Writing an Access Policy

What is an Access Policy?

Your Access Policy should be written as one of your repository’s founding documents, since providing access is the fundamental reason all archives exist – archives preserve records and materials so they can be accessible to people now and into the future. An Access Policy clearly articulates the archives’ commitment to provide fair and equal access to all users of your archive; your responsibility to protect private or potentially harmful information; rules, laws, and restrictions that govern access services; and what guidelines researchers must follow in order to gain access to your archives.

Why it is Useful?

Unlike other policies for archives, Access Policies can vary widely, since the access and research services an archive offers depend on the resources they have available, both human and financial. One of the benefits of an Access Policy is that it ensures that the access services you offer are in keeping with your capacity, and that you will and can offer them consistently and equally. For instance, not all archives have the capacity to offer virtual or remote research services. If that is the case with your archive, you should clearly articulate this in your Access Policy and on your website, so both your researchers and staff are on the same page.

An Access Policy also asserts your archives’ commitment to balancing the user’s desire for access to records and materials with your responsibility to care for your holdings and the sometimes-sensitive information they contains. All archives should be mindful of the potential harm they could cause if they indiscriminately release records to the public without first evaluating whether they contain private or sensitive information. Having an Access Policy can help guide staff if they have to do that kind of evaluation, and it can help researchers understand why they cannot access some things in your holdings. Creating this policy also gives you the opportunity to take stock of the records and materials in your archives and the access restrictions they may need.


Professor Bates has been instrumental in bringing the papers of a former Senator to your university archives. The papers are unprocessed, but you know they are unrestricted except for a few personal, family files. The professor wants to write a monograph on the senator and wants you to close the papers to others until he has completed his research. He points out that you owe him something. What do you do?

Answer: While your archives do owe the Senator gratitude, you do not owe him privileged access to materials in the holdings. However, the users of your archives are owed equal access to your holdings, not by just a privileged few.

Archives are guided by the principle of providing equal access for all. We are also guided by our responsibility to make care-full decisions about the information in our holdings. By succumbing to the demands of the Professor, you would be compromising both this principle and your responsibility of care, not to mention setting a dangerous precedent that could potentially damage the reputation of your archives and your credibility as an archivist. So, what may seem like a simple favour to avoid an uncomfortable confrontation could, in turn, create a multitude of issues for you and the archives. This is where an Access Policy could help, since it would give all staff and volunteers clear and consistent guidelines for making access decisions, and it would (hopefully) help researchers understand the rationale behind those decisions. 

Helpful Tip:

Unlike other policies for your archives, this one affects your users and researchers as much as it does your staff and volunteers, so it’s worthwhile making it accessible to all. You could put this policy on your website (or parts of it), so that researchers can find the information they need to navigate your archives. This can result in better-prepared researchers with realistic expectations when they visit or contact you with research questions! The Access Policy can also act as a reference if/when you or staff or volunteers are presented with a difficult research request.

Sample Access Policy 1 (attached below) was written to for the public inasmuch as staff/volunteers of the archives. As a companion, you could consider writing a document with Access Procedures for staff and volunteers outlining their roles and responsibilities, specific details about what records and materials in your holdings are restricted/closed, and a guide for determining copyright.

Sample Access Policy 2 (attached below) was written primarily for staff/internal use. Also check out below a list of things to consider when making decisions about your access and research services and therefore what your Access Policy states.

Regardless of the approach you take, remember that your Access Policy should reflect the resources your archive has available for access and research services. These samples are meant as guides to help you think through the many things you may need to consider in order to provide consistent and equal access to the records and materials in your holdings and too all users and researchers, inasmuch as uphold your responsibility of care for your holdings and the information they contain. 

What is included in an Access Policy?

Mandate and Users of the Archives

  • Your archive’s or organization’s mandate
  • Identify the communities of users to be served by the repository.
  • Indicate any limits on use such as employees only, membership, age, etc.

Equality of Access

  • For all members of user community.
  • No privileged use of the archives.

Intellectual Access and Reference Services

Describe conditions of access for:

  • The Reading/Research Room and Finding Aids
  • Inspection of holdings
  • Care and handling
  • Retrievals
  • Copying documents
  • Use of cameras and personal computers in the Reading/Research Room
  • Quotation of documents (citations)
  • Further reproduction or publication of material

Physical Access and Conditions of Use

  • Describe how records will be made available for onsite research include rules for requesting materials, using materials, and other rules for researchers.
  • Indicate restrictions to unprocessed material.
  • Physical condition considerations: include statements concerning access to fragile material, use of surrogate copies, and restrictions on the provision of copies due to condition.
  • Security considerations: indicate who has access to storage areas and any practices for retrieving records or verifying their return, supervision of Reading/Research Room.

Virtual or Remote Access

  • Indicate whether the archives provides virtual/remote reference services (phone, email) and any fees associated with conducting research on a person’s behalf. If you cannot provide virtual or remote access services, that is equally important to note in the policy inasmuch as on your website.
  • Describe what online resources researchers can access themselves – eg. online finding aids, database, exhibits of digitized holdings, social media, etc
  • Indicate general turn-around times for virtual/remote research requests.
  • Indicate or refer to list of fees for digitization and copying.

Relevant Legislation

  • Identify applicable laws and other policies that apply to information in the repository and append them to the policy.
  • Especially important for government/institutional archives.

Resources and Restrictions (sensitivity or privacy)

  • State the types of information that may need to be restricted (e.g. defamatory, libellous or personal information) and indicate how restrictions will be applied.
  • Protection of Individual Privacy: Personal details about a living person should not be released without permission. You may release information with no specific names or identifiers.
  • Donor restrictions: indicate that some materials may be restricted as per an agreement with the donor. Indicate where this information is to be found and include any restrictions on major collections.


  • List fees for various services such as photocopying, digitization, researching, publication-quality images.

Use of Information 

  • Establish policies to respond to requests for permission to publish from holdings.
  • Indicate forms for citations.
  • Indicate responsibilities for copyright.
  • Determine terms for staff use of holdings.

Loan of materials

  • Specify conditions under which materials will be loaned (if at all).

Relevant Links:

Association of Canadian Archivists, Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct – See Section 3 on Access