7. Access

Previous section: 6. Collections Care

Next section: 8. Legal Issues

(c) Mike Rogers
Arrangements for On-site Access
Restrictions on Access
Handling Archives
Display and Exhibition of Archives
Group Visits
Handling Collections
Digitisation of Archives
Social Media

Access is one of the fundamental reasons for preserving archival material. However, it needs to be carefully balanced with the needs for preservation. If you are a private individual, business or member organisation, there is no obligation to make your archives available to the public, and usage may be confined to colleagues and members, unless you make a conscious choice to make all or selected material available to researchers. However, if you are a museum open to the public, the archives you collect (as opposed to internal administrative records) form part of your wider collections, and are primarily kept in order to be used and enjoyed, so you should be able to make suitable arrangements for researchers, and the simply curious, to obtain information from them.

There is a variety of means of access, which will depend on your premises, the availability of staff or volunteers, and what technology you have. If you do not have space for external researchers, you may be able to offer a remote enquiry service by post or email. If you are very well resourced you may already have a sophisticated website which gives remote users the facility to view or purchase relevant digital images without needing to liaise directly with you. For some researchers, access to your catalogues, and the knowledge that an item exists, may be enough for their purposes. However, in many cases, researchers will want to visit you to view original material, and you will need to have suitable facilities and procedures to enable such visits.

If you offer a research service, it is helpful to put details on your website, indicating timescales for replies, how much research you are able to carry out, if there is a charge for the service and/or for any copies supplied, and the sort of information you may be able (or not) to provide, together with contact details and arrangements for payment.

Arrangements for On-site Access

Some of the issues to consider when opening your collections to external researchers are:

  • Researchers will need to be able to find you. Details of your research facilities, opening hours, access arrangements and appropriate contact details, should be made available on your website, together with key policies and procedures, and details of your collections.
  • You can apply to The National Archives to have a free entry in the online Find an Archive directory, which is a comprehensive directory of archive repositories in the UK. Please see https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/contact-us/update-or-add-an-archive/ for details.
  • Suitable desk space should be made available in a clean, tidy, area with good lighting, but preferably not direct sunlight. Thought should be given to what else is held in that area (risk of theft, data protection breach, Health & Safety issues etc). 
  • If items in electronic format are being consulted, suitable equipment will need to be made available so that it can be easily viewed.
  • Staff and volunteers will require similar workspaces, so consider creating a dedicated “search room” or research area.
  • You should create an area, ideally outside of the search room, where researchers and volunteers can leave coats, umbrellas, bags and refreshments. This reduces the risk of theft, but also keeps potentially damp clothes away from the archives. If you have more than one researcher at a time, you may need to invest in some lockers so that they are comfortable leaving their possessions out of sight.
  • Unless there a regularly staffed search room, research visits should normally be by prior arrangement. This will enable space to be reserved, staffing arranged, and if possible, documents retrieved in advance. Depending on staff or volunteer availability, you may only be able to offer sessions on a specific day or days of the week. Local circumstances will dictate whether this matches some or all of your organisation’s regular opening patterns, or is scheduled for days when you are not normally open to the public.
  • Think about how visitors will gain entry to the research area? Should they report to your organisation’s main reception desk, or come to a specific door and ring a bell? If the door is external, do you require an entry phone to allow remote access, or at least to let them know that it will take you a while to get to the door?
  • If you are lone-working, you may wish to install a panic button or have a mobile phone at hand in case of an emergency.
  • If you use CCTV for security, make sure appropriate notices are displayed, researchers are made aware, and procedures are in place for deleting recordings in a timely manner.
  • If you require external researchers to provide ID with proof of address, or a reference or letter of introduction, make sure that this is made clear before their visit so that they can be prepared, e.g. on your website and in any correspondence or conversation. You should compile a list of what ID is acceptable. Decide whether you require researchers to declare what they are researching and how they intend to use their research.
  • Also make it clear beforehand if you can allow researchers to take photographs of items, and if you charge for this facility. Consider copyright implications, and if you need to get them to complete copyright declaration forms. Also consider if there are some items that they cannot photograph, and how you make this clear. If you do not allow personal photography at all, do you have alternative means of providing copies?
  • Most archives require researchers to sign-in on each visit so that they know who is in the building in case of fire, and to help compile statistics. If you ask for details such as full addresses, telephone numbers and vehicle registrations, make sure that these cannot be seen by subsequent visitors or you may be in breach of GDPR.
  • External researchers should in most circumstances be supervised while looking at original material. This is to protect the documents from theft/alteration/addition, to ensure that they are handled with care, and that the physical arrangement is not mixed up or items replaced in incorrect boxes. Many institutions do not allow researchers to work through large amounts of uncatalogued material.
  • Only pencils should be used when consulting documents. Pens, highlighters etc can cause permanent damage.
  • Think about how you will facilitate breaks and trips to the bathroom. If you have to escort researchers to and from public areas for these purposes, as well as when they arrive and depart, think about how you can still supervise any other researchers whilst out of the room? This may be a case of having a colleague on call. If lone-working, you may need to lock the other researchers out of the room temporarily, or take away their documents and store them securely in a locked drawer, cupboard or safe while you are absent.
  • Don’t forget to plan how you will facilitate your own breaks as well: food and drink should not be consumed in a search room or research area, again because of the risk to the documents, and that prohibition should include you.
  • When items are removed from storage it is important that they are replaced correctly, or they may be difficult to find in the future. A slip system is useful for keeping track of movements. This can take many forms, but the key feature is that a slip with at least the date, document reference number, and a name is left on the vacant shelf, and removed when the item is correctly replaced. Consider keeping a log of items issued so that you can check who last had the item (in case of theft) or what else was out at the same time if you can’t find something at a later date (it is easy for single items to get put away with something else). Issue logs are also useful for quantifying which parts of your collections are used most often, and for monitoring whether any specific items are very heavily used.
  • Discoverability. It is far easier to locate and issue items if they are catalogued and have individual reference numbers. Catalogues can take the form of print-outs, but it is more useful to researchers if they can be mounted online. Only large institutions can afford sophisticated online catalogues, but Word or PDF lists are better than nothing. See Section 4: Cataloguing above for more information on cataloguing and numbering.
  • Staff will need to know how to locate items in storage, so a shelf-guide is useful.
  • Original items should not normally be taken off site, or moved to parts of the building other than the store, search room, or areas used for cataloguing and copying, even by staff. If items are being formally loaned to another institution, or being taken off-site for copying or conservation treatment, make sure that suitable paperwork is prepared and retained. Items should not normally be loaned to individuals, other than on return to their owner if deposited.

Restrictions on Access

There can be valid reasons for not making material available to researchers:

  • Legal reasons
    • GDPR if the items contain personal information on living persons
    • Legal liability.
  • The wishes of the owner/governing body
    • They may have asked for certain records to remain closed for a number of years, because of personal information or commercial reasons.
  • The physical condition of the item
    • If producing the item will cause irreparable damage.
  • It forms part of a large, unsorted, collection, and cannot easily be identified and located or needs to be checked for data protection and other issues.

Handling Archives

Archives are easily damaged accidentally, so all staff, volunteers and researchers should know how best to handle items in order to avoid unnecessary risks:

  • No food or drink should be allowed anywhere near documents.
  • Handle archives as little as possible.
  • Ensure hands are clean and dry.
  • Examine archives for signs of damage before making them available.
  • Use only pencil or electronic devices for taking notes – never pens.
  • Never use adhesive stickers to mark pages (or ‘Post it’ type sticky notes).
  • Use soft, flexible weights to hold pages in place.
  • Never moisten or lick fingers to turn pages.
  • Unpackaged photographs and negatives should not be handled with bare hands – use disposable nitrile gloves.
  • Be careful when moving heavy items, use a trolley.
  • Never carry heavy, awkward or large items on your own.
  • Support documents at all times – large items need a large table. Bound volumes need supports such as foam wedges or pillows so that they don’t open too far and damage the spine. Padded strip weights can help prevent plans or volumes with over tight bindings from curling upwards while being displayed or consulted.
  • Have a clean, flat work space away from hazards ready before bringing out the archival material.
  • Photocopying and scanning can cause damage to documents through exposure to strong light and closing the lid to flatten the document. If you must copy in this way, copy once only and keep the photocopy or digital scan to make other copies from. Document feeder trays on photocopiers and scanners can damage documents and should not be used for copying archive material.

Most established archives have a list of rules for consulting documents, which incorporate the above principles, with local variations in detail. These are often available online so you can look for examples which best match your own circumstances. Ideally, you should get your rules signed off by your governing body. Display the rules clearly in your search room or research area, put them on your website if appropriate, and explain them clearly to new researchers. You should ask new readers to sign an agreement to abide by the rules as a condition of access.

Display and Exhibition of Archives

The use of archival material in exhibitions and displays is a way of engaging far larger audiences than individual researchers, can highlight your collections, and inspire further research. In museums, archival material can add context to some of the objects.

However, because of their sensitivity to light and environmental factors, archives should not be put on permanent display. In addition, items on display are not available for detailed research, particularly if they are volumes displayed in a cabinet.

So consider what material you put on display, and exchange items regularly to avoid overexposure to light. Some items, such as newspapers, will be more vulnerable than others.

If you are part of a museum, work with your exhibitions colleagues to find compromises. You will know your collections better than anyone else, and can offer ideas for new displays, alternative items that can be rotated without detracting from a permanent display, and rarely requested but visual items which could enhance existing exhibitions.

Archives should be exhibited in locked display cabinets as these provide both security and a degree of environmental protection, and possibly specialist lighting. The quality and cost of display cabinets varies greatly and you will probably be limited to what is already available on site, or by what funds have already been allocated for this purpose. 

BS 4971:2017 Conservation and care of archive and library collections offers detailed guidance on ideal environmental conditions for different types of material in exhibitions, together with advice on features and siting of display cabinets, and supporting and mounting items. In general terms, relative humidity should be maintained at similar levels to normal storage, temperature should not exceed 24oC, and light exposure (particularly UV radiation) should be minimised. Keep displays out of direct sunlight or other bright light and consider having a cloth cover for the case when the contents are not being viewed.

At one-off events, it may be necessary to display original items on tables. Such displays should be supervised to guard against theft, and to make sure guests don’t bring food, drink, pens, or even dirty fingers into the proximity of items, all of which could cause damage. If possible, open volumes should be supported using specialist foam supports or book cushions. You may need to use weights to keep large items such as plans flat but make sure they are clean and not corroded. Conservation quality polyester pockets or sheets can be used to cover particularly sensitive items so that they won’t be touched.

You should avoid using original archives at outdoor events because of the additional risks posed by the weather (sun, rain and wind can all cause damage), as well the risk of loss or damage while transporting the material to and from the event.

Group Visits

It is common for archives to facilitate group visits. These could be a transport enthusiasts’ society visiting your site in general, a local club filling a slot in their annual diary of events, a group of students attending as part of an induction process, curators and archivists from other institutions looking for ideas, or individuals attending tours as part of open days. On such occasions it is usual to show the visitors your research facilities, your finding aids, and a small display of documents, combined with a brief look at your storage area (if safe and desirable). You may need to tailor the number of visitors to the size of your accommodation, or break them into smaller groups for parts of the visit, in which case you will need assistance to help supervise and facilitate. Such visits can help to raise the profile of your archives and may attract new researchers or volunteers.

Handling Collections

Unless carrying out independent research, your visitors will rarely have the opportunity to actually touch archives and turn pages themselves, but archives can be used to great effect in learning activities and reminiscence sessions. Close proximity to, and handling of, historical items can engage the senses, help the user engage with the past, and make a lasting impression. However, the use, and over-use, of original items can lead to damage, particularly if they are being handed around a group, so think about alternative ways of making your collections accessible:

  • In many cases a good facsimile can be used instead of an original, particularly where the image is the key element. This could be a commercially purchased reproduction, or an in-house copy from an item in your own collection. Think about the colour and texture of the paper you use for facsimiles, such as shiny paper for photographs or thick cream paper for documents, to make them more appealing than basic photocopies. A colour reproduction of a document can look better than a black and white reproduction, even if there is very little colour in the original.
  • Consider creating a handling collection of unaccessioned items, specifically for use by groups. If your collection contains a large number of duplicates (e.g. magazines, technical manuals), you could consider de-accessioning some examples [see Section 2: Collecting and Accessioning above], or not accessioning newly acquired duplicates, to use specifically in such a handling collection. These items do not have to be stored or handled with the same care as accessioned collections, and can be disposed of and replaced when worn out.
  • Small, sensitive or fragile items, such as photographs, can be encapsulated in conservation quality polyester pockets, which will help to protect them.

Handling collections have the added advantage that they can be taken off-site, or even loaned out to groups who cannot visit in person, without risk to your core collection.

If you are part of a museum, you may have colleagues who specialise in education and engagement activities and are already familiar with handling collections of objects. It would make sense to work with them to enhance their existing resources rather than starting from the beginning yourself.

Digitisation of Archives

Digitisation enables the use of archives on-site or remotely, without the need to remove the original from storage, thereby increasing access while aiding long term preservation. This topic is dealt with in Section 9: Digitisation below.

Social Media

Many archives and museums now use social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter for free publicity, and to reach, and interact with, audiences who might never visit their sites in person. Regular posts, with attractive images, can help build up a following, and help attract new visitors. Even if you don’t set up an account specifically for your archives, you can help contribute material for your site’s main account. Social media can also be useful for publicising events and quickly communicating temporary closures. Please ensure that you own the copyright to or have the necessary permission to use any images that you post online [see Section 8: Legal Issues], and bear in mind that you will lose control over the images as they are so easily forwarded and copied. You may wish to use low resolutions, watermarks or partial copies of images to help reduce this risk. An alternative is to use images which are very clearly depictions of the original as an object rather than a faithful reproduction of the visual content, by means such as showing a frame, including an uncropped background, or by photographing at an angle so that the image is slightly distorted. The effect is to make the image less visually attractive, while still clearly showing the subject.


You may receive a request from another organisation to borrow items from your collection. This will usually be for an exhibition on their premises, but it may be to facilitate a research project or as part of a digitisation programme. In some cases the owners of items that have been deposited with you may request their temporary transfer elsewhere.

Before loaning items there are a number of factors to consider, including:

  • Do you have the right to loan the items? For objects that you own, the discretion whether to loan or not to loan lies with your organisation. However, you should only loan deposits if you have the permission of the owners, so you will need to contact them at an early stage of discussions.
  • Who should make the decision whether to loan? Depending on the size and formality of your organisation, this may be left to the discretion of the curatorial team, or it may need to be authorised by your senior management/trustees.
  • Are the items regularly required by your own staff or users? Digital copies may be sufficient for internal needs, but there may be costs and it will take time to prepare these.
  • Are they in suitable condition to be loaned or do they require conservation work beforehand? If so, who will carry out the work, how long will it take, how much will it cost, and who will pay?
  • How long will they be borrowed for? If the answer is permanently, then you should de-accession the items, not loan them.
  • For what purpose are they being borrowed? Are you happy with this?
  • Does the other organisation have suitable storage, environment, security, handling procedures and exhibition facilities for the stated purpose? You may wish to visit their premises in person before making a decision.
  • Can the other organisation be trusted to return the items, complete, in good condition, and in a timely fashion? This should not be an issue if they are an Accredited Museum or Archive.
  • Who will pay for the valuation, packaging, transport and insurance of the items?

A loan agreement should be drawn up, signed by both parties, and retained permanently. You may need to temporarily amend catalogues to indicate that the relevant items are unavailable for a period. If you receive loan requests regularly it would be worth developing a policy so that everyone knows their responsibilities and what needs to be done, together with standard paperwork.

If you wish to borrow items from another organisation, be prepared to face similar questions and conditions.

This guidance links to Sections 3.3 (Access Information, Procedures and Activities) of the Archive Service Accreditation Standard.

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Next section: 8. Legal Issues

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