Fleckner, John A. Archives & Manuscripts: Surveys. Society of American Archivists, 1977.
Are you an archivist that blithely accepts anything that walks in your doors, or do you actively seek out particular documents to document your history? A tool to guide collecting is a records survey. Fleckner provides not only the why, but the how one does an effective records survey.
What is a Records Survey? They can be used to create research tools, assist in building a collection, to promote preservation or meet other goals. Their use dates back to Hammurapi, King of Babylon, who ordered a survey of records in a newly acquired region. The United States government conducted a survey of historical records in the 1930s, which provided descriptions of important records and provided direction in the development of archives and records programs in America.
Most current record surveys are limited in scope and time, but can be very valuable. There are three main types of surveys: Records management surveys, Repository surveys, and non-repository surveys. Records management surveys look at the records over which the administrator has control; it is often seen as the first step in managing a collection. Repository surveys are often done with federal funding. They gather information on materials in a region or in a particular area of specialty. Less usual is the non-repository survey that looks at records outside the control of the surveyor. One example is the History of Atlanta Project that surveyed 2,364 organizations about historical records they possessed.
Why is a survey conducted? 1. To aid administrative efficiency Rather than wait to survey records after they have been transferred to an administrative unit, the records are surveyed in the creator’s institution. This aids in improving control and/or establishing or improving the records management program. 2. To aid researchers As the primary job of an archivist is to provide access to archival records, a survey extends that to those still in other’s custody. This aids researchers in finding records that they might never become aware of without the survey. They provide resources well beyond NUCMC and NHPRC—including private corporations, governments, and special institutions. Designed properly they can provide detail and analysis well beyond those provided by NUCMC and NHPRC. 3. To promote preservation of archival materials Often the act of finding and describing records and their physical conditions will result in better care by the owner. It also affords an opportunity for the archivist to suggest steps to preserve valuable records, by transfer, microfilming original or destroying unneeded records to provide room for valuable one. 4. To foster a collecting program Surveying records outside the institution affords the opportunity to promote a collecting program. The archivist can identify the valuable records and the personal contact can move along the needed transfer. The person conducting the survey must be able to represent the institution’s program with restraint and concern about the documents. 5. To improve planning for archival programs Knowing what records are out there helps plan for the future: grants, space, preservation programs, description programs and improved appraisal standards. It can also foster cooperation amongst institutions—the planning, procedures and findings strengthen the connection. Knowledge about un-transferred records is always better than speculation. 6. To educate and train. Surveys can be a source of on the job training for college students, and/or interns. These opportunities may be arranged as part of their education in history, archival classes or related fields. The time required to do the survey is short enough to fit into the schedule of classes and credit requirements. A number of students may work on the project at the same time under the direction of the archivist and professor. The survey also introduces the student to original resources, and the problems of creating and maintaining records. It also allows the student to see the archival profession from inside out, showing the wide variety of approaches, from carelessness to excessive protectiveness. It is an excellent opportunity to learn by doing for the student.
Planning a Records Survey. Planning ranges from conception through conclusion and includes setting goals, how records are selected and determining who will conduct the survey.
The design and goals of the survey will determine who oversees it. Large surveys are usually done by cooperatives, but single institutions can sponsor a survey also. Advisory boards can affirm the projects legitimacy. Board members can contribute technical expertise, scholarly perspective, contacts or wisdom. One person normally has primary responsibility for hiring, training, supervising, developing procedures and working towards the end of the project. The design will determine whether skilled or unskilled workers will conduct the survey.
The surveys may be conducted in two ways: indirect through questionnaires or direct by having field workers examine materials in person. There have been mixed results using questionnaires, some of which are due to the respondents, others due to the design of the forms. Often examination by field workers reaps additional benefits due to establishment of first hand contacts with the institutions holding the records.
A sense of what materials are targeted should guide the survey. Often a records management survey is intended as a step in establishing disposition schedules. These should cover all records, active and inactive, valuable and ephemeral, in storage and in use as well as in any type of media. Care should be taken that the survey completed is thorough, so as not to produce a flawed appraisal or schedule for transfer. Mistakes will result in possible loss of valuable materials, or retention of useless ones.
Other types of record surveys need to be balanced between the needs of complete information and the work of the surveyor who will be overwhelmed with collecting every detail. Some surveys will ask for general information such as dates, quantities, storage conditions, disposition plans and access policies. Most gather information about individual records series and manuscript collections. What to survey should be part of the design of the survey as well as deciding whether to include scrapbooks, photo and non-textual material. Consideration should be made as far as the size of collection that will be included in the survey as well as the amount of information about the collections to include.
Methods of using the compiled results should be defined when the survey is designed. Some surveys gather the information and make it available to researchers, others spend time analyzing the results. Often the analysis is done using computers, which may expand the cost of the survey. In the end, the survey is only useful when made available when made available to as many users as possible.