A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Historical Collections: Is adding One Right for Your Public Library?

by Kathy Marquis & Leslie C. Waggener on April 26, 2013

Susan enters the library quickly through the employee door and hurries to the archives section. An author researching one of the library’s historical collections has an early appointment. The researcher viewed the collection’s online inventory and has pinpointed several boxes she would like to review. Susan heads first to the donor correspondence files. She recalls this collection has a restriction but needs to verify the type. She pulls the deed of gift. Good, no privacy restrictions on the boxes the researcher has requested. However, she notes that the donor has retained copyright until his death. Susan makes a note for the researcher’s file that any publication of collection material for which the donor owns copyright will need donor permission. She checks—does she have current donor contact information? She knows she will need to contact the donor as a go-between should the researcher request publication permission.

Next stop is her computer to generate a request slip for the required boxes. With the slip in hand, she uses her key to enter the archival storage area. As is her habit, she first peers at the hygrometer to check temperature and humidity—looks good. The temperature is at 65°F and relative humidity at 30 percent with no fluctuations in either. Susan passes enamel-painted shelves of archival boxes of all shapes and sizes: large, flat boxes holding maps, shoebox-size containers of cassette tapes, and slim, upright boxes of photographs and documents. She reaches the correct area and loads the requested boxes onto her cart, making sure to leave the request slip in their place. After leaving the storage area, she remembers that the boxes hold photographic materials. Better put some white cotton gloves near the researcher’s file to remind her to notify the patron that they must be worn when viewing the photographs.

The patron arrives a little early, eager to start her review of the boxes. Susan greets her warmly; everything is in place for the visit. Susan asks her to sign the visitor log. She then explains the researcher agreement form and outlines the reading room guidelines. Susan explains that, once signed, it is understood that the researcher comprehends and will follow the rules guiding research in the library’s historical collections. The researcher fills out the form, signs it, and returns it, along with her photo ID. After verifying the ID and returning it, Susan also signs the form and places it in the researcher’s file. Now it’s down to the business at hand. The patron finds a table and Susan issues the first box explaining that only one box may be viewed at a time. She asks the patron to wear the gloves when handling photographic material. The patron settles into her routine while Susan sits at the reading room desk to mind the materials under review.

Do I Want to Commit?

This scenario is fairly typical of reference procedures and the interaction between archives staff and patrons. More details of these procedures will be described later. As you read these guidelines, ask yourself, “Can I commit the resources required for this type of collection? Should I consider pursuing grant funding to establish an archival collection? What types of historical sources will my patrons be looking for?” Many public libraries already have small collections of historical materials, or are considering acquiring them. Historical collections in public libraries can be a valued local resource or a drain on a library’s staff and budget. They can provide a useful set of research materials for local researchers, or they can be a “special collection” which no one is sure how best to handle and so it remains unused. We will delineate two usable options: (1) the fully developed small archival collection and (2) the local history collection consisting of primarily printed (non-archival) materials. We also hope to offer a set of considerations—questions to ask yourself as you consider establishing or enlarging a historical collection. These questions, and additional readings, should help you decide whether or not to pursue these options for your public library.

Where to Begin?

Often, the impetus to begin such a collection is the donation, or offer of a donation, of a group of records. A local family has old letters or scrapbooks, or a local organization asks the library to be the home for its files. This can be the beginning of a whole new focus for your library, requiring an investment in a corresponding set of new formats, policies, and procedures unique to archival material.

The first step is to determine the need for your collection. Is this an unmet need in your community, or are you duplicating available resources? Faye Phillips wrote:

Defining and building the local history collection challenges even the most skilled curator. Determining what has been collected as well as what needs to be collected is an exciting aspect of the curator’s job. . . . Each local history collection needs a collection development policy. This policy is comparable to a road map that should show where the collection is, where it wants to go, and how best to get there. Specialized departments within the library will have their own collection policies that complement the library’s.1

The American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association has established guidelines for local history collections, which advise you to “establish and maintain a dialog between local institutions and agencies. Consider what is currently being collected, what services are needed, to what depth such collections are being developed, and what collaborative or cooperative agreements are needed.”2 Similarly, the Wisconsin Historical Society recommends that you find out what materials are already being collected by neighboring institutions: libraries, historical societies, genealogical societies,
and private collectors.3

In addition, also ask these questions:

  • what is your purpose in collecting archival materials?
  • Whom are you trying to serve with these materials? Homeschoolers? Genealogists? Community college students? Local historians? This could help dictate the types of materials you collect.
  • What other archival repositories, including local historical societies, operate in your area? What do they collect? Are they accessible to the public? To students?
  • Will your collection compete with these organizations, or will it provide access to materials that they don’t have?
  • Have you spoken with the administrators of these organizations to determine whether your collection might enhance or detract from theirs?
  • What are good sources for finding out about local and regional archival and manuscript collections?

In essence, for archivists there is a local and regional non-competition rule regarding collecting areas. This is very different from libraries with many branches, all providing copies of the latest bestsellers and classics. Because historical resources are usually unique or rare, it is not expected that they will be duplicated in many locations. On the contrary, archivists try to establish collecting strengths, and gather materials in those areas. Researchers contact archives specializing in particular topics, hoping that they can find the best sources on their topic all in one place. Still, collection development questions for archival or local history collections are similar to those you would ask yourself when developing any aspect of your library’s collection, such as:

  • What users will be served by adding these materials?
  • Do I need ESL materials to serve a growing immigrant community?
  • Should I invest in a graphic novel collection?
  • Do I need to overhaul my audiobook collection and consider new formats?

In each case, you are considering the implications of changing the focus of your collection, which patrons the new collecting policy will serve, and if patrons will expect your institution — not another in their community — to meet these needs. In addition, Faye Phillips cautions,

Exclusions should also be part of the policy. For example, a local history collection might seek everything about the area except local church records, because there is a religious archive in the next town. . . . Three local history collections might agree that only one will accept the papers of a certain novelist, even though the novelist lived in the three towns represented.4

Archives 101

What is meant by the term archival? What types of material are considered archival? As defined by the Society of American Archivists (SAA), archives are the

materials created or received by aperson, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control.5

Simply put, archives are materials a person, organization, company, or corporation accumulates over the course of a lifetime or career, or while conducting business. An individual can accumulate personal items such as diaries, correspondence, photographs, memoirs, and home movies, and career-based materials such as scripts, speeches, drafts of articles or novels, and research files. Businesses and organizations produce some of these types of materials but can also include information relating to marketing, communications, and legal and financial decisions. Traditionally, archival materials were seen as paper-based documents but archival repositories are now contending with audiovisual formats such as videotapes, cassette tapes, floppy disks, hard drives, CDs, and DVDs, as well as formats created digitally (called born digital) that do not necessarily exist in print form.

What to do about such materials? Consider the records created today that you will want to acquire for your archives. Familiar formats are being digitally transformed. Correspondence is e-mail. Diaries are now blogs. Typescripts are word-processing files. Reports are webpages. Archival collections may consist of traditional paper documents until a certain point in time, and then shift to a combination of analog and digital forms before shifting entirely to computer-generated forms, frequently with duplication between the two record types.

Archivists are still struggling with how best to preserve and provide access to digital materials long-term. Your best bet if confronted with materials in digital
form is to discuss it with a major archival repository in your area. Perhaps there is a collaborative project you can join. If the collection is beyond your library’s capacity to handle, you should think twice about acquiring the materials.

Differences and Similarities between Archives and Libraries

Archivists in public institutions have certain professional constructs; some you will find familiar and others are unique to archival practice. What are some of the basic differences between the way that archivists and librarians think about and organize their materials? Archival materials are mainly unique—personal papers are a good example of this. There is likely only one copy of your letters or diaries. Of course, these days many duplicates exist of some such items (for example, family photographs). Nonetheless, the copy in the archives may end up being the only one that survives. There are, however, many mass printed items, including books, also found in archival collections.Archivists have guidelines for when it makes sense to retain those with a collection, and when they can be separated.

Archivists believe that some records ought to be preserved long-term, even after their immediate usefulness has passed and the records should be preserved as completely and coherently as possible, in their original order, with critical information about context and connections kept intact. Keeping materials from one creator together as one group is referred to as provenance. This principle also dictates that while archivists create subject headings in their catalogs, they do not rearrange materials in topic configurations.

Archival collections were originally personal or corporate property, donated to the archives with a deed of gift. Any restrictions agreed to by the archives (as few as possible for the sake of the researcher) must be enforced by the archives staff. Governmental records are transferred by offices to their archival facilities, but come with their own legal restrictions (for example, each state has its own limits on how long birth records are closed to the public).

Archivists organize their materials in aggregate groups. The largest group is the collection (for personal papers) or record group (for organizational, business, and governmental records). Librarians create catalog records at the individual item level (the book). Archivists catalog at the collection level, or sometimes at the level of the sub-collection (the series). To list what is inside the collection, they create finding aids, with these subcomponents: biography or history, scope and content note (a section on the coverage and strengths of the collection), restriction notes, citation guidelines, and box and folder listings. A new and popular philosophy in archives, More Product, Less Process (MPLP), encourages archivists to process with less detail, in order to make more of their backlog of untouched collections available to the public. This means that in some cases the only record of a hundred-box collection could be a brief catalog record, plus a box and folder list for the researcher to use to select boxes to view.

Archivists have closed stacks. Patrons, called researchers, do their browsing online. This places greater emphasis on the finding aids—and on mediation by the archivist in the reference interview, or with additional discovery tools. Generally, archival staff retrieve all materials and they enforce any restrictions which the materials’ donors have required with the deed of gift. Many repositories also perform all photocopying for patrons (though digital cameras have made a big difference here).

What are some basic similarities between library and archival practice? Researchers find archival materials by using an online catalog, often integrated into one OPAC within a library system. MARC rules and LC added entries are used. It should be noted that many users also discover archival collections by using Internet search engines such as Google. Reference archivists practice readers’ advisory by recommending useful collections, and guiding researchers through the finding aid system with pathfinders and other discovery tools. There is an increasing emphasis on user satisfaction in the archives profession. Archivists are making full use of the Internet, exploring web 2.0 tools, creating online exhibits, and realizing that Google is the public’s most used discovery tool for finding their collections.Archivists do select; they do not assume that all records should be saved. Called appraisal, this process involves deciding which people, groups, or events should be documented, and which groups of records should be collected. It also helps archivists decide which portions of a group of records should be saved, and which should not.

De-accessioning of archives is gaining favor: archivists do collection analysis and determine that some collections should be discarded, returned to donors, or transferred to another repository where they will be better used. Why would you consider de-accessioning a collection of archival material? After all, it took some effort to acquire it. The root of the decision to deaccession is to improve the quality, scope, and appropriateness of your archival collection and to support the mission of your library, as well as your long-term goals. It is not a decision to make lightly and should not be performed at will. Your library must have sound reasons for seeking to deaccession materials and must be able to justify final appraisal decisions that lead to the removal of a collection from your archive. A couple of scenarios in which you would consider de-accession are:

  1. A collection was acquired years past by your library but does not fit in the collecting policy your library has determined. But another library does collect in that area. A consideration is to see if the other library would like to have the material and transfer it.
  2. The collection is deteriorated beyond repair and unusable; additionally, your library cannot afford the cost of a conservator.

These are not the only reasons you may consider de-accession. But when you do, make sure it’s a very considered decision. Also remember that librarians weed at the item level, archivists de-accession at the collection level.

A Good Fit?

Integrating the work of the archivist into your library can be a natural fit if the historical materials are acquired with your patrons’ needs in mind. But it’s no quick step to begin an archival program in your library. It takes careful consideration, sufficient planning, and clear goals. Such a program requires long-term and continuous commitment from your library to support, preserve, and make available a group of materials that will most likely be unique to your community. Additionally, there is an investment of personnel and financial resources, even if the goals are relatively modest. Working with archival materials is enjoyable and can supply patrons with valuable information not available elsewhere, but it can also be messy. As one archivist pointed out:

One of the first lessons is that nothing is ever as exact in archival practice as it is in theory. If it isn’t a lack of funds, staff, or time that prohibits the application of ideal archival theory, it is the discovery that “textbook” collections rarely exist, and many judgment calls and creative applications of archival theory are required.6

Part of the experience of starting a historical collection is recognizing the challenges of establishing the program and seeking advice from archivists, by attending workshops, and from widely available guidebooks and other published sources (listed in the additional resources sidebar at the end of this article).

What Do I Need to Invest?

Your historical collection will require a minimum investment of resources that includes storage space for boxes of archival materials; restricted access (that is, a locked area and retrieval of materials by staff); and dedicated staff time to acquire, organize, and describe the materials and to supervise and assist patrons. Space and shelving to house the materials is certainly the most basic of needs. This can be complicated by the fact that spaces and outdated furnishings of many twentieth-century libraries were not designed for the mixed and flexible uses of the twenty-first century. The size of the storage space is determined by the amount of archival material you plan to acquire over time. You may want to include space to organize the collections if there is not another secure area in your library. As much as possible, the storage area should have the means to maintain proper temperature and humidity. While an ideal temperature for people is about 70°F, the ideal temperature for paper is about 60–65°F. If these temperatures are not feasible, at least provide air conditioning. Fluctuating temperatures and humidity create an unhealthy environment for collection materials, so it is vital to keep those two important factors as stable as possible. The good news is that most public libraries have air conditioning, while many small historical societies do not!

Regular library shelving is great for books, but you will probably need wider shelving for archival storage boxes. Archival materials come in all shapes and sizes including audio recordings, broadsides, maps, newspapers (and clippings), organizational records, personal papers, photographs, scrapbooks, video recordings, ephemera, and more. Shelving will need to accommodate these varied sizes and types of materials. It’s important to remember too that setting up an archive, just like setting up an office, requires a purchase of basic supplies, including both archival and general office products. Best housing is acid-free, lignin-free, archival storage containers sold by a reputable archival supply house.

Online catalogs for archival supply houses are now very easy to access through the Internet. You can also consult with a nearby archive for a description of the archival housings and equipment that they use. However, don’t be worried about going the simple and cheaper route of using uniform sturdy boxes and replacing only damaged folders, particularly if your building is air conditioned. To inhibit theft of your one-of-a kind, irreplaceable materials, restricted access to the storage space for your historical collections is a necessity. At a minimum, you will need a locked room with a limited number of staff keys. You may want to think about a small area of high security within the closed stacks if you think your collection may include extremely rare materials. Library staff should be properly trained in maintaining security procedures. Security is also essential when it comes to patron use. Because of their unique nature, the historical materials should remain non-circulating. A room or a section of the library can be set up for patrons to research your collections, with a library staff member in attendance at all times.

To avoid mixing of the collections, it’s best for patrons to receive only a limited number of items at one time. A patron registration form also helps with security measures. This form usually requires the patron to give contact information and will provide the patron with a list of guidelines for use of the historical collections, such as leaving bags, purses, and coats in a designated place; keeping materials in order; no pens or markers; and so forth. The form can also include guidelines for photocopying and for citing the collection material. Patrons accept reasonable security measures if they are educated about the reasons. Creating a brochure explaining the purpose of your archival collection and its need for security is one way to handle questions.

Dedicated staff time will be needed for essential archival functions such as accepting new materials, organizing and describing each collection, creating access tools, assisting onsite patrons, and handling offsite research requests. It is important to have set procedures when accepting a new collection, such as an agreement between your library and the donor that establishes your library’s physical and intellectual ownership of the material. Organizing the collection involves finding the intellectual pattern in the materials and then making their physical organization reflect that pattern. Following organization and drawing from it, you will need to describe the collection. This involves summarizing information on the context of the collection, its physical characteristics, and its informational content. There are several useful guides for organizing and describing archival materials.7

Remember that your patrons won’t be able to browse in the stacks, so your descriptions (both the finding aids and the catalog-level entries) must effectively unite patrons and materials.

Reference work is another consideration, although this is an area that librarians already understand well. But it’s a bit different performing archival reference in that there is usually an orientation process involved so that patrons know how to find, handle, and interpret the materials they need. The reference interview assumes a mediating and educational aspect as you interpret research needs and make recommendations. This is very similar to readers’ advisory in the library. Plus, you will need to retrieve the materials for them, as well as supervise the use of those materials. Responding to patrons’ offsite requests is still another reference task, if you decide to perform this service. One possible option is to enlist local genealogical society volunteers to do this research for you, or even to assist patrons in your local history area.

Once again, there is no need to reinvent the wheel here. The additional resources sidebar (at the end of this article) is an excellent guide to locating necessary procedures. There are also many workshops available from regional and national archival associations. If you have a major archival repository in your region, a member of their staff might well be willing to spend a day consulting with you about your proposed archives collection. Each state has a State Historic Records Advisory Board, some of whom make small grants available for such purposes. The National Historic Publications and Records Commission,
and many state humanities councils, are other possible sources of funding for consultants.

A Simpler Approach: Establishing a Local History Section

So, you’ve read our advice on minimum requirements for acquiring and keeping archival materials, and you find yourself thinking: “I don’t want to commit that much of my staff/budget/space to a program at this level. Do I have to give away all my historical materials and give up the idea of providing my patrons with access to these sources?” Not at all. A scaled down local history section (LHS) that serves your patrons and the materials well is an alternative recommendation. Many, if not most, public libraries have some sort of local historical or genealogical section.

You know your patrons are interested in this history. You probably already have how-to books on family history, locally published books on your area, and volumes on your state or region. Consider establishing a solid ephemera or vertical file for local historical topics. This can include news clippings, local pamphlets, copies of photographs, maps, and other print or near-print items which would assist students and local historians in learning about your area. All you need now is to gather these items together into a defined area and your LHS is on its way.

As you establish your LHS, you will consider acquiring, or be offered, additional items. Here is where you need to reflect the non-archival nature of your program. Are the items unique? Fragile? Are they an awkward size for which you will have difficulty providing safe housing? Materials in this category might be original photographs, diaries, letters, scrapbooks, and artwork. This is when you should contact your local archives or historical society to see if they might be interested in a donation of these materials. Elizabeth Yakel advises:

Deciding not to establish an archival program can be more difficult than establishing and maintaining an inadequate archival program. Ceding the day-to-day management of the archives to a professionally run outside archival repository should not be viewed as giving away or losing one’s history. Rather, it can be viewed as the most effective way to preserve and promote that heritage.8

Typically your LHS will consist of books (including self-published books by local historians), papers and reports on local history, city directories, school yearbooks, clippings, brochures, pamphlets, and microfilm of newspapers and other local publications. These materials should be designated for “in-library use only.” They may not be unique archival materials, but they could be very difficult to replace, nonetheless. It cannot be assumed that you will be able to dedicate a separate room to your LHS. However, you should have a study area nearby in which patrons can read and copy the materials (including a microfilm reader/printer) and discuss their projects. This will discourage patrons from carting the materials all over the library to use them. Your LHS can easily become a community center where genealogists, History Day participants, someone writing a history of their church, and local reporters meet to share research and findings.

If you want an expanded special-subject file, consider approaching a local archival repository. Many personal and manuscript collections are weeded of such topical files during archival processing. Archivists tend to keep only what will document the creator of the collection, so related subjects files (for example, a collection of pamphlets on the right to bear arms) are not kept with the collection. Might they be a good addition to your vertical files, creating a research collection for local students? This could be an excellent collaboration between a local archival repository and public library. Don’t forget to market your LHS.

Work with local archives and historical societies to let them know what you have available for genealogists, casual local-history enthusiasts, and students, as well as established historians. If your library conducts programs for adults, be sure to include local history or genealogy as topics, or make yourself available to local interested groups to tell them about your collection and how they might find it useful.

Creating a Virtual Archive

Local history materials make for great web content. Local historians will appreciate items of community interest that you can scan and add to your website. If your historical collection of such images is relatively small, a coherent online organization (that is, virtual exhibits featuring town photos, local buildings, local celebrations, and more) will be adequate to the task. There is no need to develop a complex metadata or database system to catalog and describe them. Keep it simple! But don’t forget to ask permission before putting something on your website for which copyright is held by another person or organization. If your library owns copyright, there is no problem (see the additional resources sidebar for more information about copyright). If other local or regional archives or libraries have virtual collections which reflect your specific area, consider a page on your website for links to these collections. Think about creating a virtual “Our Town.” What about those patrons interested in their own family history? You may already have a genealogy link on your website. Make it a genealogy and local-history page, and your website will be doubly useful to your patrons.  If you’re feeling adventurous, consider creating a virtual scrapbook with these photos. Free utilities, such as Google’s Picasa, have fun scrapbook programs you can use to showcase your collections. Most archivists shudder when they think of physical scrapbooks because they contain damaging glue, deteriorating paper, and are awkward to handle and store. But a virtual scrapbook can be attractive and headache-free.

You Can Do It, With A Little Help from Your Friends

As you can see, there is not just one approach to starting a historical collection. Evaluating your resources in terms of staff, facility, and patron needs can help you decide which direction you should go. Remember that you are not alone. Advice abounds whether it be textual guides, web resources, or advice from your nearby archive. You can create a valuable local history collection that will not only serve your community but will also be a valued resource your patrons will thank you for many times over.


  1. Faye Phillips, Local History Collections in Libraries (Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1995), 10.
  2. Reference and User Services Association, “Guidelines for Establishing Local History Collections,” accessed Mar. 3, 2011,
  3. Wisconsin Historical Records Advisory Board and Wisconsin Council for Local History, “Creating a Collection Development Policy for Historical
    ,” accessed Mar. 7, 2011.
  4. Phillips, Local History Collections in Libraries, 14.
  5. Richard Pearce-Moses, “A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology,” Society of American Archivists website, accessed Mar. 7, 2011.
  6. Cynthia K. Sauer, “Doing the Best We Can? The Use of Collection Development Policies and Cooperative Collecting Activities at Manuscript Repositories,” American Archivist 64, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2001), 308.
  7. We recommend Kathleen D. Roe, Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2005 ) and David W. Carmicheal, Organizing Archival Records: A Practical Method of Arrangement and Description for Small Archives, 2nd ed. (Lanham, Md.: AltaMira Press, 2004).
  8. Elizabeth Yakel, Starting an Archives (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1994), 8.

Additional Resources

How do you decide if you want to establish a small archival or manuscript collection in your library or if a local history collection, comprised mostly of print materials and ephemera, is right for you? The American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association has established very useful guidelines for local history collections.

Another useful guide for conceptualizing archives and for laying the groundwork for a competent archival program is the Society of American Archivists’ (SAA) publication Understanding Archives and Manuscripts by James M.O’Toole and Richard Cox (2006).

For guidance on storage and shelving, an excellent publication to consult is Preserving Archives and Manuscripts, 2nd ed., by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler (SAA, 2010).There are several useful guides for organizing and describing archival materials, such as Kathleen D. Roe, Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts (SAA, 2005 ) and David W. Carmicheal, Organizing Archival Records: A Practical Method of Arrangement and Description for Small Archives, 2nd ed. (AltaMira Press, 2004).

Providing Reference Services for Archives and Manuscripts (SAA, 2005) by Mary Jo Pugh points out best practices regarding reference services for archival materials.

For developing a collecting policy, we highly recommend the Wisconsin Historical Society’s online guide “Creating a Collection Development for Historical Records”). Beginning with the admonition “You can’t keep it all!” this guide goes on to offer advice on how to develop this policy, including sample forms, useful language, and questions to ask as you make decisions. If you’re looking for a workshop on starting an archive, or learning the basics of archival work, here are a few of the archival organizations which conduct such training:

Not sure about copyright issues? A source we recommend is Cornell University’s Copyright Information Center. This site not only gives you the basics of copyright, it provides some handy tools such as a chart showing when materials fall into the public domain and a copyright “decision tree” to help you determine if an item is still within copyright.

There are also many local-history–collecting policies online. The following are useful examples when developing your policy: