CoPAR Bulletin 4: Finding a Home for Your Records

Finding a Home for Your Records
by Lynne M Schmelz
Harvard University

Archiving anthropological records is valuable from at least three perspectives: preserving data that are potentially relevant for future research and analysis; providing historical information to ensure the accurate interpretation of the data; and enabling the study of the history of anthropology for scholars within the field as well as those interested more broadly in the history of science.

Anthropological records can be divided into three categories: research materials; professional files, including administrative and teaching records; and personal papers. These records, which mirror the complexity and diversity of the various subfields of anthropology, come in many forms: paper, recordings, film, video, material objects and, computer files.

Finding a home for your records, both print and non-print items, involves identifying possible repositories and deciding which might best match the nature of the collection and facilitate future research.

Identifying Possible Repositories

There are a substantial number of repositories around the world that collect anthropological materials. Each one has guidelines which define the parameters of acquisitions. With so many possibilities, where should you start when trying to locate an appropriate repository? A common first step is to check the organization with which one is mostly closely affiliated. For example, if you are affiliated with an academic institution, check to see if there is an archive, library, museum, or institute within that institution that collects materials related to your research. If not, check for repositories matching the subject matter or geographical setting. Many repositories are quite subject-specific. Records might also be appropriately deposited with an organization local to where the work was done.

The records of individual anthropologists are often located in multiple places. This situation is exacerbated by the lack of a central listing or database. As a result, researchers frequently have difficulty locating archival materials. To ease these location challenges, it is important to look for a repository that other researchers will associate with your work, either by institution, geography, or subject. For example, for scholars working in Melanesia, the Melanesian Archive at the University of California, San Diego is a logical choice; for those in ethnomusicology, Indiana University would be a good match; or for those in African Studies, Northwestern University is a prime location.

Do not be discouraged if a repository is not interested in accepting your records. Look further for an alternative site. Archives, museums, libraries, associations, societies, research centers, institutes, and cultural centers that are interested in collecting and archiving anthropological material can be found on the local, regional, national, and international levels. In the United States, national monuments and national parks, as well government agencies such as the Department of the Interior, the Army Corp of Engineers, and the Bureau of Land Management, hold anthropological collections and archives. If you are not currently affiliated with a particular organization, ask for assistance in finding possible repositories. Local libraries are a good source of information and many will have the following directories:

Anthropological Resources: A Guide to Archives, Libraries and Museums. Lee Dutton, editor. 1999, Library-Anthropology Resource Group. New York: Garland Publishing.

Directory of Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the United States, 1988. National Historical Publications and Records Commission. Phoenix: Oryx Press.

British Archives: A Guide to Archive Resources in the United Kingdom, 1995. Janet Foster & Julia Sheppard. 3rd edition. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.

The Official Museum Directory, 1998 (annual). Washington, D.C. American Association of Museums. 28th edition.

Museums of the World, 1997. München: K.G. Saur. 6th edition.

Research Centers Directory, 1999(annual). Gale Research, Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research. 24th edition. (This is a guide to nearly 14, 200 university- related and other nonprofit research organizations. Subject and geographic indexes. Master index includes research center name and principal keywords in the name).

Directory of Special Libraries and Information Centers: A Guide to Special Libraries, Research Libraries, Information Centers, Archives, and Data Centers Maintained by Government Agencies, 1998(annual). Marc Farber, editor. Gale Research Co., Detroit, Mich.: 22nd edition. (This is a guide to more than 23,000 special libraries, research libraries, information centers, archives and data centers.)

Native Americans Information Directory, 1998. Kenneth Estell, editor. 2nd edition. Detroit: Gale Research.

Native American Archives. 1998. Native American Archives Coalition. (List in progress). Subgroup of the Archives and Archivists of Color Roundtable, Society of American Archivists. Internet access (]

American Library Directory 1997-1998(annual). Volume 50. New Providence, NJ.

In addition, many academic institutions and the Library of Congress have large databases accessible free on the Internet, that list books describing archives, museums, libraries, and manuscript collections world-wide. Librarians and archivists at these places assist in identifying repositories. The National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution (tel: 202-357-1976; e-mail: and the Tozzer Library at Harvard University (tel: 617-495-2253; e-mail: are examples of two places where staff have volunteered to help. Addresses for three major databases are: Harvard University (; University of California (; and Library of Congress (

Choosing a Repository

A formula does not exist for selecting the best repository. Keep in mind that for ease of access it is better for all of an individual’s records, both personal papers and research project materials, to be in a single repository. Having everything in one place, however, is not always possible. Reasons include multiple person research projects, copyright of the work being held by corporations or agencies, affiliation with multiple institutions, and acquisition restrictions of a given repository. If, however, a repository wants to separate your materials in a way that would jeopardize the integrity of your records, shop around for one that is willing to keep your records intact. An ideal repository should have the following characteristics:

  • Concern with the subject of anthropology and interest in building anthropological collections
  • Permanence
  • Quality of management
  • Financial stability
  • Curatorial excellence including the ability to organize materials effectively to expedite retrieval, specifically good inventory control and development of finding aids
  • Quality of storage
  • Commitment to maintenance, including conservation of existing formats and use of new technologies to reformat obsolete ones
  • Focus on access and assistance to the users
  • Willingness to provide satisfactory agreements on such issues as ownership, copyright, permission to assess, rights for disposal, and disposition of books and other formats

All of these factors should be evaluated and weighted according to the needs of the records. It can be difficult to imagine what care present-day materials need in order to assure future utility. Permanence and accessibility, however, are key factors. What is the likelihood that the repository will exist in ten, twenty, or more years? How long will the records be kept? Sometimes keeping a collection “safe” in a long-term reliable repository is more important than risking the unknown. Format may also drive the decision. For example, minimal access in a computer archive may provide restricted access in the short-term, but hold the data for future integration into global databases in a form useful in perpetuity.

On the other hand, repositories of all kinds must assess records and determine suitability for acquisition. Archivists have a responsibility to be selective about the documents that will be housed in their repositories. They will not accept collections without appraising the intellectual, historical, or research value, as well as the scope of the subject matter, age, degree of rarity, size/space/ environmental requirements, range of formats, processing needs, and viability of restrictions/requirements for access. Few repositories can afford to store duplicates, and certain types of documents that are more frequently used by researchers may be favored, such as correspondence, teaching materials, field notes, site cards, laboratory diaries, and other unpublished research records. Non-print materials, in particular, will be assessed for future usability and costs of maintenance. In general, repositories are looking to preserve information that has enduring historical and/or research value, compliments other materials in their collections, can be physically accommodated, and ultimately, can remain accessible for future use.

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