The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 20, Number 7
Dec 1996


Customized Tools for Assessing Preservation and Access Needs

by Maria Holden

Paper given at the Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting in San Diego, California, 30 Aug. 1996. The author is Chief Conservator at the New York State Archives.

I'm really pleased to have an opportunity to tell you about two ambitious needs assessment projects that are currently underway at the Philadelphia City Archives and the New York State Archives. I was involved in planning and developing both projects, and today will share my observations and experiences. I will concentrate in the New York State Archives project, which is based on the Philadelphia model, and builds on it in many ways, particularly in the scope of data collection, and the ability to track and report data.

We've learned this morning about ways of assessing the preservation and conservation needs of collections, as well as a facility's ability to physically protect holdings. These efforts are crucial in developing institutional and collection-specific preservation plans.

But I'm talking about something else-projects to assess both the preservation and access needs of holdings, that will inform institutional planning, decision-making, and resource allocation, and make it possible to establish priorities for action. I'll focus on the tools that both institutions developed to accomplish their needs assessments. These tools were designed for government archives, but promise utility to other kinds of repositories.

I'll begin with a summary of the problems that stimulated these projects and review the reasons for conducting holdings-wide needs assessments.

Then I'll focus on the Philadelphia and SARA [State Archives and Records Administration] projects, looking at institutional objectives, tools that were developed to support the projects, and results and products. Both projects are in progress so discussion of results and costs is preliminary. I'll provide some details about the database that SARA developed and is currently testing for storing, manipulating, and reporting holdings data.

Both the Philadelphia and New York State Archives faced challenges characteristic in large government archives, including:

Our holdings and their management were becoming more complicated, but our information systems were not becoming more sophisticated. We had failed to upgrade data systems to accommodate developments in records creation, or meet new custody responsibilities. At both institutions there was a lack of complete, accurate, and current data about holdings. Most existing information systems were manual and incapable of manipulating information for reporting and planning purposes. The exception to this at SARA is Excelsior, our OPAC. This bibliographic database is a powerful search tool, but a weak management tool. Lack of information was recognized as a real obstacle to planning, making decisions, allocating resources, evaluating performance, accountability, and raising money. Let me give you some concrete examples of the costs for SARA and Philadelphia:

Both institutions recognized this lack of information as a critical problem that was costing them opportunities for improvement. They acted to remedy it through holdings-wide needs assessments.

The first step both institutions took was to establish goals and formulate assumptions. The goals of Philadelphia and SARA had a lot in common. Both institutions articulated the following project objectives:

At SARA we are committed to developing a relational database for tracking information about holdings and actions, both recommended and completed, and have invested substantially in that area. This will give us the capacity to produce ad hoc reports for planning and resource allocation.

Philadelphia is using a manual system for data collection, and inputs the results of the assessment-eight data elements-in a database. Both institutions premised their projects on the following assumptions:

  1. that data would be collected at the accession level. This means that for series with accretions, data is collected at the accretion level. We chose to collect data at that level because that's the level at which we apply most archival functions-from accessioning through collections management and preservation to reference. Planning and allocating resources for that work is usually at the series level.
  2. that we would consider preservation and access together. We have long recognized that access needs drive preservation actions-for instance, our primary criteria for reformatting, considered by most to be a preservation action, are condition and uses. Besides making sense from a practical perspective, this dual approach is also more cost-effective.
  3. that we were creating a management tool-not an access tool. At SARA we have OPAC-Excelsior-which facilitates researcher access to holdings. Our database is designed for staff use, not for researchers. However, we do collect information on research use and needs. This information figures significantly in decisions.

At the same time that we were formulating our objectives and beginning system design, we developed ideas about the data collection and analysis process. We begin with all series in our holdings; we collect and analyze data; we recommend and track remedial action; the product of the process is improved preservation and access of holdings.

Both the Philadelphia and SARA tools were inspired by the priority setting tool developed by the Commission on Preservation and Access Task Forces on Archival Selection.* This tool ranks series according to need for preservation action based on value and risk.

What we especially liked about this tool is its reliance on matrices for decision making. Both the Philadelphia and SARA tools adopted this feature. We saw two opportunities for improving on the CPA tool. The first was to add access to the assessment and to assess both preservation and access needs. The second was to extend the scope of the process-to go beyond priority setting to actually recommending and tracking action. This is an improvement that SARA made.

At SARA, tool design was a collaborative effort involving key staff from accessioning, preservation, and reference, as well as our bureau chief and our electronic records archivist, who has expertise in database design.

The first step was to identify fields or data elements, i.e., series number and title, appraisal archivist, format, creating agency, etc. There are some 60 fields in our database. The next step was to develop matrices to support systematic decision making. This involved identifying the factors that come into play in making specific decisions, and then deciding the extent to which those factors figure in that decision. We specified which fields would most likely be tapped for reports, and in what combinations.

The design process took a couple of months. The next step was to build the database. This was done by our electronic records archivist, and took a month.

Supporting tools-paper forms for data collection, instructions for data collection and entry, and system documentation-were created mostly by three capable interns, library school graduate students from SUNY Albany and the University of Michigan who were with us for the summer.

We are currently testing the system and making modifications in response to problems noted. Most of the problems have more to do with the process of data collection than with the database itself.

The Philadelphia tool was developed by David Weinberg, Assistant Commissioner for the Department of Records, and me, working as a consultant. Michael Fox of the Minnesota Historical Society helped design the access tool assessment piece. Staff from CCAHA provided advice to Philadelphia Archives staff, as needed.

The design process was much quicker because it did not entail developing a large database. Creating the four-page data collection form and instructions took approximately a month.

Here is an example of a matrix. This is the one we use to help us determine the need for reformatting a series. Our database is programmed accordingly. At the point that we apply this matrix, we have already determined the two factors-level of use and condition for the series. Say we have a series in poor condition that is little used--this matrix indicates that it has a moderate need for reformatting. A series in poor condition that sees high use would get a high rating for reformatting need.

Reformatting Need Matrix

High Use Mod Use Low Use
Poor Condition H H M
Fair Condition H M L
Good Condition M L L

How the values are placed in the matrix is what makes it "smart"; placement of the values reflects institutional practice and philosophy. The SARA system contains four matrices besides the reformatting one.

The condition score is informed by existing and potential damage.

Conservation need is informed by exhibit or other value, and condition.

Rehousing need is informed by adequacy of housing and level of use.

Access action need is informed by level of use and adequacy of access tools.

The Philadelphia tools use nine matrices.

The SARA database is in FoxPro 2.6 for Windows. We project that it will contain 6,500 records once current holding have been entered-that's the number of series and/or accretions in our holdings. To run the system efficiently, one needs a Pentium with 16 megabytes of memory.

For SARA, one of the most exciting prospects of the project is the ease with which we will be able to produce reports. Here is a selection of the 15 or so standard reports that we expect to run on a routine basis.

Philadelphia's smaller database contains the assessment scores along with the series number identifier. There are eight data elements including record group, series, intrinsic value, research or operational value, preservation action need, access action need, and overall priority ranking.

I'll close with a summary of the benefits and cost of the Philadelphia and SARA needs assessment projects. This analysis is somewhat conjectural as both projects are in progress and we don't have a lot of evidence yet on which to base claims.

The potential benefits are clear and compelling. Through these efforts, we gain critical information for managing present resources and getting new ones. These projects are collaborative and have given staff a sense of participation in important work.

The potential costs are just as striking. The investment of time in project development is steep: at SARA we have been working on this since May, and we're still in the testing phase. We expect that entering the data about our holdings will take a year and a half-with one paraprofessional working full-time, a support staff person working half-time, and professional archival and preservation staff contributing the equivalent of one full time employee. The staff costs will continue after information about existing holdings has been entered, as we apply the assessment tool to new accessions. And the database will need to be updated to reflect changes in the series' status-after preservation or access actions are carried out.

Maintaining a database takes a lot of expertise and "real estate"-computers, software, other equipment. Like the staff costs, these ones are also ongoing.

In the end, the measure of success of these projects and the data they create is their ability to support improved performance of staff. I am confident that both the Philadelphia and SARA projects will do that. Both institutions found themselves in untenable positions, unable to function effectively because of a widening information gap. Both archives intervened with needs assessment projects, recognizing that complete and current data about holdings is a vital resource.

* The Preservation of Archival Materials. Report of the Task Forces on Archival Selection. Commission on Preservation and Access, Washington, DC, April 1993. 8 pp. ISBN 1-887334-23-8. $5.00.

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