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Budgeting for curation

(photo) Large, movable compactor shelving helps to increase the storage capacity at Alexandria Archaeology.
Compactor shelving at Alexandria Archaeology. Photo courtesy of Alexandria Archaeology, City of Alexandria, Virginia.

A well-planned budget is an essential part of a project design. The budget of a field project that will recover material remains should include funds for preparation and long-term care of the objects and their associated records. If there is little likelihood of recovering material remains, the associated records still need to be cared for and managed. Notably, the creation of digital data is 10-16X more expensive to manage over the long term than paper or microform, including microfilm (Puglia 1999).

Different collection owners or responsible agencies may face some different curation costs determined, in part, by the designated repository. A budget line item for the long-term management of a collection may not be necessary for a project by an agency that has its own repository. However, a budget line item for initial processing of the material remains and associated records is almost always necessary, as well as any anticipated conservation costs.

The curation budget for a project generally depends on three factors:

  • the amount and classes of materials expected to be recovered and the associated records, including digital data, expected to be created,
  • repository requirements for submission of a collection, and
  • any fees for long-term care or other services charged by the repository.

Due to the nature of the work, the principal investigator can never know exactly what will be found in the field. Good estimations, however, can be based on what has been recovered at similar sites in the area and on the project's collecting strategy. Therefore, it is very useful to research the nature of similar existing collections in the project design phase. Examination of existing collections may also help to anticipate any unusual conservation needs requiring special budgeting.

As noted in Section IV, repositories across the U.S. charge vastly different amounts for long-term management of collections. These differences exist for a variety of reasons. One is how the repository is principally funded. Many private, non-profit repositories have to seek funds from outside sources, including grants. Grants are often not available for federal or state collections, which the repository does not own. Many repositories now cover some of their costs by charging curation fees.

The results of an informal survey of repository curation fees by the National Park Service showcases some of the differences in how and why repositories charge for collections care. A total of 94 repositories responded to the survey in 1997, which was updated in 1998. A significant factor in the differences found involves the types of service fees that repositories charge. These include:

  • Entry or receiving (to review and process documentation on a collection)
  • One-time processing and long-term curation, usually "in perpetuity"
  • Processing (cleaning, packaging, and/or cataloging to repository's standards)
  • Annual (yearly maintenance)
  • Rehabilitation of an existing collection
  • Processing associated record and reports (some repositories charge the same processing fee for records, while others do not)
  • Oversized or individual objects
  • Other (i.e., NAGPRA assessment, deaccessioning, short-term storage, special conservation, inspection)

The majority (47 out of the 58 repositories that charged fees) use some form of one-time, "in perpetuity" fee, even though it is virtually impossible to charge a fee that covers all the costs over the lifetime of a container of material remains or documents. Increasingly, repositories are instituting annual fees or fees that cover 5, 10, or 50 years of care, usually for federal or state collections. This allows repositories to adjust fees for inflation, changes in standards, or other unanticipated factors. Annual fees may be workable if an agency has a line item in its annual budgeting cycle for the curation of its collections, but this is quite rare. It is also difficult for agencies to pay for the care of collections in advance of the work to be accomplished, so such fee structures may have to be very carefully constructed in a curatorial agreement, if at all.

Another variable in the diversity of fee structures is the units of storage by which fees are assessed. Some units identified by repositories are by the cubic foot, by the box (of varying sizes), by the drawer, and by artifact number or size. For associated records, it is usually by the linear foot or linear inch. The cubic foot, the "box", and the linear foot (for records) are the most common units of storage for fee determination. It is important to understand the size of a repository's unit of storage and how much material can be appropriately stored in that unit when a project budget is constructed.

NPS INFORMAL CURATION FEES SURVEY
(adapted from Childs 1998)
Region Surveyed Repositories Without Fees When Repository Instituted Fees Range of "In Perpetuity" Fees for Objects*
    70s 80s 90s Per Box** Per Cubic Foot
Northeast
(18 repositories, 12 states)
11 1 2 4 $38-150 $100-250
Southeast
(16 repositories, 11 states)
5 0 6 5 $75-227 $68-200
Midwest
(24 repositories, 13 states)
10 3 6 1 $35-400 $70-250
Inter-
Mountain
(14 repositories, 8 states)
2 2 7 3 $150-225 $21-300
West
(22 repositories, 7 states)
7 2 3 8 $65-1000 $250-1080
*The informal survey yielded little data on separate fees for associated records.
**The size of the "box" is not a consistent figure. Sizes (when defined by the repository) were stated as "standard", 12x10x10 inches, 1.3 cu. ft., 30 lbs., 1.04 cu. ft, 12x15x10 inches, and "small".

There is a wide variation in fees both within and between regions. Thirty-six surveyed repositories did not charge fees, yet at least ten of these were considering instituting some form of fee. The range of fees found in the survey is also not reflective of the "actual" cost of curation. Repositories have determined that the real cost of long-term curation is approximately $1000-1500 per cubic foot including the cost of utilities, materials, staff salaries, etc. Only repositories in the west charge anywhere near that amount. Most repositories have had to charge well below that to stay competitive. Many repositories base their fee structure on what nearby repositories charge, not on actual costs. Increasingly, repositories are placing collected fees in interest bearing endowment funds or accounts that will continue to provide funds over the long term and better cover the actual cost of collections care.

Regardless of repository fees, the total cost of managing a project collection is always going to reflect the volume of artifacts recovered and the associated records created during the project. In some cases, the cost can be lessened for the principal investigator (or owner, agency, developer, etc.) by using a well thought out collecting strategy that minimizes gross redundancies and non-cultural artifacts. Initial preparation of the collection by the principal investigator and staff can also cut costs at the repository. Cost controls can include bringing the collection up to the repository standards for packing, labeling, cataloging, cleaning, and documentation. In these days of rapid technological change, it can also involve careful selection of appropriate hardware, including digital cameras, software, and long-lived storage media when digital data is created.

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