Ethics in Archives: Conscientious Collection Curation

A sea of tubes containing architectural drawings awaits pickup by Special Collections staff.

A sea of tubes containing architectural drawings awaits pickup by Special Collections staff.

Blog post contributed by Taylor de Klerk and Jessica Serrao, Library Associates

Archival collecting requires a lot of tough decisions. It may not seem that way on the surface, but there are ethical considerations involved in collection development. What is collection development, you ask? It’s a fancy phrase for the crucial task of curating and growing the archives. We respectfully curate collections by connecting with donors and university departments that hold materials of historical or scholarly value. Ethics are woven into each person’s actions and expectations: curators define and assess value, and seek out materials; manuscript donors choose which materials to contribute; and university personnel is obligated to transfer certain records to the archive.

Gwynn Thayer, Acting Department Head of Special CollectionsSpecial Collections Research Center’s curators seek materials that fit within our collecting scope and will be most useful for researchers at NC State. Gwynn Thayer, Acting Department Head of Special Collections, says her job as a curator “is to evaluate materials for research and scholarly value…to consider what’s valuable now, and what may be valuable 50 years from now or 100 years from now.” SCRC’s curators are obliged to keep an eye toward the future while also ensuring that the collections they pursue fit. Such decisions form the basis of each curator’s ethical considerations.

Donors control what they wish to donate, and personal attachment to their materials may influence their decisions. The materials they choose form their archival legacy, and it can sometimes be difficult for donors to let go of professional work that spans decades. Donors and curators must navigate the donation process together, ensuring that donors are comfortable with the materials they give and that they fit into the archive’s collecting scope. SCRC’s manuscript collections are built on donor generosity, and it is ethically imperative for us to consider their perspectives with empathy.

Todd Kosmerick, University ArchivistSCRC holds two types of archival collections: Manuscript Collections and University Archives. These collections can be very diverse and may contain correspondence, notebooks, photographs, scrapbooks, project files, and published materials. Generally, different curators are responsible for University Archives and Manuscript Collections, though this is not a hard and fast rule. Gwynn Thayer curates most of the Manuscript Collections. Todd Kosmerick handles University Archives and some MC and MSS collections relating to university history. You can tell which category a collection falls into by the beginning of the call number:

  • UA for university archives--generally, materials from departments and offices across campus documenting university activities, and history collections that preserve the university’s past.
  • MC for manuscript collections--generally unpublished written records, including architects’ records, professors’ papers, and records from businesses and organizations. MSS is also used for very small manuscript collections, which are usually comprised of a folder or two.

Curating the Collections

SCRC’s 14 collecting areas guide appraisal decisions. Thayer says these “are important to NC State because they’re areas of strength for [the university].” This ensures Special Collections upholds its mission as well as the mission of the libraries and the university. Sometimes, we find that donors offer papers that may not fit into one of the collecting areas. In those cases, professional ethics guide our response to ensure that historically valuable materials are not discarded. We first explain how the materials don’t fit into our collecting areas. Then, “If [NCSU] is not a good fit,” Thayer says, “I try to steer them in the right direction” by suggesting more suitable institutions or archives where the papers align topically.

Similar to manuscript donations, not all records from university departments fit into the collecting policy. The university is bound by North Carolina public records laws regarding the disposition of university records because it is a public institution. In accordance with those laws, the University Records Officers in NC State’s Office of General Counsel led the development of a Kosmerick reviewing the contents of a potential donationCampus-Specific Records Retention and Disposition Schedule, official as of August 2017. As University Archivist responsible for curating departmental records, Kosmerick provided input throughout the schedule’s development and is currently promoting its use across campus. This policy guides departments in the long-term management of their files, including personnel, financial, student life, and administrative records. Kosmerick says, they tried “to make the schedule more flexible” so it also incorporates historical materials about the university. “A lot of it is judgment calls,” Kosmerick states about his work, and years of experience have improved his ability to make curatorial decisions.

Acquiring the Collections

When the time comes to acquire materials, Kosmerick says most departments on campus approach him with their materials. They do so by following either the schedule’s instructions or the instructions on SCRC’s website. Then, he and the departments work together to determine which files should be transferred to the archive--permanent records with significant historical or business value. Stack of architectural drawings picked up at a donor's homeLegally, departmental materials must be kept for certain time periods to document the university’s activities. Ethically, these documents also hold the university accountable for its past actions.

When acquiring manuscript materials, Thayer meets donors in their offices, homes, storage areas, or on campus at NC State. Everyone donates differently, and she is sensitive about respecting “their space and whatever they’re willing to do.” On-site collection pickups may involve someone from NCSU Libraries’ Building Services, a borrowed university truck, and other staff members, and time is limited. She prioritizes her curatorial decisions to ensure everyone’s time is spent efficiently. While Thayer is in a donor’s space to collect their materials, she makes important and realistic curatorial decisions that may have ethical ramifications. To aid these decisions, she poses and answers a variety of questions based on the context of the donation. What materials fit best into the collecting areas and best represent the collection as a whole? Are there certain things deemed out of scope that the donor finds valuable? Is the donor able and willing to part with all materials at once?

Thayer first considers these questions during the collection pick-up where she may make large-scale decisions. In the interest of time, she saves additional decisions for later. For example, when acquiring an architectural collection that she knows will have a high research value, she may make large-scale decisions about format types on site: “I want original drawings--easy! I want specifications--easy! Then I see a pile of books of little interest. We’re not going to pack those up.” Once the materials arrive on campus, Thayer collaborates with processing archivists to make additional decisions. The donor’s stipulations recorded at the time of donation guide that process. For example, if materials are found that could compromise privacy, we either return the materials or discard them depending on the donor’s preferences indicated on the Deed of Gift. For more information about how we handle the ethics of privacy, visit our previous blog post here.Loading architectural drawings into university van during a collection pickup.

For donors and university personnel, the donation or transfer process can feel like traversing unchartered waters, resulting in varying expectations. SCRC’s curators work hard to make the process as straightforward and transparent as possible. Kosmerick helps campus departments navigate and interpret the schedule, and he informs them about records that must be transferred to the University Archives. He recommends that "campus units should always consult the schedule to determine whether records should be transferred to the University Archives or destroyed. We encourage them to contact the University Archives if they have questions about the schedule, if they can't find their records in the schedule, or if they would like confirmation that they are following the schedule correctly." Then, once he reviews the records and determines they are appropriate for transfer, the departments can box them up and send them to be archived.

Thayer’s golden rule is to never make promises that she cannot keep and to have open and honest conversations with donors. This is especially important when her choices may “involve other people’s decision-making, other people’s time, other decisions that [she’s] not involved with, [so she is] diligent about not making promises to people that [she] may not be able to keep.” Thayer believes, “acting with integrity” is an enormously important part of the job. Kosmerick and Thayer have an ethical obligation to foster open communication with donors and departments about their expectations throughout the curation process.It takes a team of staff to load and unload Special Collections donations for delivery to the Libraries Satellite Shelving Facility, as is seen here.

At the end of the day, SCRC’s curators have a lot of ethical considerations to keep in mind as they build our collections. They respectfully foster relationships with donors who willingly provide materials for posterity or transfer records as a means of ensuring accountability and future access. Ethics play a large role in all elements of an archivist’s job, and especially in curation and acquisition as curators must ensure the archival record reflects the diverse communities it serves. Our next post in this series will focus on ethics and diversity and how SCRC preserves collections of diverse peoples and campus organizations, so keep an eye out!

This post is the fifth in our series about ethics in archives introduced here. In this series, we discuss a variety of ethical issues that archivists face and simultaneously provide background on what we do every day. Check out our previous posts on description, privacy, and preservation. And stay tuned--more posts are coming soon!

Interviews with Gwynn Thayer and Todd Kosmerick conducted by the authors at Library Satellite Shelving, North Carolina State University, 2017 November 8.