Archival Mission and Practice How Does the Essay

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Archival Mission and Practice

How does the primary mission of the archives (institutional vs. collecting) affect archival practice (acquisitions, processing, preservation, reference, etc.)?

Historical organizational records often have continuing value to an organization. They may provide evidence of an organization's existence, practice, operations, and day-to-day functions (Fruscian, 2011). One of the key elements in establishing a successful archive is to define its mission or purpose. An archive's mission is often impacted by institutional variations; however, in general the goal is to collect, evaluate, describe, and offer historical records of value to an institution (Cross, 1997). The core elements of the mission include what the organization decides to collect and a definition of the audience the organization serves (Cox, 1998). Archives make legal, fiscal, administrative and proprietary records accessible and help preserve that data which has operational significance to the institution (Maher, 1992). Members of the organization and the larger community are afforded a historical education through comprehensive and thorough archival collections.

There is a great deal of work that goes into the creation and maintenance of a successful archive. It is often best have the over-arching mission approved and documented, as well as taking the necessary steps to secure a dedicated and official location to house the archive (Cox, 1998). A full-time, permanent staffer should be appointed to oversee policies and procedures compliance, preserve the integrity of information, oversee security, grant and/or limit access to select members, and verify the efficacy of manuscripts and historical data (Maher, 1992). Most archivists have graduate level education and extensive experience in erecting the proper environmental controls regarding collection space and access to information.

Collecting records is useless unless they have a purpose and are actually utilized. Preserving an organization's history can sometimes result in the writing of studies targeted directly to specific constituencies. An example may be a college's historical information aimed at alumni to help stimulate their loyalty and financial support (Fruscian, 2012). These kinds of studies tend to concentrate on the growth of an organization and focus on such events as the founding of the school or select departments, milestones and accolades, key research, societal and community-oriented contributions and growth and expansion (Maher, 1992). The raw material may include correspondence, photos, journals, organizational publications, minutes of meetings, surveys, interviews, and the like.

Archives also have great potential for comparative studies (Cross, 1997). For example, how does a particular institution adjust or amend policies and approaches working with newer, more diverse populations or when changing an institutional mission or focus from one area to another with the same population? By examining historical records, an organization can gain a better understanding of itself and its own evolution, and thus make more informed decisions regarding its future. Archives are retained for their long-term, if not permanent, value.

In general, archives base their mission upon intended goals, espoused values and services they hope to provide, and their desire to increase general awareness about the mission and operations of an organization as a whole (Fruscian, 2012). The question becomes, once the direction and mission for the archive has been solidified, how does that mission statement impact day-to-day practice? This paper explores several common practices that are always guided by mission: appraisal, arrangement, description, preservation, and use.

Appraisal is the process by which an organization or archivist will determine the ultimate value of documents and whether or not they warrant inclusion in the archive or destroying (Maher, 2012). Not every document, manuscript, photo, file, or record requires preserving. Doing so often muddles an archive and makes it much more difficult to navigate. It is better to create specific benchmarks or standards by which archival candidates are measured (i.e., attributes of the documentation, age, condition, content, current applicability or potential need for it at a later date, storage environment requirements, etc.). The "value" of a document may be financial, legal, administrative, or simply research-oriented (Cross, 1997). Often consideration is also given to uses that a record may be able to satisfy beyond its originally intended purpose (Maher, 1992). The archivist must often rely on skill, experience and instinct to make such determinations, as well as rely on feedback from others within the organization. The practice of appraisal is ultimately a function of how well a record realizes its purpose, and how it ties back to the primary mission of the archive itself (Fruscian, 2011).

The practice of arrangement is related to mission because the way archival records are ordered and maintained is a direct correlation to the how they were created and will be used by the organization. Chronological and subject archival classifications have lost their prominence in modern times (Maher, 1992). Archivists throughout history have moved towards more thoughtful arrangements that do not mix records from various entities. For instance, an organization that operates based on departments will likely follow suit with its archive arrangements. Similarly, an organization that has many sub-groups or subsidiaries may use this system as a guidepost for its archival arrangement.

There are three principles that apply to archival arrangement: respect des fonds, provenance and registratur prinzip or "sanctity of the original order" (Maher, 1992). Respect des fonds demands that archivists treat "fonds" or records with the proper esteem, respecting the integrity of the collection as its own entity at the time of archival deposit. Provenance refers to the classification scheme, naming convention or nomenclature used for records (Cross, 1997). It calls for each deposit to reflect its actual origin. For example, the School of Medicine archive would typically be housed near the School of Medicine's dean within a college or somewhere within the University hospital where the records can be readily available to appropriate administrators, yet still maintained very distinctly from other departments (Maher, 1992). Finally, sanctity of the original order guides the actual ordering and arrangement of specific files. The overall arrangement process can be complex, but typically archivists look to record groups, series, sub-groups, and specific filing units to accomplish this task in ways that are both rational and easily accessible -- another key element of the mission inherent in most archives (Fruscian, 2012).

Description is an archival function that is closely related to arrangement and often carried as a part of archive "processing" (Maher, 1992). However, description extends beyond cataloging and classification. It works to help lessen the risk of "black holes" forming where resources and records become lost. Description works to provide a structured and flexible language that makes archive access easier (Cross, 1997). It is often viewed as a catch-all category. Experts indicate that summary statements of content and clear container lists are often sufficient description tools (Fruscian, 2011). In more complex archives, archivists may use different description tools at different levels. For example, a classification guide may be used for record groups and subgroups or finding aids and container listings may be used within a series (Maher, 1992).

One of the most important practice areas and prominent to nearly every archival mission, is preservation. It is the over-arching concern with environments that surround archival materials (Fruscian, 2012). It also encompasses conservation, or specialized techniques, that help to alter or protect the physical condition of archival items. The practice of archive preservation is crucial to protecting the shelf-life and overall longevity of materials (Cox, 1998). Environmental conditions impact records differently. Light and moisture, for instance, will have a very different impact on a historical photo log than on a paper document.

Other environmental impacts may include debris and dust, air pollution, room temperature, human interference (i.e., handling materials with dirty hands and fingerprints), disasters (i.e., fire, smoke or sprinkler damage), pests or even other materials stored within close proximity (Cox, 1998). Practical archival preservation begins with a proper value assessment or appraisal, examination of the general physical condition of the material, and consideration of what resources an…

Sources Used in Document:


Cox, R.J. (1998). Access in the digital information age and the archival mission: The United States. Journal of the Society of Archivists, 19(1), 25.

Cross, J. (1997). Archival Reference. Reference Librarian, 26(56), 5-25. doi:10.1300/J120v26n56_02.

Frusciano, T.J. (2012). Multiple Voices and Multiple Perspectives on the Archival Mission. Journal of Archival Organization, 10(2), 93-95. doi:10.1080/15332748.2012.738037.

Frusciano, T.J. (2011). Researcher Needs Assessment, Case Studies, and the Archival Mission. Journal of Archival Organization, 9(2), 65-66. doi:10.1080/15332748.2011.608966.

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