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Advice from a newly minted archives consultant

It’s been a little over a month where I stopped being the Archivist-in-Residence at The Center for Sex & Culture.  Since then we were able to recruit someone who has a great handle on the archives and someone who will work well with the library team.  We have an intern at the gallery and another support person for the archives. There is something to be said about creating contingency plans and setting up a “bench” so that if things have to change, you have people who you can groom to take over an archive.

And, just for the sake of doing duty to any archive one of the cardinal sins is to leave an archive high and dry.  The thing all newly minted archivists must do is to put the plans in place.  Here are 10 things to get started:

1.  Create an organizational chart:  great for incoming volunteers and interns.

2.  Create a “job description” for interns, volunteers and staff and what is expected from each role.

3.  Create a work plan:  What part of the collection will there be focus?  Is the priority on digitization.  Make sure it’s inline with a 3-5 year strategic plan. It’s just a punch list so that you can keep moving

4. Once you have been at an archive, you can now get a sense of the environment, the amount of budgeting to be used for materials, resources, acquisitions and staff.  Create a strategic plan that outlines the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT Analysis) along with a revised mission statement if needed.

5.  Take a look at existing: policies, strategic plans and make sure in your first staff meeting with directors if this is still the way things need to go.  Overall, make suggestions as you go over line items. Create rationale behind any changes.  Get feedback as to why things were planned as such.  Strategic plans are instrumental in acquiring grants and sometimes these plans try to align with grants. 

6.  If there is no emergency/recovery policy, create one now.  We never know if someone will accidentally damage materials or an Act of God nail heavily upon the building.  But, template it, and of course use geo-specific plans with the permission to use any or part of the language.

7.  Has an appraisal been done?  It can be done in inventory, however it’s good to know how much the entire collection is worth–or at least items in the collection that are identified as rare.  Begin with those identified items, get them appraised then, get those insured.  All other materials could be easily assessed however, appraisal protects the collection.

8.  Do an inventory of all the supplies to complete your work:  do you have a loupe? Nitrile gloves? Washing station? Table? Housing? 

9.  Facilities:  do your own assessment of relative humidity and get a measurement of the entire storage area.  This step can be done while creating your SWOT (see #4).  Plan accordingly:  what items in the rooms need access? Where can you place restricted access materials?  If this is an archive that is well established, then by all means, follow the protocol and maintain the order in which all staff go about processing. A processing guide/binder should be reviewed and any other policies, guidelines, literature and should be placed in the same area–always ask or get consensus.

Another thing when it comes to work-place and facilities is to make sure you are ergonomically evaluated (by HR teams) or by using guides. This is important since you will be processing materials:  do you have adequate light space? Is there too much glare? Do you sit for more than four hours at a time?  Do you have a desk that allows you to maneuver it up and down so that you can stand and do work?  Does that standing area/seating area have a mat to relieve compression?  Do you have the right seat and chair height?  How is the keyboard?  All of these questions (and anything else) should be placed on a simple document with a check box before it.  Print out a blank one to include this for future staff in an operations handbook.

10. Compare your collection to collections similar to yours.  Prepare to reach out to organizations where you can become “sister institutions” to each other.  This will help with outreach and marketing.  There is no such thing as a “competing collection” especially when there is collaboration and cooperation.

Lastly, this list is not exhaustive!  There is always more to do in the archives: such as assessing the condition of the materials that need preservation.  But, having a plan in the interview process or even on that first day with the wheels on the ground, you have something that is valuable to the organization.

Comments?  Let me know what you have done “Day One:  Archivist!” 

About Tess McCarthy

Tess McCarthy got her MLIS from San Jose State University's School of Library and Information Science and she worked in a variety of information settings. Tess currently leads her own consulting firm in the management of digital and physical library and archives around the world. As a corporate digital image archivist, she mastered Digital Asset Management she developed and led trainings in image cataloging. She's comfortable using pronouns like she, her, they & them. When she's not organizing the world's greatest archives and libraries, she's writing and illustrating. Tess got her teeth cut in archives processing unique collections. From the Center for Sex & Culture's archival materials to the Hoover Institution, she's seen it all. At the Hoover Institution, she focused on processing, arranging, describing and writing the finding aids to several WWI and II collections. As the former archivist-in-residence at San Francisco's Center for Sex and Culture, Library/Archives she surveyed and inventoried some of the most lively manuscript collections. Her interests in the information field area are: special libraries/collections, archives; manuscripts, digital archives, digital assets, images, DAM, collection management, old maps, zines, human-computer interaction, reference/user services and, information-seeking behavior.

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