Best Practices for Local Archives and Repositories

The Missouri Historical Records Advisory Board (MHRAB) is the central advisory board for historical records planning within the state of Missouri. The MHRAB provides state-level appraisal of grant proposals submitted to the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) by Missouri repositories. In addition, the MHRAB maintains an online directory of Missouri’s historical records repositories and Docline, a listserv through which Missouri’s records keepers can share best practices, grant and training opportunities, and other cooperative strategies.

In 2008, as part of an in depth assessment of the condition of Missouri’s historic records, public meetings were held to gauge the status of historic records repositories around the state. A common theme was the desire to have access to basic information to assist in properly administering historic records repositories. This became an action item in the resulting 2009 strategic plan, Securing Our Documentary Heritage: A Plan for the Preservation of Missouri’s Historical Records.

The MHRAB set out to collect sample policies, procedures and forms from institutions of varying sizes to serve as examples to assist local groups in better managing and preserving their collections. Thanks to the following institutions for sharing their administrative documents: the State Historical Society of Missouri, the Missouri State Archives, Missouri State University Special Collections and Archives, A. T. Still University Museum of Osteopathic Medicine, Johnson County Historical Society, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Perry County Lutheran Historical Society and Lutheran Heritage Center, Ray County Historical Society, St. Joseph Museum, and Vernon County Historical Society.

What are best practices?

“Best practices” are accepted methods of operating that provide results that are considered good, or better. Large institutions can easily meet these benchmarks, while smaller institutions can find them difficult to achieve. As we all share a common goal of wanting to preserve historic records, these should be seen as minimum standards for care.


A sound building is a necessity. Walls should be sturdy; roofs should not leak. Records and exhibits are heavy, the floors need to be up to the task of supporting them, 300 pounds per square foot is a minimal requirement. The plumbing needs to be in good shape, no leaks. No water-bearing pipes running over records.

Temperature and humidity need to be controlled, year round. For most small institutions with mixed-use space (meaning record storage and people) a temperature of about 70 degrees and humidity below 50% is sufficient.

Security must be maintained. Make sure doors and window locks are solid. Everyone should not have a key to the facility—control access. Provide secure space for coats, bags and other items that could conceal records. Keep researchers in sight.

Disasters happen, maintain fire extinguishers and smoke detectors. If at all feasible, automated fire and burglar alarm systems should be in place. You should develop a disaster plan—how you will respond to a disaster, who you call, etc

Administration and staffing

Someone has to be in charge. Whether the organization is run by volunteers, or a board, someone needs to be authorized to operate the facility and make day-to-day decisions. Institutional policy and planning decisions should be made by a board.

Staff needs to be trained, to whatever extent possible, in handling records, providing reference assistance, and operation of the facility (adjusting/monitoring temperature, opening/closing the facility, using computers, turning on the lights, etc.)

A list of the facility’s holdings, an inventory, should be kept and updated as necessary. This indicates what the facility owns and allows researchers to find what they need.


    During the public Strategic Planning meetings, as discussions turned to this website, an audience member commented that their local historical society was overwhelmed with donated materials because people outside of the organization looked at them as “Grandma’s attic.” How do you keep control of materials your organization acquires, or, in professional–speak, accessions? How do you keep a collection from becoming “Grandma’s attic?” How can you get rid of, or deaccession, materials that either do not fit with your organization, or have no value?

    To give you and your successors the ability to turn away donations, or get rid of items that do not fit your collection, there are polices that every institution should adopt. These are: Mission Statements and Collection Policies. Now, it is entirely up to you, how to craft these policies. Some institutions draft them separately, some as a single larger policy. Examples below are taken from a variety of institutions; there really is no wrong way to proceed.

    To begin, you must define what your institution collects and preserves. Are you going to collect items related to your region, county, or town? What types of items will you collect—records, objects, both? Developing and adhering to a collection policy will also reduce competition for collections between cultural institutions and increase cooperation among them.

    • Mission Statement
      This is a general statement of the purpose of your organization. For instance, “The X County Historical Society exists to collect, preserve and present the history of X County.” This is a short statement, in most cases less than 3-4 sentences, establishing your organization’s reason to exist. Some institutions include this statement as part of their general collection policy, rather than having it as a separate document.
      Other rules typically deal with operations—only staff will retrieve records from storage, only staff will make photo copies, etc.
    • Collection Policy
      This is probably the most important policy your institution can adopt. Collection policies establish the procedures used to select materials for your repository. The level of detail is really up to your organization.

      You want the policy to be broad enough that you can collect the materials that fulfill your mission, but not so broad that you become a dumping ground for everyone’s “old stuff.” You may wish to state exactly what types of materials you will accept: papers, photographs, textiles, etc. There may be a specific time period, or subject to which you wish to limit your collection. This is also a good time to say what you will not accept: types of donations, duplicates of items already in the collection, etc.

      The policy should also lay out the procedure for tracking from where items came, also called your accessions. You should keep a record of the donor, the item(s), a description of item(s), the date of acquisition, and any limits on use. This record is your proof that you have physical and legal custody of the item(s).

      Related to accessions are deaccessions, or permanently removing items from your collection. It may be that your institution became “Grandma’s attic” or you find over time that items that you have acquired actually do not fit with your mission. You should adopt a procedure allowing you to dispose of items. Some institutions include this in their Collection Policy, some maintain it as a separate policy, the decision is yours.

      Information that should appear in your Collection Policy
      • Donation
        Donations offered to repositories should be evaluated based on the collection development policy. If the donated materials do not fall within the boundaries of the institution’s policy, then the institution should not accept the donation. In this case, repositories should provide donors with alternative repositories.

        Repositories should not accept items that cannot be adequately housed or cared for, items that are duplicates of current holdings, or items of questionable authenticity or ownership.
      • Accessioning
        All institutions should have a system in place for accessioning, or documenting the acquisition of, new material. This system should track donor information and an accession number assigned to identify material. Again, this is as complicated or simple as you choose to make it.
      • Deaccessioning
        Institutions should periodically review their current collection. If the decision is made to deaccession materials, or remove them from the institution's holdings, they should first be offered to the donor or the donor’s family if known. If the donor cannot be located items should be offered to appropriate repositories. If your institution allows it, items without research value can be sold, with proceeds to benefit the collection development of the repository, or destroyed if they have no monetary value.

    Sample Collection Development Policies
    The following sample policies come from institutions of varying sizes. They are provided as examples of given policies; you are not required to adopt any of them.

    Deed of Gift

    The deed of gift is a fundamental document for any repository. This agreement, between a donor and the institution, transfers legal ownership of the record/object. The deed of gift should be kept on file permanently as proof of ownership. The document should include: contact information for the donor; a description of the items being transferred; if the materials are copyrighted, the deed should indicate if the copyright is being transferred; what restrictions, if any, will be placed on the use/display of the items; the deed should have provisions for how to deal with unwanted materials; it may contain special provisions for the donor; and it may include details of future acquisitions from the donor. In addition to being proof of ownership, the deed of gift is the record of how a collection came into the repository, showing its provenance—literally its origin.

    The deed of gift policy for cultural institutions should include:

    • Donor information
      Who is donating the items? From time to time donors may need to be contacted regarding their collection. Donor contact information or their legal custodians should be maintained by repositories.
    • Physical description
      What is being donated? A preliminary inventory provides a brief description of boxes/items in the collection.
    • Rights conveyed to the repository
      In addition to the transfer of the physical item, the repository should also provide for transfer of copyright or make provisions for future transfer of copyright. If transfer of copyright is not established then collecting donor contact information is essential. The policy should also outline if the repository can transfer materials into other formats such as microfilm or electronic format.
    • Access restrictions
      Donations without access restrictions are ideal, but sometimes not possible due to legal issues such as copyright or the sensitivity of the records, for example, political collections. The deed of gift should outline all access restrictions and should include a date when all restrictions are lifted. Small repositories should give serious consideration as to whether or not to accept donations with access restrictions. If you do not have much space, do you want to store items that no one can use?
    • Unwanted materials and deaccession policy
      Most donations are unorganized and contain materials that repositories will not want in the collection. The deed of gift should outline if the repository is free to dispose of materials or if unwanted materials should be returned to the donor.
    • Special provisions to the donor
      There may be occasions when a donor requests special provisions. The deed of gift should clearly identify any special provisions such as no or reduced copy fees charged to the donor.
    • Provisions for future accessions
      Donations of some record series are ongoing. The deed of gift should provide for future donations into the existing collection without multiple deeds of gift documents.

    Sample Deeds of Gift
    These samples are provided as examples of how deeds of gift may be structured. It is up to your local institution to decide what information needs to be included.


    Cultural heritage institutions and repositories preserve and provide researchers access to collections and services. By providing reference assistance an institution fulfills its mission. Researchers may visit in-person, through a website, or send research requests via mail or e-mail. Depending on the size and complexity of an institution, there are numerous practices that may be adopted.

    • Reference Room Rules
      There are a number of rules that are common to most reference operations; these are to protect the collection from damage and theft Other rules typically deal with operations—only staff will retrieve records from storage, only staff will make photo copies, etc.

      These rules should be reviewed and researchers acknowledge that they understand them before they are allowed to use the collections.
      • No bags, briefcases, backpacks, or coats in the reference area
      • No pens allowed while using materials; and
      • No food, no drink, no smoking
    • Researcher Registration/Using the Collections
      It is common to ask researchers to register or sign-in when entering the building, or research area. This allows the institution to calculate how many researchers it serves during a given period. Registering researchers also provides a level of security, allowing institutions to know who is using collections. A couple of examples are:
      • Visitor Registers Typically, these will record the date, time in/time out of repository, name, address, and a general subject being researched
      • Registration Forms Capture much the same information as the Registers. In addition, they may contain specific information on what collection and what parts of the collection were examined
    • Research Services
      Many institutions provide some research services, either for free or a fee. Policies should be adopted that outline the level(s) of service you will provide. Often a form is generated with the patron’s information and request, institutions must decide how many requests from an individual you are willing to entertain at a time. Often there is a limit of one request per patron until the first one is completed. This is a matter of fairness. One motivated researcher can easily monopolize the time of an entire staff.
    • Copying Collections
      Repositories should also have in place a clear reproduction policy. This policy should first identify if the researcher can copy the materials or if staff must make the copies. Many items require special handling and staff must make copies for the researcher. Reproduction policies should also outline any copyright restrictions or other restrictions related to how the researcher may use the information.

    Sample Forms and Policies

    Loan Agreements

    Loaning historical materials is not an everyday occurrence for most institutions. Generally, requests for loans are either for exhibits, private research, or administrative purposes:

    • Exhibits are usually designed to convey information rather than showcase the physical objects. In many cases, requests for loans can be satisfied by creating a reproduction of the requested item.
    • Loans to individuals for research are not common. However, institutions can form a consortium allowing the loan of materials from one research institution to another, thereby providing researchers access to materials at the nearest consortium repository. Many repositories also allow for the loan of microfilm, photocopies, or facsimiles, as opposed to original records.
    • Individual or corporate donors may request the loan of records they donated. The procedures for loaning records to donors should be clearly identified in the original deed of gift.
    • Loan Agreements
      Before a loan is made, the repository should require a loan agreement be signed by both parties. This document outlines the specific details of the loan so that there will be no misunderstanding or confusion later. A loan agreement should include the following:
      • Lender’s Name and Contact Information—This will enable the recipient to easily contact the lender if a question arises about the loan or the item.
      • Recipient’s Name and Contact Information—This will enable the lender to easily contact the recipient if a question arises about the loan or the item.
      • Purpose of Loan—The agreement should describe why the item is being loaned and how it will be used. For example, is the item to be used in an exhibit that will be open to the public? Is the item to be displayed at a private fundraising reception? Is the item to be used by the recipient’s staff for research purposes? Is the item being provided to a vendor or other institution to be scanned?
      • Period of Loan—The agreement should designate how long the loan will last.
      • Description of Item—The agreement should carefully describe the item so that it can be readily identified. “Civil War letter” could describe a large number of documents. “Letter from Col. John Doe related to troop movements, dated Sept. 3, 1862, accession number 12345” makes it clear to what document the loan agreement refers.
      • Condition of Item—The agreement should describe the condition of the item when it was loaned, noting any blemishes for which the recipient should not be held accountable and providing the lender with a means to demonstrate the condition of the item when it left their care in case it is returned damaged.
      • Disclaimer or Other Conditions—Some repositories include information on how the item must be stored, that it cannot be altered, whether or not it is insured, whether or not the recipient is liable for damage, who is responsible for transportation or other costs related to the loan, how the item should be credited in public displays, and similar issues of concern. Some of these issues may be ones with which a repository will be concerned on every loan, and some may be specific to a particular loan agreement. Generally, repositories develop a list of standard conditions to be included in every loan agreement, either directly in the text or by attachment.
      • Signature, Title, and Date—Representatives of the lender and recipient, who are authorized to enter into a legally binding document (e.g. the historical society president or director of a museum), should sign and date the loan agreement.
      • Acknowledgement of Return—The loan agreement should include an area to be completed upon the item’s return in which a representative of the lender acknowledges that the item was received and notes the condition upon return.
    • Security
      Regardless of the type of loan, certain security procedures should be in place to protect the materials. Evidence of security procedures needs to be present before a loan agreement is signed.
      • A repository’s loan policy should require the individual or agency requesting the loan to provide a written request detailing the materials requested, duration of the loan, transportation requirements, environmental conditions where the materials will be stored or displayed, and security measures in place at the institution. In order to protect records, this information should be established before a director or other official considers pursuing a loan agreement or approaching a board for approval to loan an item. The information in the written request can then be used to help complete the loan agreement if a decision is made to loan an item.
      • The repository should create a detailed inventory of each item on loan and its condition before it is loaned out and after its return. This serves as a reference of all items currently on loan and a record of all the loans to which the repository has agreed over time.

    Sample Forms
    These sample loan agreements are meant to serve as examples, of format and content, for your institution.


    Volunteers can fill many roles, including providing tours, answering research requests, indexing and transcribing records, or processing collections. Most institutions would struggle to function without volunteers, and many small institutions could not function at all. The overall detail of the volunteer information will depend on the nature of your institution.

    • Volunteer Information
      Repositories should collect contact and background information as they would for any employee. Contact information can be used to communicate upcoming events and office closings, and emergency contact information is essential in case of an accident, illness, or other unfortunate event.
    • Volunteers should be asked to sign a liability disclaimer form. This is for the protection of the repository in the event of an accident.
    • Recognizing Volunteers
      Volunteers are donating their valuable time and knowledge to the cultural heritage institution. The amount of time donated should be acknowledged in some way such as an annual appreciation banquet or special certificate. Accurate tracking of volunteer hours can be accomplished by maintaining a volunteer timesheet. Accurate tracking of volunteer hours is important in applying for grants. They also are valuable as an example of community involvement and interest in the institution.

    Sample Forms