Work Group 5 - Access

Participants: Justin Long, David Malone, Patty McGarvey, Kate McGinn, Richard Pierard, Wayne Webber, Stephen Peterson, facilitator.

Working Group Five was asked to consider three questions: (1) What kinds of access should a mission archive provide for its own staff and supporters, scholars, and the general public? (2) What kinds of requests is it likely to receive? (3) What kind of regulations should it have? Although this report is not organized with these three questions as the main headings, answers to each question are abundant throughout the report.

In its broadest consideration, the issue of access to private archival collections has conceptual, physical, descriptive, use, distribution, and retention facets. Either informally or formally, an archive establishes a policy framework for each of these facets.

1. Scope and Mission

Access considerations begin with a scope and mission statement for the repository. Scope or mission statements also address the issue of retention. Scope identifies the material that will be included in the archive. A scope statement may distinguish between primary and secondary materials, official and personal materials, print and non-print materials. A mission statement indicates the constituencies served by the archive and may establish degrees of access for given constituents.

Another important factor in defining the scope of an archive is the realization that a mission archive holds one story for the mission agency and perhaps quite a different story for the successor or partner church(es) founded by the mission. In one sense, the mission archive contains the founding document of the younger church body.

Although it was not in the purview of Group Five to discuss matters of physical and bibliographic organization of collections, it goes without saying these two aspects of an archival program are crucial prerequisites for any consideration of access. Physical organization of an archive, of course, is the most important and the most elementary condition for collection access. Although it is possible for researchers to work with collections in their office or institutional organizational structure without the help of finding aides, some level of collection description also is of major importance.

2. Kinds of Access

Although it is customary to think of access to an archival collection strictly in terms of consulting the primary documents, there are, in fact, different kinds of access and a thorough archival program is prepared to provide many if not all of these kinds of access.

Physical access to the primary documents themselves is the ultimate goal of an archive and, in some ways, is the easiest and most important form of access. Many scholars have had the experience of being granted access to archival material housed in disarray. It is not easy work, but it can be done and the serendipitous discovery of important material sometimes is the result.

Much better, of course, is a collection that is sufficiently organized so that bibliographic access through some medium--a checklist, or register providing an orderly identification of collection contents, is available. Bibliographic description of an archive holds many obvious benefits. It allows users to quickly narrow the extent of their search for material. It provides a means for keeping the collection in its intended organization. It provides an inventory to check against loss, misplacement of material, or theft. Finding aides can be reproduced and distributed to individuals and institutions. Now, they often are served on the world-wide-web as well. Thus, these aids allow users who are at some distance from the archive to learn about the contents of the collection.

Bibliographic access to an archival collection through some finding aid is the key to distributed access of collection contents. This may be an especially important consideration for mission archives that have an overseas constituency. If a finding aid provides item-level description of a collection, it is possible for people at considerable distance from the archive to request, by photocopy or electronically, copies of specific documents.

Distributed access is a special issue for mission archives in that most agencies are connected to younger churches in third-world locations. The mission archival material constitutes a historical record of special significance for these churches and their leadership. Thus, many mission archives take unusual steps to provide this documentary record to their successor churches and organizations. In distributing material overseas, it often is a sound practice to place these resources with another institution rather than to an individual.

Reprographic access. Many large and significant mission archives have been reproduced in microform. This, of course, provides wide general access to the contents of the archive. Although many non-denominational archives may not think their collections have such general appeal, the matter should not be judged too hastily. Mission archives that are rich in material from field settings have high research value.

3. Types of Inquiries Directed to Mission Archives

There is no gainsaying the kinds of inquiries directed to mission archives. Broadly speaking there will be in-house administrative queries; research and preparation for celebratory events including local histories; matters of policy clarification; contract dispute resolution; and legal evidence. From outside of the sponsoring mission there will be requests for verification of events and details; there will be queries from younger churches about specific people and happenings in the past. There may be requests for larger amounts of documentary material from this sector. Non-mission-related researchers may be looking for narrow or isolated material about a given person, region, event, or era. Alternatively, they may be studying the larger impact of the sending agency and want access to considerable amounts of material.

All of these inquiries will come in the form either of requests to consult the documents themselves, or have a member of the archival staff reproduce copies of the relevant document.

4. Access Policies

In all but the most informal of archives, all modes of access are governed by deliberate policy. Access policies derive from the purpose and scope of the archive and from a consideration of the constituencies served by the archive. Mission archives that anticipate use by the general public are doubly wise to have well-considered access and use policies in place even before they may need to be implemented. By the same token, a well-administered archive is always prepared to revise its access policies in light of ongoing experience.

Sound policies are not a substitute for placing an archive under the direction and leadership of a trusted archivist. Such a person should have broad responsibility not only for the organization and description of the archive, but also for administering its use. The archivist also needs to be imbued with sufficient authority to manage the archive effectively. A person with this authority also will help assure that the collection is used appropriately and that qualified users of the archive are treated fairly and openly.

The following list identifies use and access issues that often are covered in a policy statement. Not every archive needs to have articulated policies in each of these areas, but a good policy statement should provide some guidance for addressing these issues.

Definition users and user categories. Who may use the archive? Are there any limits on the level of access to which each user category is entitled?

Policies for physical access. In what space may the material be used? How much material may be consulted at one time? Are users restricted in the use of pens? Can they bring other private material into the archive study space?

Policies for attribution/reproduction. Can material in the archive be reproduced or quoted in a published work? How is the archive credited for providing access to the original? Are there fees associated with the use of archival material in a published source?

Policies for photocopy. May material in the archive be photocopied for personal use of an individual? Who does the photocopying? What is the charge for this service?

Policies for commercial use, literary rights, and copyright compliance. This is a technical area that may best be addressed when a specific inquiry is raised. Suffice it to say, the ownership of literary rights and copyright issues in relation to commercial publication, whether for profit or not-for-profit, are concerns that must be in the mind of any archive administrator.

Policies for restricted collections. Some collections, or parts thereof, must be closed or restricted for some stated period of time. Generally, archives strive to keep such restrictions to a minimum. In particular, researcher scholars often find that their work is hindered by extensive or unnecessary restrictions. If restrictions must be imposed, there also should be a provision for the ultimate release or opening of the material. A fixed date, e.g., after twenty years, or a rolling date, e.g., certain material will be opened every five years, are preferable to some ambiguous date, e.g., the death of the last member of the family. Memories fade, archivists resign or retire, circumstances change. Any restriction placed on a collection should be easily and readily administered by the archive. Usually, an experienced archivist can allay most of the fears of persons who wish to place undue restrictions on the use of a collection.

Policies for deposits. Sometimes an organization will ask an archive to house and care for collection while the organization itself retains ownership and ultimate control of the material. Often this produces an awkward arrangement that only adds confusion to the administration of the archive. If material is held on deposit, the archive should insist on a clear definition of the use of the collection, the terms and conditions around the return of the material, conditions under which ownership of the material might be transferred to the archive. Liability issues must also be settled before accepting a deposit. What insurance coverage is provided and who pays for the coverage.

Deeds of gift. Most archives have a standard deed of gift which they and donors sign when material is transferred to the archive. Minor details may change case by case, but a deed of gift is the best way to clarify most of the above policy issues before an archive accepts a collection.

5. Long-term Preservation

An archive is entrusted with the long-term care and preservation of the material entrusted to it. This long-term stewardship starts with the appropriate physical care of material and housing the archive in a secure, climate-controlled space. Standard archival handbooks describe these facets of archival practice fully.

Less obvious are the issues of reformatting archival materials for long-term preservation. At this point, the one safe, standard practice for preserving archival material is the use of low-resolution microfilming where at least the master negative is on silver halide film and stored in a very safe space. Again, there are handbooks which fully describe this standard practice. At the current state of technology, microfilm is also a suitable means of moving archival material to a digital format. This is an especially important consideration given that digital technologies continue to develop rapidly and both hardware and software obsolescence present particular challenges to archives.

Obsolescence problems also are associated with archives that maintain audio and most visual formats. Although play-back equipment for older audio-visual formats is still available, this may not be the case long-term. Thus, reformatting of these media will be necessary to assure their availability for research and other use. A well-ordered archive establishes a three to five year medium review cycle to assure compatibility between the stored formats and the playback equipment. A special problem is associate with old film. Unless these items are labeled as "safety film," they may have a nitrate base which is highly flammable. This is a dangerous situation and all collections with old films should inventory this material carefully.

A particularly fruitful way of dealing with the long-term preservation of an archive is for a mission organization to develop a partnership with the library of an academic institution. Such libraries often can offer well-equipped storage and use facilities as well as knowledgeable staff support. If such an arrangement can be reached, it too must be governed by carefully articulated policies governing access, care, and restrictions.

6. Future Steps

Working Group Five makes four specific recommendations for follow-up steps.

  1. Append specimen policy statements to the guideline document "Remember, it's Your History." These specimen policies could be provided by several of the archives represented at the consultation.
  2. Append one or more specimen copies of effective deeds of gift to the guidelines.
  3. Establish a listserve for frequently asked questions (FAQs) arising in institutions participating in the consultation as well as those organizations likely to be influenced by the results of the consultation.
  4. Establish an online directory of active mission archives in North America.


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Last Revised: 12/03/01
Last Revised: 1/5/05
Expiration: indefinite

Wheaton College 2005