Balancing Access and Security in Museums, Libraries and Archives
By Peggy Schaller
Museums must strike a balance between access and security when responding to
patron requests. As institutions, we are in the business of protecting collections in perpetuity AND making them accessible to our audience through exhibitions and patron access. A detailed Collection Access Policy and procedures to implement this policy are required in order to protect collection items. In general, the only people who should have unaccompanied access to the collection storage areas are the staff that have direct charge of caring for the collection:
- The registrar,
- The collection manager, and/or
- The curator.
These are three different job titles that have historically had different responsibilities in museums. Currently, smaller museums may use these titles somewhat interchangeably when they have only one individual handling all the collections-related activities. In the simplest terms, the traditional definitions of these three titles are as follows:
- The registrar is responsible for the intake and paperwork associated with the collection.
- The collections manager is responsible for the physical well-being and use of the collection.
- The curator is responsible for the intellectual content about each of the items in the collection.
The concept of access to secured collection storage areas must be addressed in your written policies and procedures and those policies and procedures must be followed consistently every time access is requested; no exceptions.
Registrars, collections managers, and curators are the individuals who should be allowed unaccompanied access to a collection because it is their job to care for and document the items in the collection. All other staff in the museum need to request permission from collection staff and be accompanied by them during access.
For most requests, the collection staff will bring the requested items or documents out for examination in the secured access room rather than take the requester into the storage area.
Patron access to collections needs to be controlled and monitored to prevent theft or damage to collection items. Too many times museums, libraries, and archives have been victims of unscrupulous people posing as researchers to gain access to important and valuable collection items with the intent to steal. Both large and small institutions are vulnerable; documents have been stolen from small historical societies and from the National Archives.
There are seven key components of collections access policies.
The Work Area
When access is granted to patrons, the first task is to determine WHERE the patron will be working with the collection items and establish guidelines for these areas. This space must be monitored by collections staff. It must be well lit, clean, and uncluttered so that staff can see what the individual is doing with the items requested.
Typically, these areas have set restrictions on what can be brought into the area. If laptops are allowed, make sure that there are outlets where they can be plugged in. Do not allow the case, brief cases, large purses or other bags and coats to be brought into the area. Provide lockers for safe storage of these bulky items.
Allow only a notepad and pencils for taking notes. No pens should be allowed as it is very easy to damage an artifact with a stray pen mark.
Do not allow cameras or use of cell phone cameras in the research area unless you are certain that the photos will not be used in ways you do not want them to be used. When an individual takes a photo, they have copyright to that photo and can use it in any manner they choose.
Written access and collection handling rules should be reviewed with the patron before they are allowed access to the collection. A copy of these rules should be given to the patron and the patron should be asked to sign an acknowledgment that they understand and will abide by the rules.
When to Grant Access
A policy for WHEN access can be granted to special collections, archives or stored collection material needs to be established and enforced.
One question to ask when creating such a policy is: will the collection be available any time for anyone to access without prior notification? This may not be the best choice for controlled, staff monitored access. Keep in mind, staff members have daily duties to attend to, projects and other work to complete and may not be fully available, or "have their minds in the game," when asked to drop what they are doing to assist and monitor someone who has requested access. Additionally, without prior knowledge of what the patron might want, a staff member might not have the required materials in the collection or be able to access them in an efficient manner.
There are two recommended alternatives to an "all access" policy.
By appointment only. In this policy, a request for access must be made in advance and scheduled for a time convenient for staff and the patron. A written request form should be required that outlines the requested materials and the purpose of use. Requiring written requests also allows the staff to determine if the repository actually has the materials being requested. Having a scheduled time will allow the staff to access the requested materials and monitor their use by the patron without distractions that could result in damage or theft of materials from the collection.
Scheduled hours for access. If the repository feels that limiting access to appointments only is too restrictive, then setting scheduled hours when staff will be available and totally engaged in helping patrons is another method of granting access that provides dedicated staff for pulling and monitoring materials requested. This policy can be implemented on a daily, weekly or monthly basis and can be customized to fit the demands of each institution.
Who will be allows access
Determine WHO will be allowed these special privileges.The organization will need to determine if they will permit anyone to access the collection with or without a substantive reason, or if the policy should include a required purpose stated at the time of the request.
A patron with a stated project, an individual doing genealogy or family research, or a student working on an academic paper are all considered appropriate reasons for requesting access to collections. "Just wanting to see what you have" may not be an appropriate request and might be a "fishing expedition" for valuable items.
Visitors from out of town, who have not made advanced appointments, may need to complete a written research request form including contact information and specific questions pertaining directly to the request for access. With this information, staff can then research the request and get back in touch with the visitor to let them know if such materials are available, provide a list of those materials and a cost for copies of the materials. Copies of the materials can then be sent once payment has been received.
Know the purpose of the request
It is important to know the purpose of the access request. A written research request form is just one step in the entire research request process. A complete, pre-determined process should include:
- An application process that requests information on the research topic;
- List any and all materials the patron is looking for
- Identify what the patron wants or needs from the collection
- Identify what the final product of the research will be. Will it be a publication, an academic paper, for family research, or something else?
- Determine if the museum will need to request or will receive a copy of the research project for their records.
Staff monitoring is an important security procedure to prevent damage or theft of materials. Staff should be able to see what the patron is doing at all times. No one should be allowed to access the collection on their own. If possible, patrons should be issued a visitor badge which should be visible at all times while they are accessing the collection.
Be sure to review and obtain a signed acknowledgement of the access and handling rules prior to allowing the patron access to the collection. It is also advisable to require the patron to read and listen to verbal handling instructions - the dos and don'ts of handling museum objects and documents - and sign, acknowledging they have understood the instructions. These instructions should include the following:
- Clean hands or gloves are required and an explanation about when each is appropriate.
- The use of pencils only, no pens
- No food, drink or smoking in the work area.
- Proper handling of objects
- Proper handling of documents and the importance of keeping documents in order
- Proper handling of photographs; and
- Reviewing the list of items that are allowed or not allowed in the work area.
You will also need to create a sign-in sheet or patron log to track the types of uses for which the collections are accessed. This log should include the patron's name and contact information, the purpose of the research and the items requested and used, as well as, the date and time of access. Make a copy of the patron's identification to attach to the log. Tracking which materials are used the most, or the least, will give the repository a better understanding for the level of processing or cataloging that might be appropriate for each of the materials. The log will also be invaluable should anything turn up missing or damaged, as it will aid in narrowing down who was the last person to access the material and when.
Staff should access and re-file all materials requested by patrons. One folder at a time or one object should be pulled by a staff person and presented to the patron for review. Staff should then instruct the patron they will only be allowed to view one set of records or object at a time. When each is returned, another set of records or another object will be brought out. With archival materials, emphasis should be placed on maintaining the order of the materials and instructions given for photocopy requests. The staff member will need to record and re-file, or store, the viewed material when the patron is finished.
Staff should always be present or at least within visual range of the patron during their use of the collection. If the patron is doing a side-by-side comparison of related or similar materials, a staff member should be present to assist with the handling of the items and to make sure no harm comes to them.
If requested, staff should make all photocopies. Provide slips of paper to be placed next to the item to be copied in the folder to mark that item for copying. The patron should be instructed NOT to remove any item from the folder, but simply mark it for the staff member to copy. Post-it notes should NEVER be used on any object or document! The item to be copied should only be removed and replaced by a staff person.
It is important to have a written policy that establishes whether there will be a cost to the patron for photocopies and digital formats for digitized collection items. These costs are usually by the page, image, or per CD or DVD. The permitted uses for photocopies and digital copies must be outlined in the policy. Actual costs should be stated in your facility's written procedures as it is easier to change procedures than policy and actual costs may change over time.
The information on cost and uses of copies should be included in the information provided to the patron prior to accessing the collection.
Copyright and Publication Rules
Establish a policy statement regarding publication of the institution's materials which should include:
- Requesting and granting permission to publish
- Information on whether the institution will receive copies of the published work; and
- The credit line to be used to credit the institution for the material used, if applicable.
A copy of the Copyright Notice should be provided to the patron within the instruction packet. This notice should include a statement outlining how the institution reserves the right to refuse a copying order if it feels it would violate copyright.
Written permission to publish should be requested and can be granted only if the museum holds the copyright to the material requested. If the material is in the public domain and no longer protected under copyright, permission can be granted should the museum choose to do so.
Be sure your facility's policy and procedures outline the steps to be taken to verify the status of the copyright, what the museum will do if it does not hold the copyright, and proper steps for when the patron wants to use the material beyond what is appropriate for Fair Use under the statute.
If the museum does not hold the copyright, it is the patron's responsibility to obtain permission to use the material from the copyright holder. Be sure this is also stated in your policy. It is best practice to have a form for the patron to sign acknowledging this so it is clearly understood.
Additionally, obtain a copy of any publication where the collections are used. This will become part of the museum files.
Finally, be sure to include a section on the permissible and not permissible uses of museum materials. Is it OK for collection images to be reproduced on t-shirts, non-affiliated websites, coffee mugs, or other non-related items?
These seven components of the Researcher/Patron section of the Collection Access Policy will prepare the museum for any interaction with patron access requests. Implementation of the Collection Access Policy requires written procedures and forms. These forms and handouts should include:
- A Copy of the Access Policy,
- Research Request Form,
- Researcher/Patron Rules,
- Handling Rules, which should also be reinforced with verbal instruction,
- Copyright and publication rules
- Sign-in sheet, with a place for materials accessed, and
- Costs for providing copies of materials.
This policy must be applied consistently for everyone and all procedures must be followed each and every time a request for access is made. No exceptions.
When creating Patron Rules, here are some suggestions to include.
- Patrons must sign in and give a short description of the purpose or topic of their research.
- Patrons are allowed to bring a notebook, pencils only, notebook computer without a case, and tape recorders into the work area.
- No backpacks, briefcases, computer cases, purses or coats will be allowed in the work area. These items must be checked at the reception desk or in the provided lockers.
- No food, drink or tobacco use is permitted.
- Staff will access and re-file all materials requested by the patron.
- Materials will be accessed one file or object at a time.
- Patrons must maintain the documents in the same order in which they are found within each file.
- Photocopies of any materials requested by the patron will be made by museum staff. The item(s) to be photocopied will not be removed from the file without staff approval and a placeholder sheet will be placed in the file by the staff person while the copy is being made to ensure the document is returned to the proper location within the file.
- Patrons will be charged X amount per page for photocopies; and
- Include a statement regarding publishing permission, circumstances and copyright.
An effective Collection Access Policy allows a museum, archive, or library special collection to provide safe and secure access to their archival, photographic and object collections. Key points of the policy must be made available in writing to the institution's visitors. It is vital that all policy and procedures be followed consistently.
The burden of research is on the researcher, but staff must ensure the availability of the collection for the next patron to view. Remember; do not let yourself be distracted from supervising the patron and his or her work with the collection. It is your responsibility to keep the collection safe and complete.
Peggy Schaller is the Publications Manager; Certificate Program Coordinator; Newsletter Editor; and General Course Coordinator at Northern States Conservation Center. She is also an instructor for Museums Classes Online teaching collection management courses. Peggy is also the Principle of Collections Research for Museums which she founded in 1991.