When working with an institutional archive or starting an archival project, it helps to understand what it is that archives do and what you need to consider before getting started.
What do archives and libraries do?
Archives and libraries traditionally have four major functions:
Collect – Deciding which historical records are important to keep
Describe – Determining the best way to help researchers and users of archives retrieve historical materials
Preserve – Maintaining the integrity of information over time so that it is not damaged or lost
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and i keep on remembering
mine.– Lucille Clifton, why some people be mad at me sometimes
How do archives work with different kinds of historical records?
Historical materials come in different formats. What they are made of determines how they should be handled. Paper, audio tapes, photographs, digital images: all of these are types of archival formats, and they all require different kinds of care. All formats require appropriate storage, controlled temperature, and constant vigilance. A decision to keep material in an archive is a long-term investment in its safety and accessibility.
Papers, Photographs, Video tapes, Audio tapes, Artifacts
Who decides when or how content is used once it is in an archive?
Donors are encouraged to share their access and use preferences when they give materials to an archive. The gift agreement stipulates who owns the copyright, how to secure permission to use the item, and if there are any restrictions to use. Most institutions maintain archives for the general public to use. If creators want to be compensated for the use of their collections, a public archive may not be the best fit. Archives do their best to interpret copyright laws and implement access or use restrictions to honor the wishes of their donors, but the outcome is not always perfect.
Managing Collective Memory is Subjective
Most of the concepts listed above could be understood differently from different points of view. Our decisions about what is important are sure to be different from our grandmothers’, for example. Not all communities believe that all information is for everybody and that it must last forever. Community archives offer an opportunity to challenge traditional archival assumptions and practices. Community-driven archives offer an avenue for reflexivity and engagement for institutional libraries and archives.