Be An Archives Policy Wonk!

Do you have written policies for your Archives? Have you ever read them? Are they kinda boring, out of date or just so abstract as to be practically useless? Time to put your policy hat on and squeeze a few lines of policy material out of each day from now until, well, maybe eternity.

There are innumerable types of policy documents out there, but really they can be broken down into three major types aligning with the three parties that make an archive, namely:


Commonly spotted policy documents include Collection Policies, Access Policies, general Policy and Procedure manuals. They may cover all topics for all audiences or be very specific to one of the three categories above. If you are shopping around to help draft policy documents for your archives it helps to search for these at other institutions, save them samples to emulate and start reading for the points that make the most sense to you.

Make sure your policies are clear and easily understood

You policies should not read like modern art criticism. Fortunately there is no Instant Archives Policy Phrase Generator, the way there is for art criticism. “I find this work menacing/playful because of the way the reductive quality of the figurative-narrative line-space matrix visually and conceptually activates the substructure of critical thinking.” Your policy statements need not be filled with quips about paradigm shift or breaking down silos. Speak plainly and tell the world exactly what you expect of your archive, yourself and other staff, your volunteers, and the way things are run. You’ll have fewer problems in the future if you state things as they are.

Make sure policies do not contradict one another

I’ve seen policy statements that said one thing:

“Credit line: Courtesy of the Whosimawhatsit Archives, Somewhereville, Anywheresetts (collection name, record group/mss. number and/or item identification, if available)”

...followed up by an archives access agreement that said something completely different:

“Credit line: [Identification of item], in the <name of collection>, <RG/MS ####>. Whosimawhatsit Archives, Somewhereville, AW.”

This is rather minor example that probably resulted in the .pdf agreement form not being updated, but you get the idea. Don’t confuse your researcher or force them to ask about something that minor.

Be all-inclusive in your main policy document and make it transparent, readily available and up to date

Post all of your policies, especially for patrons, on your website. Don’t leave room for awkward surprises to researchers. They may have made a lot of effort to get to your resources and don’t need unforeseen stumbling blocks. Posting everything is also of course helpful when you get those few people who actually read it beforehand. They likely won’t end up asking you all of those questions if they’ve looked things over first.

Update. Update. Update. Would it kill you to read over your policy document's once a year? Stuff changes. Write it down. 

Build explanations for your policies into you policies. (People like to ask why)

Go ahead and give examples of why a policy exists. If you weren’t doing something before and it was such a detriment to your institution that you had to add a rule into your policy statements, explain what happened.

In past years my Archive was open to all kinds of donations, until I realized that its past incarnation as just “the Library” caused folks to mostly offer books. In fact, it became a flood of books. People would constantly dump books on us. "Back the dump truck up right here, bud! Okay, dump 'em out!" I wrote up a policy about very rarely accepting books and asking folks to write up a full list of what they were offering. I also laid out the scope of our collections more firmly and explained that we were meant to be in the primary source business. Offers of books dropped once I had this policy at my back.

Further Reading (and Doing!)

Here are a couple of resources that might help you in your quest to produce better policy documentation:

The Society of American Archivists is always good for this stuff, too. Their Museum Archives Section has a good selection of samples.

How About Yours?

Do you have great samples of policy documents for your institution? Share a link in the comments section below!

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