Collection Development Policy

No matter what size the institution—from an all-volunteer, small town historical society with limited financial resources to a nationally recognized museum with an annual budget in the millions of dollars—, there are a great many benefits to a well-written, practical collection development policy.

A collection development policy defines the scope of an institution’s holdings, specifically by detailing what an institution (i.e. museum, library, archive, historical society) collects. Even more importantly, it also details why it collects certain things and not others. A good policy establishes collecting priorities and thus improves the depth and breadth of items and objects in collections over time. A collection policy also enables an institutional governing authority or board to fulfill its fiduciary and stewardship responsibilities.

Often, well-intentioned though misguided donors will assume their local historical society collects any and all "old" books, photographs, maps, correspondence, and other such objects, regardless of their condition or provenance. Yet no one institution can afford to accept donations in a haphazard manner. It would be a mistake, for example, for a small county historical society to accept items from all time periods and locations. No matter what size the institution is, storage space is usually at a premium; and, such practices would place undue strain on staffing and financial resources.

A collection development policy obligates an institution and its staff to ask questions integral to its mission, vision, ethics statement, and overall sense of purpose: should a small town museum or library in Idaho, for instance, need to collect, preserve, catalog, and store a large collection of photographs of the Manhattan skyline? What if the photos were taken by an amateur photographer that once lived in that Idaho town? A clear collection development policy can answer these and other questions, such as: Will this donation prove helpful to visitors making use of our resources? Will this donation help us better tell the stories we want to tell?

A common mistake when embarking on collection development is to draft a policy based on protecting (or giving precedence to) current collections regardless of their utility to the institution’s overall mission or purpose. This approach, however, simply compounds existing institutional biases. Once a clearly written collection development policy is complete and approved, you should be prepared to deaccession items and objects. Although it is often difficult to deaccession long-held material, hard choices can improve the cohesiveness of the remaining collection and create space for new acquisitions.

Finally, although it may seem counterintuitive, the process of writing and implementing a collection development policy can be as important as the policy itself. The process can greatly improve staff and volunteer understanding and appreciation of the institution’s responsibilities to its "shareholders," including its governing authority or board, members, visitors, and the public at large. An institution’s collection policy should reinforce and inform the institution’s mission or vision statement by providing answers to the most basic questions: Why are we here, and what are we trying to accomplish?

Further Reading

Each institution has unique collections and unique challenges and opportunities, and thus every policy will be likewise unique. That said, many collecting institutions have placed their development and/or management collection policies online. Examining other policies online or, better yet, talking directly with staff at peer institutions, will undoubtedly prove helpful to establishing your own. In addition, national organizations like the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the American Library Association (ALA) have online guides to developing and managing collections:

American Alliance of Museums (AAM)
Alliance reference guide: Developing a collections management policy.

American Library Association (ALA)
Local History Committee of the History Section, Reference and Adult Services Association
RUSA guidelines for establishing local history collections.

For more references on collection policy, see Collection Development Policy in the Collection ID Guide.

Preservation Planning

A preservation plan is a document that addresses the overarching preservation needs and approaches for the collection(s) in your care and considers what steps the institution must take to address these needs with the resources it has available or means to acquire. A plan should address the value of materials—where value may be monetary, curatorial, rarity, or any combination of these—and should encompass all of the institution's collections to some extent, while prioritizing based on a collection's preservation needs. Preservation plans should be living documents, which grow and adapt over time as collections are added to the institution and institutional priorities change. Revision should occur regularly every few years to accommodate accomplished goals as well as changing priorities and opportunities.

The PSAP can help with the formation of a preservation plan by giving you a deeper understanding of what collection materials are most at risk and, therefore, which collections require the most pressing preservation attention.

A preservation plan should describe the current state (or lack thereof) of preservation programs and initiatives at your institution, and it should acknowledge support and interest in furthering preservation efforts. It should clearly outline prioritized preservation needs and available resources, policies, and operations that support those needs. Specifically, a primary purpose of the preservation plan is to establish near and long-term goals for the development of a preservation program or initiative. These goals should be prioritized for implementation in some manner, such as by those which are obtainable with current staff and funding followed by those which are only obtainable through reallocated internal resources or external sources like grant funding.

Format-Specific Preservation Plans

It may be useful to consider tailoring preservation plans or portions of a larger preservation plan for a collection towards certain formats in order to develop preservation progress in a certain area. Audiovisual materials especially may benefit by this approach because of their unique fragility and susceptibility to obsolescence. The PSAP can help you assess the AV materials in your collections so that you can make informed and targeted decisions in terms of what to conserve and reformat and when to do so. Similarly, early photographic materials or fragile reprographic processes may be evaluated using the PSAP to guide collection managers in setting meaningful goals for the preservation of these often unique or near unique collection materials.

For more references and resources on preservation plans, see Preservation Planning in the User-Manual.

Cataloging / Description

An undocumented, under-processed, or misrepresented collection can be especially vulnerable to theft, neglect, deterioration, improper storage, and deaccessioning. Although typically collecting institutions create inventory controls and finding aids for using collections, these materials may be limited to in-house use only or may not provide adequate access for researchers. Accession records created primarily for internal inventory control purposes, such as when an item or collection was accessioned, may not be authoritative, descriptive, or publicly searchable.

Why is description critical to collection management?

Originals & Copies

As we are charged with preserving cultural heritage, we strive to maintain original artifacts along with their duplicates and surrogates. "Original" here refers to the earliest generation of an object. In some cases, an original object will come directly from a creator’s hand (e.g. manuscript) or straight from a capture device (e.g. photo negative). In these situations, it is relatively easy to determine whether or not the item in hand is unique and if it qualifies as an original. In many instances however, an organization will not know for certain whether it holds the true "original." You may have a film, photo, or document and have no idea if it is the earliest incarnation. Assuming that you have already tried and failed to determine the generation of an object, you should assume that it is the original and treat it accordingly. It should be noted that a commercially released book, postcard, or CD is rarely considered unique.

In order to minimize the inherent risk in exhibition and heavy use by patrons, consider making use copies or facsimiles. This is an effective strategy for 2-D artifacts, especially for fragile photographs and unbound paper documents. High resolution scanning, laser printing, and other modes of high-quality copying enable the creation of very convincing facsimiles for more fragile objects going on view. Some organizations, however, may not find this to be a good fit for their mission or policies.

Recommendations for care of original object:

As a quick illustration, let's say your institution has an original silver gelatin photograph. The best policy would be to:

Digital Copies

Digitization is the process by which digital copies of analog materials are made. Digitization is becoming increasingly critical as analog formats become obsolete or endangered by inherent vice. Making high quality digital copies for access purposes spares the originals from possible damage. However, a digitization program can be costly for an institution. This is one key reason to preserve your analog originals for as long as possible. Because digitization also takes time and effort, it is best to plan to digitize your materials over time as part of your ongoing preservation workflow.

Digital formats have evolved quickly in a short period of time and continue to evolve. For this reason, the PSAP cannot recommend particular digital formats that are assured to be valid through the indefinite future. However, here are a few resources that can provide assistance along the way:

A (Very Brief) Word on Digital Preservation

It is important to remember that digital copies must also be preserved, which is no easy task. Digital objects face obsolescence at least as much as analog objects. As digital media evolve, older formats are sometimes discarded and can become difficult to support. For example, were you to have a WordStar document today, it would be hard to find a way to access that document. The PSAP does not address digital preservation, since it is a vast and burgeoning field and falls outside the scope of this tool. For our purposes here, it should suffice to say that as you create digital surrogates of your analog originals, you will have to take steps to preserve those digital copies. Researching storage systems and digital formats will be critical to the long-term preservation of your digital materials.

Digitizing AV Media

When choosing to digitize your AV media, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Ownership & Copyright

If you are unsure whether your institution owns the rights to a particular work, it is safest to operate under the assumption that you do not. Presently, the only materials without copyright protection are those in the public domain and those where explicit permission has been granted by the rights holder. If you don't own the rights to an item and are unsure of who does, you may be able to locate the owner through the U.S. Copyright office by searching through the copyright records.

Section 108 of the Copyright code currently provides archives and libraries with very specific and limited rights to duplicate materials for very specific preservation or access needs. However, Section 108 does not allow for unlimited duplication. For example, in the case of unpublished works, the library or archives must already have a copy of the work before preservation copies can be made. For published works, libraries and archives can only make duplicates to replace a copy it has or used to have in its collection; and, this can only be done in situations where the copy is deteriorating, has been damaged, or has been lost or stolen, and where the format has become obsolete. Additionally, duplication can only occur after effort has been made to locate the item in a current, non-obsolete format at a reasonable price.

We strongly recommend you research section 108 prior to making duplication decisions so you are aware of your rights. Copyright laws are constantly in flux, so it is advisable to revisit the current status of the law to ensure that provisions have not changed. The Copyright Crash Course sponsored by University of Texas' Libraries is a good resource for copyright basics as they apply to libraries and archives. For general background, the Copyright Clearance Center does a great job of explaining the many facets of copyright law. And of course, there is also U.S. Copyright law itself.

Copyright and intellectual property issues are thorny, especially when considering archival materials and copying. In general, copyright grants rights holders five exclusive right to their works:

  1. Reproduction: the right to make a copy of the work;
  2. Distribution: the right to disseminate physical copies to others;
  3. Public performance: the right to publicly screen, broadcast, or show film through various venues including on the Internet;
  4. The right to prepare derivative works (e.g. remakes, adaptations);
  5. The right of public display, including the use of frame enlargements and the presentation of video.

If your institution has secured a transfer of rights from a donor for a specific work, you still may not have the full right make the work accessible through digital systems or public presentation. In the case of film, there may be many underlying rights. Such rights may be associated with the music in the film or to the literary work on which the film is based. In the case of audio works, some rights may be covered under federal law and also by state law. You may be able to provide access through the doctrine of Fair Use; this is, however, not a fail-safe way to circumvent copyright. Before copying and making materials accessible (especially if your intent is to provide access via the Internet), be sure to research what copyrights your materials are covered under, who owns the rights, and the provisions and risks associated with Fair Use.

Allowing Audiovisual Playback

It is a best practice for an institution to create duplicates of its AV media originals for access. Some institutions, however, will not have the time or the resources to duplicate their originals. In these cases, it is best to protect the originals from wear and tear as much as possible. To this end, we recommend that you not allow your users to play back the originals without assistance from your staff. Playback machines can put stress on all audiovisual materials, even those that are in excellent shape. Your staff have more experience with your audiovisual materials and playback equipment, and they should handle and monitor playback for your users whenever possible.

Allowing Loans to Institutions

Any time originals leave your institution, they are exposed to risk. The rigors of shipping, which can include temperature and humidity variations, can be very hard on your collection items. When sharing your materials with other institutions, consider sending access copies instead whenever possible. When materials leave your care, you have little to no control over how they are handled. It is best to keep your originals safely in your custody and the access copies with the borrowing institution.

Allow Loaning to Others

As in the case of institutional loans, it is best to never let your originals out of your care. Should you decide to allow your patrons to take collection materials off the premises, it is best to send them with access copies.

Cleaning and Repairing

After performing a diagnostic inspection on the collection, an institution may find that it cannot carry out preservation and conservation efforts as expected. Sometimes, the problem is not that an institution lacks the resources or dedicated working space to give a collection for repairs and cleaning but that other institutional forces prevent conservation from taking place. These factors may include:

Outside of institutional considerations, other major factors that determine whether the collection should be sent off to experts for cleaning and repair include:

Similar to the problems impeding material inspection, the best solution can be to send a collection out for treatment by specialists. See Material Inspection and Cleaning for more information, including online resources for those seeking conservation advice.

Visual Inspection

Simple inspections of materials can identify a number of problems, such as pest exposure, mold, and physical damage. They can also be very effective in assessing the condition of items at a level in which documentation and description is easily done.

The first consideration of institutions should be whether or not they have the staff, physical space, and resources to undertake an inspection of collections in-house. As an assessment tool, the PSAP provides a way to circumvent some of the hurdles that smaller institutions have trouble getting around. In particular, the program relies on visual inspection, which is an approach that does not require specific equipment or advanced training. PSAP's Supplementary Guides are intended to aid both staff and volunteers as they assess collections with unfamiliar materials and formats. In addition to the full profiles that are available in the Collection ID Guide, PSAP has three format and material identification cheatsheets intended to provide further assistance in this respect:

In some cases diagnostic inspections are impossible, due to either institutional limitations or the state of the material to be assessed. Institutions do not always have the resources to provide specialized equipment and playback devices. The case can be as simple as:

The situation could also be more complicated, such as:

In these last two situations, it may be wise to enlist the help of preservation and conservation specialists.

Audiovisual Playback Inspection

Audiovisual materials pose a dilemma to collections managers. In order to know for certain the condition of many kinds of AV materials, they must be played. Yet, this playback can damage the materials, rendering them inaccessible and possibly destroying them altogether.

Playback inspection poses risks to materials that cannot always be anticipated. When using the PSAP, remember that playback assessment for AV items like magnetic audio and video tape, which are both materials that cannot be fully evaluated with the naked eye, is more definitively diagnostic than visual inspection, meaning that it is also more potentially perilous to the materials being assessed. It is important to keep in mind that even a tape in pristine condition can be damaged by a playback device. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to predict with visual inspection alone which items will have trouble in playback. For this reason, the PSAP does not recommend playback assessments unless you are reasonably sure not only of the item's physical integrity but also of the proper functioning and cleanliness of your playback devices.

In spite of the advantages sometimes provided by playback inspections, visual inspections do reveal quite a lot of important information about collection materials. They can tell you if an item has been damaged by sunlight, water, poor storage conditions, pests, and mold. They also help identify developing and existing problems with the material's format itself. For example, close visual inspection of a magnetic audio- or videotape may reveal that it is suffering from sticky shed syndrome. Thus, not only would the tape be unsuitable for playback, it also would be in need of remediation (e.g. baking).

Inspection Spaces

Before starting the task of assessing a collection, you must consider whether or not it is a good idea to do so in-house.

Perhaps the first question to ask is, is there a designated clean space for new items to be unpacked and unloaded? Separate from work spaces used for processing and separate from where collections are held, this area should be a fail-safe that enables you to ensure that no matter the state of the incoming materials, your other holdings will remain protected.

Dedicated Inspection Space

To begin assessing a collection, you should have a clean, dust-free, and well-ventilated space dedicated to the handling of materials. This space will serve as a staging area, where materials can be inspected and made ready for later use. This area is where you can perform basic cleaning and repairs as well. Furniture and surfaces in inspection spaces should be large enough to accommodate the largest of the formats featured in your collection.

Materials to have in this space may include:

This is a basic list. You will need more specific materials based on the formats you collect. Inspection areas also should be laid-out with a mind for giving space to the equipment that you may need frequent access to as well as for the equipment that are used less often, including:

For more information about inspection procedures and spaces, see Material Inspection and Cleaning.

Servicing Playback Equipment

Maintaining playback/viewing equipment requires specialized technical knowledge. It is outside the scope of the PSAP to provide specific information about all of the many kinds of audiovisual playback equipment. If you are having problems with your equipment, we strongly encourage you to find a reliable repair service. If you are unsure of where to find one, it is a good idea to consult your local television/radio stations, university or college film or communications departments, or other museums, libraries or archives to find out who they use to keep their equipment in good working order. If you do not possess the expertise necessary to diagnose and maintain your equipment, then creating a good working relationship with someone who can is essential to ensuring the accessibility of your AV materials.

Equipment Manuals

One of the best ways to troubleshoot or maintain your equipment in-house is by consulting the manuals that came with the equipment. Most of these manuals are difficult to procure on their own, so it is best to keep the manuals in a safe place whenever you acquire equipment. Should you need to find manuals for your old equipment, one excellent resource is Sam's Technical Publishing, a company that sells, among other things, manuals for various kinds of equipment, including audiovisual playback devices. Another possibility for finding equipment manuals is posting a request to the listservs for the Association of Moving Image Archivists or the Association of Recorded Sound Collections.

Service Documentation

It is also an excellent idea to keep records of when your equipment was serviced and what was done to it. This can help you to make good choices about which pieces of equipment are likely to be safer for your materials. If you have not used a piece of equipment in a long time, it is best to try it out on a test item that has no value to your collections. For example, if you have not used a VCR in a long time, or you just procured it, it is best to have a "sacrifice" VHS tape on hand that you can try playing in the machine before you put anything valuable in it. Damage to your materials can happen anytime you play them back so this test method is not foolproof, but it is a good practice to follow.

Parts/Equipment Replacement

One of the things that helps to mitigate the obsolescence of your playback/viewing equipment is access to reliable repair and/or parts. So long as a machine can be maintained it can be kept viable and in good order for your collections. Establishing a relationship with a good repair service for your equipment is a must if you do not have the know-how to maintain the equipment yourself. It is best to try to find a repair service near enough to you that you don't have to ship your equipment to them as shipping can introduce more potential for damage.


Vandalism and theft are real threats for any cultural institution. Protecting museum, libraries, and archives, however, is a complex issue as every institution varies in size, each with their own unique set of issues and needs. It is thus necessary for every institution to implement and maintain a comprehensive security program to ensure the safety of employees, visitors, and the artifacts.

The key to an effective security program is to have solid controls in place to aid in the protection, detection, and response according to the vulnerability of the assets and the access required. First and foremost, an integrated program should establish organizational measures and policies to include access/key control, guards, visitor regulations, entrance checks, and emergency preparedness and response. Keys should be issued strictly on an as-needed basis. There is no reason for every staff or board member to have to key to the storage areas, for instance. In addition, all security systems should should take into consideration the construction of the building. All areas of vulnerability—windows, skylights, fire escapes, loading bays, doors, drain pipes—must be assessed and protected. Drainpipes, for examples can be fitted with spikes, while window frames should be strongly constructed with locks that conform to national standards.

In addition to safeguarding the building, low-tech and high-tech systems should also be installed to assist security and protect the collections. The most important measure is to keep interior areas locked. Low-tech security measures include providing levels of access to the facility and collections, using staff and visitor badges, bag searches, maintaining a sign-in and sign-out sheet for all staff and visitors, and monitoring researchers as they use the collections. Other low-tech security measures include the use of barriers near entrances, such as turnstiles or revolving doors, stationing staff in exhibit areas to monitor activity, and securing display cases and works of art with locks, brackets, or hanging devices.

The use of high-tech security measures is also important in achieving an integrated security program. Ideally, an institution should utilize multiple devices to minimize risk while maximizing protection of the collections. These devices include intruder alarms, motion detectors, electronic locking systems, panic buttons, and CCTV cameras, which may deter potential theft or vandalism. It is important to note that these high-tech systems should be regularly maintained to prevent false alarms.

Supervision and Theft Risk

Keeping collections secure often means mediating public access to materials. The more control and supervision you have over your collection materials, the more you can protect them from damage. Circulating collections take the most abuse and are consequently the most potentially at-risk for damage. The following are levels of access control:

High control
These are collections that are kept locked away from public access. These materials are rarely, if ever, used and only by trained staff. The public cannot handle these materials. These materials are, as a result, at very low risk of theft.
Moderate control
These are collections to which the public has mediated access. Qualified researchers can access these materials in a monitored environment, such as a reading room or designated viewing/listening space. Researchers can handle items with proper restrictions and under supervision. These materials are at moderate risk for theft, as well as improper handling and use.
No control
These are collections that are stored in public areas. Researchers can access these materials in unmonitored environments. These materials are at high risk for theft, as well as improper handling and use. These are typically part of an educational collection, not a permanent or special collection.

Disaster Recovery Plan

A disaster recovery plan establishes how an institution will respond to a range of disasters. Creating a plan involves risk assessment: asking what could go wrong, how likely is it, what would result? Review risks to your building and collections by systematically examining facilities from top to bottom and from outside in. Note areas where mitigation might prevent damage.The plan should delineate, among other things, how you will treat your materials if they are exposed to flooding, fire, smoke, storms, vandalism, building systems failure, and other disasters. Having a disaster plan in place before a disaster strikes can make your response much more effective and can potentially keep a bad situation from becoming much worse.

A disaster plan should include information about:

Make a concerted effort to keep the disaster plan current, especially when it comes to names and contact information. Annual revision, redistribution, and group review of the document is a good strategy. The more copies out there—online, in print, in the hands of staff, in your building, and even at home—the stronger your organization’s line of communication will be when disaster strikes. And perhaps just as important as having the plan is drilling and practicing the plan semi-regularly. It is crucial to keep the current plan readily accessible and familiar. Disaster waits for no one. The fate of your collections depend on your ability to act with vigilance.

dPlan and dPlan Lite are excellent online tools that can guide you through the process of generating a disaster recovery plan. A disaster plan should outline responsibilities and teams to whom they are assigned, along with alternate contacts. In the event of a disaster, flexibility will crucial as many will not be available. Also specify what materials have priority with regard to evacuation and recovery. Using the PSAP to assess your materials can help you to generate a prioritized list of what materials will need attention in the event of a disaster.

Format-Specific Recovery Plans

Many photographic, audiovisual, and special collections materials will be particularly susceptible to incidental damages. When crafting a disaster plan, be sure to speak to the protection and salvage of these distinct, fragile items.

Some basic tips to consider:

Audiovisual-Specific Disaster Recovery

AV materials are often difficult, if not impossible, to treat in-house in the event of a disaster. To further complicate matters, the various formats have different needs in terms of disaster recovery and cleaning. It is best to turn the materials over to experts to avoid further damage.

Access to Disaster Recovery Tools

In the event of a disaster, it is ideal to have contact information for the disaster recovery services at hand. Maintain a current list for servicers and emergency responders both local and beyond. Do the homework now; form a relationship with these resource providers prior to disaster. This should help your organization to act swiftly and effectively.

Disaster Recovery Services/Vendors

The Preservation Self-Assessment Program assumes no responsibility for the professionalism of any of the vendors/consultants listed by or related to these resources. These lists are not meant to endorse, recommend, or require use of any private vendor/consultant, nor does omission indicate censure.

See our list of Disaster Resources for more vendors and informational online resources.