[Ask an Archivist] Q: Is it appropriate to seek volunteers to handle archival collections without an archivist?

Ask an Archivist Question:

Do you have any suggestions for an organization that would like to have an archival collection, and even has a space for it….BUT….doesn’t have an archivist, and likely won’t right away? Is it crazy to even entertain the idea of seeking volunteers to assemble and organize collections? Just trying to think outside the box here!  Thank you!

Ask an Archivist Answers:

In theory, I would say never–accepting an archives collection means accepting responsibility for that collection in perpetuity. Forever.  This requires a serious commitment from any organization, let alone one without an archivist.

However, I can see certain situations arising which might require such an arrangement. In those cases, first of all, do not let volunteers organize and/or arrange collections. There is a reason archivists go to graduate school, and this kind of expertise is sorely needed in situations like this.

One potential recommendation is connecting with your local SHRAB and/or State Archives–many states now have either a field archivist or a special field consultant (who is a practicing professional) who will come and visit your organization, and make recommendations for how to handle collections:

Or, the SHRAB may also provide grant funds, which would allow the organization to hire a professional archivist for a short time period:

Finally, there are also a number of practicing consultants as well as businesses specializing in archives work:

Caring for our collections properly should be a top priority–organizations must accept responsibility for the collections they accept, and should make every effort to locate and rely on professional archival expertise.

– Tanya Zanish-Belcher

First, I am sure that others, perhaps many, will disagree with me. But I strongly believe that doing something and acknowledging limitations is far better than doing nothing. Unless they can ensure that the materials will be locked away forever until the archivist is able to come aboard. I have seen too many situations where nobody did anything and collections were left to be improperly managed at best, or disposed of all-together.

While this is not a perfect situation, the lack of an archivist should not discourage the organization from trying to gather materials together for preservation. Acknowledging there are materials worth preserving and understanding that they are not archivists are key to making this work. There need to be clear limits to the work being undertaken, especially when it comes to reference and access. Finally, I would also strongly encourage the organization to bring the archivist on as soon as possible. We need to be very clear that this should not be left to a volunteer(s) for a long period of time.

– Arian Ravanbakhsh

Please do not have volunteers attempt to “assemble and arrange” materials for the soon-to-be archives. Sometimes this happens when organizations don’t know better. An archives just sort of organically develops. However, since you are asking the question ahead of the process, then you probably know this is not the best way. This is professional work; hire an archivist. Even if it is initially a contract or temporary archivist, you will regret not having them in place for this step. Much context can be lost in having folks going around “gathering” and “sorting” records. However, there are many, many roles for volunteers. In preparation, a volunteer committee of people from the organization and other stakeholders can advise on the mission, purpose, and initial policies – scope, access, etc., and whether there will be an educational component – exhibits, programs, virtual access, etc. These are not set in stone, but it is important groundwork to lay down for an archival program. They can identify spaces or offices in which records are currently kept, or people that might possess them. Don’t “pick” them out of context. Just note their locations, quantity, and responsible parties contact info. Leave the field work alone until policies and forms are generated. After initial acquisitions are made and rules and schedules regarding future acquisitions, then volunteers can work under supervision and policy to do some of the processing and/or preservation work. There are many other tasks for volunteers to assist with both before and after the initial assembly and arrangement.

– Michael Nagy

I think it is completely irresponsible to take possession of a collection in an archive that has no archivist. At best, there is no one to guide the volunteers, make corrections, or even make decisions about what is historically or physically significant or not. What we do isn’t rocket science, but there are still “rules and reg’s” that should be respected, and untrained persons, no matter how organizationally talented, are not aware of them. If, and I would say IF very emphatically, the volunteer happened to be a trained archivist, that person would need to be handed the repository collection policy (is there one?) to really do it justice. But again, who is going to check work and speak for the repository to the donor? Who would handle research requests about the collection after work is finished? An open access, unsupervised archive is an oxymoron.

I speak as one who knows – my current job is as a project (= grant funded, temporary) archivist for a specific collection. The institution had an archivist and had to cut staff during the economic melt down and the archivist was one of many who was cut. The administrative thinking was that the librarian who handled the reading room could handle the collections. Well it has not worked out well. Adding one full-time job to another makes this person spin ’round like a top. Collections are accessioned in and then nothing happens to them until grant money is found. My project collection sat in uncontrolled temps for 5 years before the money was found, and the audio-visual materials in the collection (the heart and soul of it, the reason it is so valuable) have been deteriorating for that time, and may possibly be in bad enough shape to allow transfer to digital form because of it. Unique and rare sound files will be gone, simply because there wasn’t an archivist on site with the knowledge of what was required of the format of materials and time to move the boxes into cold storage.

Forgive me if I sound overly passionate, but I am. I equate an active archive with allowing an infant to watch itself. Sooner or later something very bad is going to happen that is big trouble. Of course, the implications are on very different levels between the two, but it makes my point.

– Anonymous


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