|Researcher Access Policy and Procedures: Access to Archive Collections
by Peggy Schaller
Archival Collections Found in Museums
Museums have two kinds of archives.
'Museum archives' are internal archives and for the most part should be reserved for staff. Unless a member of the public is doing a project relating to the history of the museum (and the staff should be involved in such a project), it is unlikely that these materials will be in any great demand. Access criteria will also be different for these records.
'Collection archives' are the materials that the public will want to access and use. These are documents related to the collections or collection items themselves. Procedures for access should be set up so that both staff and patrons are comfortable and the collections are protected from theft and vandalism.
Establish an area for researchers. Make sure it is clean, clear and uncluttered, well lit and can be monitored by staff. If you expect to allow laptops, there should be an accessible electrical outlet.
When is Access Granted?
When is the collection accessible? Are you willing to drop everything, interrupt meetings or end a phone call to accommodate a researcher who has dropped in to see the collection? Two solutions strike a balance between convenient access and security.
Some institutions require an appointment. The researcher writes or calls to make an appointment at a time convenient for the researcher and the staff. When making the appointment, the researcher informs the museum about what he or she would like to see or use and the reason for the request (writing a book or paper; genealogical research; etc.). Requesting the type of information desired ahead of time allows the museum to determine if it has the information. This saves the museum and the researcher time.
Other institutions have scheduled research hours. Having set hours when the archives or collection is open for walk-ins may be your solution. One afternoon a week, for example, when a designated staff person could be available to 'drop everything' and accommodate a walk-in researcher.
No one should be allowed (for security reasons) to access the collection on their own. A copy of the access rules should be provided to a patron prior to accessing the collection. One folder at a time should be pulled by a staff person and presented to the patron for review. Emphasis should be placed on the patron maintaining the order of the material within the file and instructions given for photocopy requests. Staff should be present or at least within visual range of the patron during their use of the collection. Staff will replace the folder when the patron is finished.
It is important that the advanced arrangement policy be enforced without exception. This allows staff to assist researchers without the frustration of having to drop everything or interrupt an important project to fulfill a request. They can plan ahead to devote the necessary time and energy to providing assistance to the patron.
To make the transition from 'access anytime' to enforced 'appointments' more comfortable to its patrons, the museum might consider setting aside one afternoon or morning a week when the archives will be open to the public without appointment. Assign a staff person to be 'on call' for walk-ins during that time. This no appointment period does not alter any of the other rules of access.
Who Has Access/Purpose of Access
Establish an application process for researchers. Ask them to fill out a form explaining their research area, needs and what it is they want or need from your collection. What will be the final product of the research? Will the museum receive a copy of the research product for its records? "I just want to see what you have" is not a specific enough reason for allowing access and may in fact be a fishing expedition for valuable artifacts.
For patrons from out of town who are just passing through, create a research request form that they can fill out that includes their contact information and what specific questions the patron wants answered. This request can then be researched by a staff person at a more convenient time and the patron can be contacted with a list of material relevant to their research and a price for copies of the material. Copies can then be sent once the payment has been received.
Staff monitoring is an important security procedure to prevent damage or theft of materials. Staff should be able to see what the researcher is doing at all times.
Record keeping and logs of items used and researcher/purpose
Create a researcher log to track the types of uses for which the archival materials are accessed. This log should include the researcher's name and contact information, the purpose of the research and the items requested and used, as well as the date and time of the access. Tracking which materials are used the most (or the least) will give the museum a better feel for the level of processing (cataloging) that might be appropriate for which materials.
This will also be invaluable should something turn up missing. You will be able to narrow down who was the last person to access the material and when.
Quantity of items pulled at one time
Pull only one item, folder or box at a time. Instruct the researcher that he or she will be allowed to view one set of records (single folder or one box from a collection with the requested topographical material) or one artifact at a time. The materials are to be kept in the same order received and when they are returned, another set of records will be brought out.
If the researcher is doing a side-by-side comparison of related or similar artifacts, a staff member should be present to assist with the handling of the items and make sure no harm comes to them.
Allowed/disallowed items in research area
Create a list of items allowed in the research area.
Backpacks, briefcases, purses, coats, etc. should not be allowed. These are easy places to hide artifacts, papers and photographs. You might provide lockable lockers, outside the research area, for researchers to put these items.
No food, drinks, or smoking in research areas. Not even water.
No pens. Pencils are ok. Pad of paper is ok. If an electric outlet is available, a laptop is ok. The case, however, is not allowed.
Require the researcher to read or listen to verbal handling instructions (do's and don'ts of handling museum artifacts) and sign that they have understood the instructions.
Handling instructions should include:
- clean hands/gloves required
- pencils only
- no food, drink or smoking
- proper handling of artifacts
- proper handling of documents
- importance of keeping documents in order
- proper handling of photographs
Photocopies of any materials requested by the researcher will be made by museum staff. The item(s) to be photocopied will not be removed from the file without staff approval. A placeholder sheet will be placed in the file by the staff person while the copy is being made to insure that the document is returned to the proper location within the file.
You do not need to insert the actual cost of making photocopies in your policy, but should state that there will be one. The actual costs should be reflected in the procedure (which is easier to change, should circumstances require it, than policy). The uses permitted for copies should be outlined here. This section of the policy should be included on the information provided to the patron prior to accessing the collection.
Publication and Copyright
The patron information sheet should include a section about publication. In short, the use of copies should fall under the United States copyright laws. Make sure you print the following notice on the documents provided to patrons. Familiarize yourself with by reading the 2009 US Copyright Office circular 21: Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians. This circular includes all of the legislation and summarizes congressional discussions relevant to this issue.
Copyright Notice (include on patron information documents):
"The copyright laws of the United States (Title 17 US Code) govern the making of photocopies or other reproductions of copyrighted material.
Under certain circumstances specified in the law, libraries and archives are authorized to furnish a photocopy or other reproduction. One of these specified conditions is that the photocopy or reproduction is not to be "used for any purpose other than private study, scholarship, or research." If a user makes a request for, or later uses, a photocopy or reproduction for purposes in excess of "fair use", that user may be liable for copyright infringement.
This institution reserves the right to refuse to accept a copying order if, in its judgement, fulfillment of the order would involve violation of copyright law."
Peggy Schaller, founded Collections Research for Museums in 1991 to provide cataloging, collection-management training and services. Peggy is the instructor of MS207: Cataloging your Collection, MS007: The Mission Statement, and MS218: Collection Inventories. She has worked with a large variety of museums and collections for more than 18 years. Peggy has a bachelor's degree in anthropology with minors in art history and geology from the University of Arizona in Tucson. She has a master's degree in anthropology with a minor in museum studies from the University of Colorado in Boulder and is a Certified Institutional Protection Manager II. She provides workshops and project services to museums and historical societies all across the country. The mission of Collections Research for Museums is to inspire museums to improve their professional standards, collections stewardship and service to their constituency through training in, and assistance with, documenting, preserving, protecting and managing their collections.