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Starting From Scratch: Creating Synagogue Archives | Publications

VI. Access, Reference & Security

Access, reference, and security are necessary in any archives that permits research use. Every archives should establish written guidelines for each of these functions. Access policy will determine who uses the archives and why; reference policy will determine how the collections are used; security will ensure the records are used with safety and care.


Access is the archival term for authority to obtain information from or to perform research in archival materials. Archives keep records in anticipation of future use. A statement on the goals and priorities of the archival profession says that "the use of archival records is the ultimate purpose" of archival work. This report goes on to say that archivists must "undertake steps to promote use" of their holdings.16 Another archivist wrote that "the end of all archival effort is to preserve valuable records and make them available for use. Everything an archivist does is concentrated on this dual objective."17

Archives should have a clear and defined access policy. Controlling access requires planning and diligence as well as significant outlays of money and staff time. A fair and equitable access policy must be established based on the goals of the archives and its available resources. Many questions must be answered.

  • Who will be the users of the archives?
  • Will the archives be open only to congregational members, or will persons outside the congregation be permitted access?
  • How will access be granted? Will researchers be required to make appointments? Will researchers be required to provide references and credentials?
  • Will the archives have regular hours of operation?
  • Will access to certain collections, or parts of collections, be restricted? If so, how will petitions for access to restricted collections be handled?
  • Will the archives charge fees for its services?
  • Will duplication of documents be permitted? If so, what will be the cost and procedures of making copies?
  • Will the archives advertise, through published catalogs or any other means, the existence of its collections?
  • Will archives staff research and answer telephone and mail inquiries and will there be a fee for these services?

The answers to these and many more questions will determine access policy. A congregational archives must—first and foremost—serve the needs of the congregation. It must provide on demand requests for information from officers and members of the congregation. Ideally, and ultimately, it should be the goal of every archives to allow access to its holdings to all interested users. There are many persons interested in the use of congregational records: genealogists, historians, the media, religious scholars, to name but a few. An archives can be an effective public relations arm for the congregation. Through the supply of information it can promote awareness of the congregation in the surrounding community, encourage Jewish identity, raise awareness for important causes, assist in fund raising, and contribute to the pleasure and work of many people. It can assist in the study of history and perform many public services.

It is advisable to start slowly with access, limiting services until it is clear what the archives is capable of handling and is willing to do. All services have costs. The archives should measure the cost of each of its services to determine their feasibility, especially as they relate to stated goals and priorities.

Whatever the access policy, it should be clearly stated and evenly applied. All rules concerning access should be included in any forms, applications, or brochures issued to the public. The rules of the archives should be applied fairly and equitably to all persons. A statement on access policy published by the Society of American Archivists, the leading professional archival organization in the United States says, "it is the responsibility of an archival and manuscript repository to make available research materials in its possession to researchers on equal terms of access." The statement continues by saying that an archives "should not grant privileged or exclusive use of materials to any person or persons."18 This does not mean restrictions on use cannot be applied; they must be applied fairly and equally.

Archivists should be reluctant in accepting or imposing restrictions on its collections. Restrictions impede use; and use is the purpose of archives. Some restrictions are necessary and prudent for legal or personal reasons; many others are unnecessary and burdensome. The archivist should attempt to limit restrictions placed on their collections and insist that all restrictions be "clear and unambiguous,"19 to the donor, archivist and user.

Restrictions can be imposed by the donor, a representative of the donor, or the archivist. No matter who imposes the restrictions, it is the archivist's responsibility to enforce them. And enforcement of some restrictions can cause many headaches. There can be many levels and types of restrictions placed on a collection. There can be many questions and issues to resolve. To avoid confusion, all restrictions and terms of the donation should be fully laid out and explained in the donor agreement (see the discussion of donor agreements in Section IV. Organization and Procedures).

Any restrictions should be listed in all accession forms and finding aids for that collection. Users of the archives should be notified of restrictions on collections they might wish to see and be advised as to proper procedures for obtaining permission to use restricted materials.

Archives should try, within legal and ethical restraints, to set limits on all restrictions. Archivists should be reluctant to agree to any restrictions that have an unlimited duration. Restricting materials for an indefinite time is unacceptable. In all cases, the archives "should establish a policy on the length of time that donors, heirs, and designees can control access" to a collection and "that after such time the archives has the authority to make the access determinations."20


Reference service is the archival function of providing information about or from holdings of an archival institution, making holdings available to researchers, and providing copies, reproductions, or loans of holdings.

Reference is the application of access policy. Reference is where the archivist uses his or her knowledge of their collections to become a conduit between the information in those collections and the researcher. No one will know more about the collections in an archive than the archivist. The archivist, with his or her knowledge, experience, and use of well constructed finding aids can provide invaluable assistance to users of archives.

One article on reference says that "providing information about holdings [is] accepted as a primary obligation of a repository."21 Another commentator states that "archivists must know their holdings and their relationship to the interests of researchers as well as the laws and regulations governing access. They must be diplomatic when dealing with the public, exercising good judgment, common sense, and tact."22

The archivist should talk with the researcher about his or her research needs to learn how he or she might better help the researcher and to avoid misunderstandings or confusion. Each should ask questions of the other to find needed answers. The archivist should instruct the researcher in the use of finding aids, explain the rules of the archives and, when appropriate, suggest possible sources. Most of all, the archivist should treat each researcher and each reference request equally. The professionalism and integrity of the archivist should never be questioned or compromised.

Archivists must always be aware of proper ethics in reference work. A code of ethics for archivists is available from the American Jewish Archives.


Security of the archives' holdings is the responsibility of the archivist. Some suggestions for maintaining the security of your collections follow:23

  • Require and make a record of identification from each researcher upon their arrival.
  • Do not permit researcher or visitor access into work or storage areas.
  • Control entry and exit to the research area. Check researchers in and out of the archives on every visit.
  • Prohibit packages, briefcases, purses, etc., in the research area. Do not allow food or beverages in the research area. Prohibit use of ink or ball point pens. Only pencils may be used.
  • Monitor the research area at all times. Maintain a visible presence.
  • Require researchers to read and sign forms listing the rules and regulations of the archives.
  • Allow only staff members to perform photocopying or other duplication services.
  • Replace valuable or fragile originals with photocopies or microfilm. File the originals in a locked and secure cabinet or vault.
  • Check all boxes and folders before and after use.
  • Make sure all doors, windows, and exits are securely locked when the archives is closed.
  • Install smoke and fire detectors. Have portable fire extinguishers close at hand.
  • Be prepared. Think of security before a theft or disaster occurs. Keep emergency telephone numbers handy. Have a plan of action ready in the event of an emergency.