I researched government and business archives while I was pursuing my MSLS degree, so I wanted to look into the archival needs of a nonprofit organization in order to round out my understanding of the various needs for and uses of archives.  Here is some of the knowledge that I have gleaned:

  • As with any business, there are certain legal requirements that affect document retention.  The Charities Review Council provides a suggested Document Retention Policy (http://www.smartgivers.org/uploads/record_retention_policy_HNC.docx).  Harvard University’s Record Management Services also provides access to their retention schedule (http://library.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/CommonRecordsAndTheirRetentionPeriods.pdf), which obviously has more of an education focus.  With an eye toward potential researchers of a nonprofit collection, I would suggest a few modifications when considering what to archive permanently after these legal requirements are met.  (1) I’m not sure that bank statements have permanent value for a nonprofit archive, but I think annual budgets could be revealing of the priorities and activities of the organization.  (2) Correspondence can be an interesting window into the leadership and membership of an organization, so it is probably worth keeping.  In an ideal world, rather than keeping the additional bulk of envelopes, each piece of correspondence would be checked to see that the date and sender is indicated on the interior, and then the envelope could be discarded (but this may not be practical).
  • There is an important and necessary distinction between active and inactive records.  By definition, an archive is the final resting place for inactive records that have permanent value.  Current work efforts should be kept in active files, and there is no need to house them in the archives until the project has been completed.  Making decisions about the most appropriate way to organize records after the completion of projects will generate a more cohesive, consistent, and usable set of records.
  • As for new records being generated – knowing that they are likely to be born digital but most archives still consist primarily of analog records – I recommend several standard practices that will make these printed documents more useful to future researchers.  (1)  Use a header or footer that includes the date and the page number, in case the pages become separated.  (2) Make sure the author of the document (or the group, in the case of minutes) is specified.
  • From a documentation standpoint, here are some things that I think might be interesting to future researchers of a nonprofit organization — and may need to be collected via oral histories from members, if other records that fill in these gaps do not exist somewhere: (1) explanations of the additions and deletions of sponsored events, (2) explanations of any fundamental changes in focus or priorities — anything from a name change of the organization to a different office space to a new organizational structure.  This sort of institutional memory is hardest to capture but can be the most interesting to researchers.  In addition to these considerations, it is important for all workers and volunteers (such as committee leaders) to understand up front what sorts of documentation are desired to be created and preserved for future research.
  • Many organizations keep newspaper clippings that relate to their work or events.  The National Park Service has produced a good 4-page document about How to Preserve Acidic Wood Pulp Paper (http://www.nps.gov/history/museum/publications/conserveogram/19-24.pdf) that explains why it’s not a good idea to keep newspapers with other types of records.  If the articles are of a size that can be easily be copied, the original newsprint version can be replaced with a version printed on archival quality paper.  But newspaper articles frequently are of a size that is not conducive to office printers.  Large face-up scanners are becoming more common in university settings and some public libraries, so that might be an option (though transporting the articles for scanning would be problematic).  Best case scenario would be that the articles could be scanned as an OCRed PDF, a copy printed and filed where the original was found, and the originals housed in a separate location.  If it is not practical to print a copy of every article, then there would need to be a separation form placed in the original folder, directing the researcher to the electronic version (whether on a CD or a hard drive).  A sample separation sheet from the Georgia State University Library can be seen at http://soga.org/resources/Documents/FormsForum/SeparationSheet_GeorgiaState.pdf.  (NOTE: especially if a printed copy of each article is not created, it is imperative to keep the originals.  Electronic copies, especially those saved on CDs, can easily degrade if they are not maintained and frequently migrated to new media, so the only way to ensure continued access to the information is by keeping the original.)  The advantage to scanning the articles into a PDF that has been run through OCR is that the files could then be indexed and searched.  Ideally, using a program like Adobe Acrobat Pro, metadata could also be added about each article (e.g., title, author, date, and keywords based on a controlled vocabulary) – but obviously this will be labor-intensive to generate, so the dirty OCR may have to suffice.  However, if the intention is to allow researchers to search the files, it would be preferable to have them all housed on one disk rather than having to search multiple CDs individually.

The issues that affect nonprofit archives are not significantly different than those for other types of archives.  The relative lack of funding and other resources that are available and the transient nature of the volunteer workers certainly complicate the process.  But having transparent goals in place about the intended uses of the archives of a nonprofit organization — including how the records will be accessed — should facilitate the work.

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