Archives Behind the Scenes: Acquisitions

In a departure from our usual exhibit posts highlighting our exciting collections, this post will kick off a short series of “Behind the Scenes” discussions about what goes on in the Special Collections & University Archives at Grand Valley. In this post, we will discuss how we acquire collection materials, what they’re like when they get here, and what we do once we have them.

View of front entrance to Seidman House

Within Seidman House, we have one curator, two archivists, one archives assistant and a couple of student assistants who work to collect, organize, document, and preserve archival materials and rare books. We also have several distinct collecting areas. One, the Special Collections, contains materials collected for their historical value, their connection to regional history, or their connection to the research and teaching interests of the Grand Valley community. The other, University Archives, contains the records, photographs, publications, and media created by Grand Valley State that document the university’s history.

Acquisition

Materials that come into our collections are acquired through transfers, donations, and purchases.  Materials accepted into the collections are guided by a collection development policy.  This policy describes what kinds of materials are (and are not) collected by the Special Collections and University Archives. It details the types and formats of materials collected, as well as what kinds of contents, topics, geographical areas, and time periods we aim to collect.

Transfers

Transfers happen when a campus office, faculty member, administrator, or staff person officially deposits their inactive records to the University Archives. Transfers can happen at any time of year, but often occur during the spring and summer.

An archivist standing with a cart of record boxes in front of a trophy case
Archivist picking up a records transfer from the Intercollegiate Athletics Department

Not all records created at the university are archival. Some records have long-term value and are considered “permanent” records, but they are not archival because they remain in active use. Other kinds of records, such as student transcripts, may be permanent and have long-term value, but are protected by laws or policies that restrict access to them. Records such as these are usually maintained by the office that creates and manages them.

Other kinds of records, such as routine correspondence, invoices and receipts, and scrap notes with no context, have no long-term value. Even when these kinds of records are no longer in active use, they should not be transferred into the University Archives. Instead they can be shredded and disposed of.

The University Archivist often consults with offices before transfers to ensure that the records are archival, and that they have long-term value and are no longer in active use.

Examples of archival university records include reports, committee agendas and minutes, correspondence of high-ranking officials, official memorandums, course catalogs, official publications, budgets, and high-level planning documentation.

Donations and Purchases

When collecting archival materials and rare books for our Special Collections, we have a modest budget for purchasing materials, and we also accept donations. Collecting decisions made by the curator and archivists are guided by the collection development policy that defines the collecting strategies for the department.

When donations occur, a curator or archivist works closely with the donor to determine if the materials fit our collecting policy and to negotiate the terms of the gift. Donors who own copyrights to the materials can choose to transfer those rights to the university as well. Donors sign a Deed of Gift form that records the donation and details the terms. Once this has taken place, the materials become the property of the university.

Photo of a room full of bookcases packed with books, newspapers, magazines, index files, and other materials
Archivists sometimes visit the homes of donors to identify and sort out materials to acquire

When purchasing materials for the Special Collections, the curator reviews catalogs and websites of rare book and manuscript dealers, searches online auction sites like eBay.com, or works directly with the item’s owner to acquire materials that fit our collection development policy. The curator also often consults with archivists and faculty in various disciplines to find out if items available on the market might fill a particular gap or be of interest for classroom or research use.

Two advertising circulars from circa 1900. One advertises artificial eyes, the other advertises surgical and veterinary instruments
Purchased items, such as these advertising circulars for medical devices from the early 20th century, often come with detailed descriptions provided by their sellers

Next Steps

Once we have received the materials at Seidman House, they may be in any state of condition or arrangement. We are careful to look for certain kinds of problems, like evidence of mold or pests. If left unsolved, these problems can spread and damage other materials in the library. Once we determine that the materials are safe to take in, we accession them, or create an official record of what we acquired, where it came from, how much is there, and any special instructions or restrictions relating to the materials. We then label these new accessions and set them aside for cataloging and processing.

A small blue box is filled with bundles of letters tied with ribbons and stacks of black and white photographs
When new archival acquisitions are made, they’re evaluated by an archivist for their condition and contents. This collection will need to be processed before it is useful to researchers.

In the next “Behind the Scenes” installment, we’ll discuss archival processing, highlighting the steps an archivist takes to bring a new collection to life.

One thought on “Archives Behind the Scenes: Acquisitions

  1. Very well written, clear and concise. The things you have to take into account before processing were very interesting.

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