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  Managing Archeological Collections Access and Use Distance Learning

Researcher access

(photo) Pottery vessels arranged by type and stored on sturdy steel shelving.
Whole vessel storage at the Anasazi Heritage Center. From the photograph collection of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado.

Scientific, historical, and art historical research on archeological collections, both material remains and associated records, benefits the public and scholars alike. research provides new information to support existing theories and interpretations or to stimulate new ideas about past cultures, their material culture, and their environment. Since collections are the lasting legacy of an archeological project, they are vital to sustaining research and interpretation into the future. The importance and value of collections is highlighted as their use for thesis, Ph.D., and other scholarly research increases (Nelson and Shears 1996).

Collections research involves several key steps, including locating appropriate items and/or collections to accomplish a research goal, conducting the research in cooperation with one or more repositories, as well as other partners, and understanding the intellectual property rights related to collections research. These are discussed below.

Locating Collections

Key to using existing collections is being able to locate them. Unfortunately, it is often difficult for researchers to, first, determine the specific repository where certain collections are held, and, second, discover what and where specific objects, records, or collections are located in a repository. These problems have been exacerbated in several ways over the years. One is that collections from one archeological site, project, or area have not been curated at the same repository. Another is that there have been virtually no means to locate collections by project, principal investigator, permit, or theme at a state, regional, or national level.

Finding widespread "parts" of a collection or items from different collections that are needed to research a particular archeological theory or method often involves knowing the history of specific fieldwork done at a specific site or by specific archeologist(s), principal investigator(s), or under specific contracts. First, background research using the associated records of possible projects or principal investigators may help this search. Unfortunately, however, these records have not always been fully cross-referenced to the related object collections. In fact, archival cataloging standards do not mandate this information, although archives do have fields to collect it. As well, museum object cataloging standards do not mandate a link to the records. Furthermore, standardized descriptive terms related to cultures and cultural activities are not always used, either within a repository's collections or between repositories. Certain objects and records may also be difficult to find or use if they are under donor restrictions or have been separated from their original collection. The latter may be the case for objects placed in type or study collections or documents that contain sensitive information or are under other legal restrictions.

Improvements are being made to increase the likelihood of finding collections for research and other purposes. There are some published guides to collections, especially archival collections, in both print and on the Internet. National bibliographic utilities, such as the Research Library Information Network or the Online Computer Library Center available on the Internet through most local university libraries, may provide important leads to the associated records of an archeological project. The gray literature of archeological reports may provide useful information on where resulting collections are managed and what they contain.

There are also efforts to standardize descriptive terms for archeological sites and collections, such as the International Guidelines for Museum Object Information through the International Council of Museums (ICOM). These terms will improve access and use of collections in the future. As well, the efforts of the Council for the Preservation of Anthropological Records are aimed at increasing accessibility to archival collections at national and international levels.

Computerized databases are also helping to ease the process of locating collections since they allow for the search and retrieval of information in a variety of ways. Repositories are also beginning to provide searchable databases of their collections contents on the Internet (issues concerning online collections are discussed further in Section X.) While such databases are a major step in the right direction, they might not always organize and describe the collections using terms that a specific researcher might want to use.

Ultimately, finding collections for detailed analysis and research may involve considerable legwork. And, despite the considerable improvements in the methods available to find collections, it still may depend on discovering and using a network of knowledgeable contacts and colleagues.

Collections Research

(photo) Laboratory work - drawing artifacts.
Laboratory work - drawing artifacts. Photo courtesy of Alexandria archeology, City of Alexandria, Virginia.

Using collections for research involves communication and cooperation between the researcher and the repository during both planning for and conducting the work. This is advisable to bridge any possible gaps between what the researcher wants to do and what the repository can allow. A relationship generally begins when a request is made to conduct research, along with submission of a project proposal and the researcher's qualifications to conduct that work. The access and use policies of most repositories include criteria by which the proposed work and the researcher are evaluated.

Another relationship that is often important, and sometimes required, during the planning and execution of collections research is consultation with an Indian tribe or culturally affiliated group. In some cases, this involves consent of the culturally affiliated group to use the collection. In other cases, it involves taking advantage of different expertise to achieve a particular research goal.

Collections research usually falls into two categories: on-site and off-site. Off-site use by researchers involves loaning objects out to the researcher's parent institution and following the procedures outlined in the previous sub-section on loans. For research on archival materials, off-site use involves the repository providing a limited number of copies of finding aids, documents, photos, microfilm, or the like and sending them to the researcher, often for a fee. Off-site use is often desired by researchers because it allows them to do their work at their own pace and utilize their own resources and equipment. Off-site use may not be preferable for a repository, however, because the requested items are open to security, preservation, and handling risks, possible copyright infringements, and are not available to other researchers. Archives do not allow off-site use of original documents. The decision to allow off-site use of items also depends on their fragility, type, and the quantity of items requested.

On-site use by researchers is done at the repository itself and the terms and procedures are defined by an access and use policy. Generally, the researcher or research group must first make an appointment to see specific materials. Upon arrival, the researcher(s) must register. Then a staff member is assigned to the research project while the collection is used, unless the repository has another monitoring technique. Many repositories do not let researchers handle the items themselves, and many have a separate area or room, away from collections storage, for this activity. These steps help decrease the risks to the items being researched, but may make the visit more time consuming and difficult for the researcher, as well as repository staff. Again, the type of work done depends on the researcher, repository policies and procedures, and the nature of the object(s) being used.

At the end of either on-site or off-site collections research, often within a designated period of time, the researcher may be asked to provide the repository with report on the findings. Copies of any resulting publications are also requested. This not only formally consummates the relationship between the repository and the researcher, but the repository gains important information about its holdings that makes the knowledge management process an iterative one.

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