SLA Report: Michele L. Saunders

Library Hi Tech News

ISSN: 0741-9058

Article publication date: 1 August 2000



Saunders, M.L. (2000), "SLA Report: Michele L. Saunders", Library Hi Tech News, Vol. 17 No. 8.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

SLA Report: Michele L. Saunders

Archives in the Twenty-first Century: Not Just a Time Capsule

Archives do not act merely as time capsules. They serve vital functions within their organizations and to research activities. This was made apparent in the presentations of the three speakers for this session. Ken Rose, assistant director, Rockefeller Archives Center; Alan Divack, archivist for the Ford Foundation; and Andrew Harrison, archivist for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation each talked about the various roles archives play in their respective foundations and the challenges archivists are facing.

Rose began his presentation with a brief history of the Rockefeller Archives Center. The Archives Center was established in 1974 and opened to researchers in 1975. The four founding institutions are the Rockefeller family, the Rockefeller University, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The Archives Center is a division of the University. The core of their collection is the Rockefeller family archive. Among the items in this collection are the card index of all the correspondence into the Rockefeller family office from 1917-1960, John D. Rockefeller's ledgers and journals including the famous Ledger A, and his incoming and outgoing correspondence. The collection also contains his charity index cards, which record the gifts he made to institutions including date, purpose of the gift, and name of the contact person which could be traced in the correspondence files. For Rockefeller these were working files. There are reports throughout the collections that indicate the use of these files over time and the files are still used today to trace previous involvement with possible gift recipients.

One of the challenges the Archives Center faces is the differing cultures and practices of the founding institutions. The Rockefeller University was organized in 1901 but did not begin its formal archival program until the 1960s. There is still no central records management program at the University that operates as a confederated group of independent laboratories. Establishing such a program requires changing the institutional mindset. In contrast the Rockefeller Foundation has practiced a strong records management program since its inception in 1913. The Foundation's work is worldwide in scope and spans many disciplines including public health, medical education, nursing, agriculture, natural sciences and arts and humanities. Its archives have and continue to be working files for staff. Every proposal for a new grant contains a section on previous interest. The fourth of the founding institutions, the Brothers Fund, documents the beginnings of the philanthropic activities of the children of John D. Rockefeller and did not have formal archives.

The Archives Center works closely with its donor organizations. Its collections and the number of researchers it serves have steadily increased. An average of 260 researchers are served per year, over 1,100 publications based on research done at the archives are contained in a bibliography (this is thought to be two-thirds of the total number of publications), and use has expanded to include photographs and films. The Archives Center continues to work with the donor organizations on records preservation and internal use of records. They act as the history reference department for the donor organizations and the family as well as other external institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Asia Society. With the rapid turnover rate of staff in the donor organizations, acting as a source of institutional history is an important part of functioning of the Archives Center. One way they do this is to provide tours for staff, particularly new staff. Through these tours Rose says the Archives Center is able to "show them (staff members) what the past of the institution was, to give them a better sense of their institution's history, and to deepen their appreciation and awareness of the legacy that they are continuing".

Another part of the Archive Center's mission as it has evolved is to promote a better understanding of the history of philanthropy to the general public and promote within the foundation community the preservation of records and access to those records for researchers. Among the driving forces behind this aspect of their mission were the Tax Reform Act of 1969 and the establishment of academic centers for the study of philanthropy. Archives can be seen as a means of public accountability for foundations. In 1984 the decision was made to accept non-Rockefeller materials in an attempt to make the Archives Center more about the study of the history of philanthropy, not just the Rockefellers. The first two major collections accepted were from the Commonwealth Fund and the Russell Sage foundation. The Archives Center also conducted a survey of the 1,000 largest foundations in the USA togather data on access for researchers and adherence to records management processes to ensure preservation. Only half of the respondents had record management professionals on staff and few had records management programs in place. Some of the reasons for not maintaining formal archives were age and size, concerns over confidentiality, no perceived interest on the part of researchers, expense and peoplepower issues.

Some organizations do not think they are old enough or have enough records to warrant management programs. There are concerns that the bond between grantors and grantees should not be jeopardized over confidentiality issues. Lack of requests by scholars to see records is perceived as lack of interest. Many organizations take pride in the fact that their money goes to programming and not to overheads like full-time staff, resulting in records being kept only as long as laws or regulatory bodies require. Although the survey was done in 1989, many of these attitude still exist today.

According to Rose the "most difficult problem for archivists to combat" is the promise of technology. Digitization for access is attractive to researchers and donors. "It is a question of access versus a question of preservation", says Rose. When it comes to preservation issues the Archives Center still prefers to microfilm materials because they know how long it will last and it is the least expensive technology to duplicate. They have several ongoing microfilm projects. Although some may find this practice old-fashioned, Rose feels that "We must insist on our role as archivists" and not be pressured into digitization because there are no guarantees that hardware and software will remain available or that funding will be available to migrate to new systems as they emerge. Archivists must concern themselves with "reliability and verifiability issues" in order to safeguard the long-term interests of donors and researchers.

The second presenter was Alan Divack of the Ford Foundation. He proposed that we look at archives as a risk-management issue. There are risks associated with both retaining and disposing of records. If you retain records you can benefit from the information contained in them. By disposing of them you eliminate legal exposure. Allowing researcher to have access to records poses a risk, but by denying them access you run the risk that research will not take place. The Ford Foundation began its formal archives program in the 1970s partly in response to the Tax Reform Act. This act drew foundations' attention to the need for public accountability. Also the Ford Foundation had begun to receive requests to see records and realized there were no clear guidelines in place for making records accessible.

In its early days the archives focused on serving external researchers and access was tightly controlled to minimize risk. Now about 60 per cent of their research and reference work is done for internal staff. The archives serve as a history reference department for the Ford Foundation. "We are the corporate memory, but in the sense of RAM rather than a hard drive", says Divack. In Divack's experience he has found that foundations are very present-focused. Reflection on past programming is not often done. Since program officers stay with the Ford Foundation an average of three to seven years they know little of programming that took place in the past. The officers act almost as management consultants, focused on their clients and their fields. In contrast, grantee organizations often have long-established institutional memories. The archives have been able to supply the program officers with information on past activities so they are better prepared to work with grantee organizations. In working with internal staff the archivists find themselves assuming roles that are more familiar to librarians than to many archivists. This includes selection and analysis of information. Staff do not come to the archives wanting to do research; they want answers. Policies have been established for allowing restricted access to external researchers. A ten-year blackout period on the use of records applies but can be waived under special circumstances and all records are reviewed before access is granted.

Divack sees two major challenges for archives in the future: the challenge of staying relevant and the challenge of electronic records. Many do not perceive the need for information services organizations when so much information is available electronically. User expectations have been greatly increased by the onset of the digital era. Users expect 24/7 service and want information delivered to them at their convenience. Divack thinks that archivists can learn from librarians' service-oriented perspective. There is a balancing of concerns with which archivists must grapple. "We are not only here for the sake of researchers in the present; we are here for the sake of organizational legitimacy and memory in the long term". The challenge of electronic records is twofold. There is the question of whether to digitize records that exist in analog form and also how to preserve records that were born digital. Traditional means of preservation will not work given the non-linear structure of electronic records. Divack sees migration to new systems over time and emulation, the including of code within digital objects to enable it to run on future systems as possible solutions.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's formal archives program began less than a year ago in January 2000 under the leadership of the third presenter, Andrew Harrison. The Foundation's grant giving is based on three tenets: making sure all Americans have access to basic healthcare at a reasonable cost; improving care and support for people with chronic conditions; and reducing the personal, social, and economic harm caused by substance abuse. The Foundation is organized into two separate programming units each with five to six program-management teams. At first departments simply sent materials to an "archive room" and there was no systematic collection policy or full-time staff to organize the materials. Several collections stuck out among the materials deposited there. One collection contains the materials from an oral history project containing interviews with the board of directors, executive staff, and national program officers. Another is the collection of Robert Wood Johnson's personal papers and artifacts.

In attempting to bring order to the archives, Harrison first familiarized himself with the history of the Foundation and the flow of records within the institution. By conducting interviews with departments he found that few had record retention systems. Only unofficial guidelines and procedures were being followed. Harrison also realized he needed to learn about the kinds of records the Foundation generates and how and where they are used. All of this research informed the Foundation-wide records-management policy that has been created. Now the challenge is to implement it. Establishing a records-management policy is not just writing guidelines but instituting changes in work routines and handling records. Harrison identified several obstacles in this process. Some staff do not see the historical value of keeping certain records. Others have a fear of losing ownership and control of records. "Gaining the staff's trust and confidence represents a crucial goal" for Harrison. Other challenges with which Robert Wood Johnson's Foundation archives have just started to deal are allowing access to external researchers, space considerations, and the preservation of electronic records.

Several commonalties can be seen in the three presentations. Archives often act as working files used to support the current activities of the foundations while maintaining their function as sites for institutional memory. The structure of an archive and its collecting and access policies needs to be sensitive to the culture of the institution in which it resides. The challenge of dealing with electronic records is an ongoing process with no simple answers. This session demonstrated that archivists and librarians are facing similar challenges and examining many of the same fundamental questions about the structure, accessibility and preservation of information.

Michele L. Saunders is an Information Resources Specialist at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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