Writing an Archival Acquisition Policy

What is an Acquisition Policy?

Archives exist to acquire, preserve, and make documents available to users. An Acquisition Policy establishes criteria for what types of records and materials an archive will and can accept into its collection and who has the authority to make these decisions. It answers questions such as how does the archive acquire records & materials? What types of records & materials will & can the archives acquire & preserve? Who is responsible for the archives & acquisition? It also articulates the standards and values your archive upholds to its donors, users, and the community. 

Why Is It Useful?

Acquisition is a commitment to care for, and provide access to, the records your archive acquires indefinitely. As a result, acquisitions must be undertaken responsibly in order to avoid uncontrolled growth of the archive’s collection and the need to deaccession down the road. 

An Acquisition Policy is also very helpful to your archive’s staff and volunteers, since it can help them understand the scope of your archive’s collection and areas of specialization. This policy can also help minimize subjective decisions by staff who are presented with possible donations. If the materials in the donation don’t fit your Acquisition Policy, then perhaps your archive isn’t the right home for them.

Scenario

The Lighthouse Point Archives resides in a small, closely knit community. Agnes, the town matriarch, is known to hold the records and drawn designs of the town’s historic mill, which employed many locals, and closed its doors in 1958. She has a friendly relationship with your archive, insisting that the records will come to you through her will. When she does pass, the family wants to see through with her final wish and donate the documents. As part of the agreement, they also want Lighthouse Point Archive to accept her collection of Bibles and children’s books, which do not meet your archive’s acquisition mandate. The family is using this as leverage, and emphasize the fact that the local Industry Museum has also expressed an interest in her documents. 

Question: Should you accept the records and books? 

The Acquisition Policy protects the integrity of an archive’s mandate, and also saves you time in the long run. It costs money to keep records and to maintain and preserve holdings, therefore, you need to have the authority to decide what your archive will retain in its collections indefinitely. While creating an Acquisition Policy, it also is important to remember that your archive’s shelf space is finite and therefore precious. By stating in your policy that the archive reserves the right to accession as well as deaccession any documents that, following appraisal, do not fit your Acquisitions Policy, your archive is prioritizing the most meaningful use of its finite resources for the community it serves. This right should also be written into all donation agreements. 

Agnes’s family members are, in the end, happy to sign the donation agreement. They will not have to decide what to do with the extraneous books or Bibles, as the onus has been shifted to the archive. The Woolen Mills fonds finds a happy home at the Lighthouse Point Archive! The other materials later find a new home at the local elementary school and the Senior’s centre and churches in the region. 

What’s Included in an Acquisition Policy?

An Acquisition Policy does not have to be complicated; clarity and simplicity are key to making this (and any) policy concise and to-the-point. If your archive is part of a museum and has a Collections Policy, then good news – there’s no need to start a new policy from scratch! You can simply add a section to your Collections Policy pertinent to the archives. But if you do need (or want) to create an Acquisition Policy for your archives, below is an explanation of the various elements that this policy document typically contains.

Purpose:

A sentence which includes the intent “purpose” of the document. There is a one-sentence example included in the template provided. 

Definition of Terms:

This area defines the vocabulary commonly used in the acquisition process, which might not be familiar to everyone. The template includes the definitions for Acquisition, Bequest, Deposit, Gift, Loan, all of which are pertinent to collecting archives, which primarily acquire materials via donations from the public. If your archive is a branch of a larger institution such as government or a university, you may want to add terms pertinent to the transfer of records from your parent body. In the template, the terms Provenance and Territoriality are also defined. You may want to add additional terms that apply to your archive and organization.

Mandate: 

This should be a brief description of the priorities of your organization as well as what your repository collects. Typically, you can borrow this statement from the mandate of your organization on the whole.

Scope of Mandate or Modes and Methods of Acquisition: 

This is the section where you set out parameters for the types of materials your archive can and will acquire, and it paints a clear picture of exactly what you will and will not accept from donors. If you aren’t capable of caring for any type of archival materials – eg. rare and highly-sensitive media such as nitrate reel-to-reel film – then it’s worthwhile indicating that in this section. Similarly, if your archive does not acquire artifacts or published books, for instance, it’s good to stipulate that here. Ultimately, the goal of this policy document is to make the acquisition process less complicated for everyone involved – the donor and your staff – therefore it’s worthwhile defining and refining this section of your Acquisition Policy, to ensure your archive doesn’t acquire anything it can’t manage.

Goals:

Your goal may be one sentence in length and/or it may be a list detailing what your archive aims to achieve by acquiring the kinds of materials described in its mandate. 

Principles:

This area of the policy highlights the procedures, standards, and processes involved in acquiring archival materials. It should mention that appraisal is part of the process of accessioning records, meaning, not everything in a donation is guaranteed to be kept by the archive for any number of reasons. Similarly, records may be deaccessioned down the road as a result of re-appraisal. 

Maintaining respect for an acquisition’s provenance is essential and speaks to the credibility of the repository. Your policy should reflect this, making it clear to your staff and donors that your archive observes and upholds the territoriality of materials, to ensure that materials are in their most appropriate home, and that records which share the same origins aren’t scattered across several different repositories. 

Other factors, such as the availability of support, whether financial, personnel, or material, dictate how and when an acquisition will undergo archival processing – appraisal, preservation, arrangement, description, and finally, access to users. 

Areas of Specialization and Priorities:

This is an opportunity to once again, be specific about the types of records that your archive collects – both their content and form – and how this relates to your mandate. It is also an opportunity to list the materials from various other sources which are relevant to your holdings. 

Procedures, Standards, Criteria and Other Records Relative to Acquisition:

This is where the technicalities and legalities of the acquisition process are presented, which may help staff and a donor understand how your repository may agree to a donation. It explains that a legal document must be signed with the conditions of the acquisition, which must be agreed upon by the archives and the donor. Tax receipts can only be issued if a donor requests it, and an agreement for a monetary appraisal has been reached and signed off on by both parties. It also mentions that all documentation related to the acquisition will be kept on file by the archive. 

This section of your policy also stipulates that all acquisition activities follow the guidelines of the CNSA’s Cooperative Acquisition Strategy – more on that in a future blog post! 

Roles and Responsibilities:

This section outlines who is responsible for what in the acquisition process. This may be especially helpful to staff if presented with a possible donation, so they know who has the authority to evaluate and approve a donation. It also may be useful information for potential donors, who may want to know who will be evaluating their donation and how long it may take – decision by committee will take time. 

Approval of Policy:

The policy is signed and dated.

Distribution of Policy:

Names the various staff, departments, and organizations which will receive a copy of your Acquisition Policy. It’s also important to note if this policy can be made available to donors, sponsors, or other external bodies, if needed. 

Review of Policy:

States the timeframe in which the policy will be reviewed – every 2 or 3 is typical.

1 Comment

  1. Michelle Connick on February 15, 2024 at 3:17 pm

    Thanks for sharing! This will be very helpful in evaluating our policies – which is on our docket for the near future!