Impressions on Collection Development Policies and Practice

by Mat Darby

In 2017, the Best Practices Subcommittee of the Acquisitions and Appraisal Section conducted a survey of archivists on the topic of collection development and acquisition policies. During this process, we also received examples of these policies from archivists at a variety of institution types who were willing to share them. As we continue to consider and evaluate these policies and survey results, we felt it would be helpful to provide some of our initial impressions about what we found.

First, the need to establish and maintain collection development policies seems not to be viewed universally as an essential part of archival practice. Many archivists believe because they already know what they and, by extension, their institutions collect, that this institutional knowledge should be sufficient. Further, some archivists believe the creation of a concrete policy could place overly rigid boundaries on the scope of their collecting.

For institutions with collecting policies already in place, it is not always clear for whom the policy is written. Is the document detailed enough to be used by archivists to guide collection development? Is the policy clear and free enough of jargon to assist potential donors? Further, does the policy help to explain and justify collecting for administrators, resource allocators, and board members?

In some institutions, the collecting policy is an internal document and perhaps one that is not widely known about or shared among staff. Publicly sharing even an abridged version of a collection policy, one that may not be as dense or granular as an internal version, can provide useful information to prospective donors. All staff, even those without direct acquisition responsibilities, should be aware of the scope of collecting activities.

We also recognized a sense of powerlessness or lack of control on the part of some of the archivists responding. Beyond just the policies themselves, a need exists within the profession for guidelines that archivists can use to bolster their own arguments to directors and administrators as to why a policy is needed, why it should be periodically reviewed and updated, and why it should be available to the public.

Overall, these issues contribute to a lack of transparency on the part of many collecting entities. Clearer, more readily available policies could improve donor relations; promote collaboration, and cooperation among institutions with similar collecting strengths; and produce more informed and engaged staff.

Despite some of the issues that appeared in the survey results, the more robust policies we examined addressed all or some of these concerns in the following ways:

  • Clearly states the mission, guiding principles, and philosophy of the institution – why you collect what you collect
  • Transparency: policies share the criteria and processes that go into making acquisition decisions, including deaccessioning
  • Identifies the person/committee/etc. within an organization that makes acquisitions decisions
  • Indicates the point person(s) within the organization for potential donors to contact
  • Acknowledges legacy collecting while focusing on current collecting goals and priorities
  • Identifies strengths but emphasizes gaps where work is needed
  • States directly what the repository does not collect
  • Outlines the considerations and criteria at play when making acquisition decisions: content, accessibility, quality of documentation, physical condition, cost-benefit analysis, etc.
  • Includes a statement regarding collaboration and/or non-competitive relationship with other repositories
  • Shows commitment to assisting donors in finding the right home for their materials, even if that is another repository

As the work of the Best Practices Subcommittee progresses, we will provide further analysis of our survey results with a goal of assisting archivists in improving collection development policies and practice.

The 2017 survey results are compiled in a report located here. Please join us in a twitter chat on April 19, 2018 to further the discussion about these issues and concepts with fellow A&A section members.

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