.
  • Respect the provenance of the materials.
  • Never do anything to an item you cannot undo later

Selected Bibliography

Archives Association of British Columbia, "A Manual for Small Archives." 1999. (accessed 11/30/2015).

Archives Association of British Columbia, "The AABC Archivst's Toolkit." (accessed 11/20/2015).

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