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Information and records management

(photo) Expandable paperboard folder overstuffed with various archeological records.
Inappropriate packing of archeological associated records. From the photograph collection of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District.

Several serious issues currently exist concerning the management of the associated records created during a project, and the creation and management of information that document the long-term storage and care of a collection. It was not until the enactment of ARPA in 1979 that the records associated with an archeological project were recognized as an integral part of a collection. In fact, sometimes field notes, photos, and maps make up an entire collection, particularly for survey projects that do not yield any materials remains.

36 CFR Part 79 has helped focus some attention in the last decade on the importance of both the records associated with an archeological project and the records associated with the management of an archeological collection. The regulations mandate that: 1) records related to federal projects are highly valuable and must be kept with the material remains; 2) the federal agency is responsible for the administrative records of its collections (e.g., Requests for Proposals, contracts, budgets), and 3) the repository is responsible for long-term care of all the associated records in a collection. Many state and local agencies have followed the federal lead and require the long-term care and management of these project records. Unfortunately, 36 CFR Part 79 does not list what types of materials constitute associated records. Therefore, the regulations do not acknowledge that digital data and records are a growing part of the critical documentation created during an archeological project and have unique problems of storage and long-term accessibility that need careful consideration.

Responsibilities of archeologists

Despite the regulations and policies developed in recent years, many of the records associated with archeological projects and the resulting collections, both in the field and out of the field, have been poorly collected and managed. Problems seem to begin with archeologists' poor understanding of their responsibilities toward the associated records they create and the long-term preservation of those records. Significant improvements could be made if:

  • archeologists working on federal, tribal, and many state projects are better educated about the requirements related to depositing a complete set of associated records at the designated repository. Sometimes the associated records are the only tangible products of a project, since no material remains are collected;
  • contracting officials and technical managers for appropriate federal, tribal, state, and local agencies are educated about the requirements for archeological contractors to deposit all associated records at the designated repository;
  • all associated documents are created or copied on archival quality paper prior to deposition at the repository;
  • appropriate film and subsequent photo processing techniques are considered in terms of the long-term preservation of the images;
  • appropriate electronic hardware and software are considered to maximize the life of digital data;
  • archeologists who donate their archival collection to a repository make sure that they submit a complete copy.

Notably, submission of records can pose a problem for archeologists who actively use them, particularly when writing books and articles, lecturing, and conducting other professional activities. Therefore, in some cases, secondary records, such as correspondence, analytical records, draft manuscripts, and auxiliary research notes, may accumulate over time. Archeologists must then remember to add these records to an accessioned collection as they are able.

Responsibilities of repositories

Management problems also exist in repositories, especially those without an archives or professional archivists on staff. In cases well documented by Meyers and Trimble (1993), the material remains and associated records have been stored in completely different facilities, often hundreds of miles away. This practice makes it impossible to simultaneously study the material remains and the contextual information about those remains that exist in the records.

Other problems arise due to poor decisions about the security and safe-keeping of records from fire, flood, and other disasters, which have resulted in their destruction, deterioration, loss, or inappropriate disposal. Professional archival standards and practices for saving existing archeological records and preventing the loss of new records that need to be implemented include:

  • encouraging the use of long-lived media of archival quality to create original records in the field, laboratory, and repository;
  • appropriate records storage in secure, environmentally controlled, and damage resistant facilities;
  • careful evaluation of records at the time of accessioning to ensure they fit the repository's scope of collections, pose no legal, ethical, health, or safety risks, and their long-term conservation and stabilization needs are understood;
  • reformatting for the long-term preservation of records (e.g., microform, photographs, xerographic copies) and for their access and use (e.g., digital copies to minimize handling originals);
  • professional arrangement and description of the records to facilitate access;
  • production of a finding aid.

The records management task of ensuring access to the contents of associated records affects the ultimate value and importance of a collection of material remains and records for research, exhibition, and public interpretation, as well as legal proof of work accomplished. In turn, accessibility to a collection depends on a system of accountability, most typically a finding aid (e.g., guide, card catalog, or inventory of the collection's contents). Standard archival finding aids include a project history, dates between which the records were created, collection size and document types, and arrangement (see Section VIII for more related information).

For years, useable inventories and other finding aids of archeological collections either were not created by the care-giving repository or were not regularly updated after creation. Several surveys found that basic catalog lists and inventories with storage information were lacking for both material remains and records, especially for federal collections. Furthermore, specific information for accountability purposes were missing on a collection's exact storage location(s), what it contains, the condition of its contents, the contents and location of its associated records and research reports, and who owns any associated copyrights. Although the creation and maintenance of collection finding aids, especially inventories, is improving dramatically, they still do not exist or have not been updated for many old collections.

Furthermore, ownership of copyrights and other intellectual property rights related to the associated records of archeological projects requires responsible management. Otherwise, the result may be lawsuits against the repository.

Finally, the practices of both information management and records management are changing dramatically with advancements in computer and digital technology. Computer hardware and software allow easier and more robust data management, although systems can sometimes be expensive, quickly become obsolete and need migration to newer systems, and require particular staff expertise for their development and maintenance. Archeologists, agency staff, and repository staff, including archivists, have to find a way to keep the variety of records up-to-date and accessible through the ever advancing technologies. Many of these issues are being tackled in the U.S. by the Society of American Archivists and the American Association of Museums, and by the Arts and Humanities Data Service in the United Kingdom.

Another essential aspect of digital data management is defining and using standards. This includes standards on record or file format, data content (terminology), and data elements. The use of standard terminology helps to ensure that information is consistent and comparable throughout a repository. Data standards should be flexible enough to be applicable to all related objects and records and all actions. Periodic review and revision of these standards is also important. Information about data standardization for collections and recommended data standards may be found through the International Documentation Committee of the International Council of Museums (CIDOC).

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