Cleaning out an office? Don't forget university archives

Summer is the busy season for the library's special collections and university archives (SCUA) department. Submissions pick up as retirees pack up their offices and campus workspaces are renovated or cleaned.

So it's a good time for some tips for faculty and staff to consider as they're going through old files or otherwise wondering what and how to contribute to Iowa State's archival repository.

Posterity is the purpose

It's helpful to remember SCUA's future-focused purpose. The aim is to collect, preserve and provide access to records (and other items) that document experiences, achievements and memories that reflect the university's major research areas and its history. The archival value of records depends on how useful they might be to future researchers, historians, instructors and others interested in Iowa State's past, said Greg Bailey, university archivist.

Materials collected are typically inactive, meaning they're no longer used day-to-day and were likely created at least five years ago. The preference is for final versions over drafts, originals over copies and summaries over individual records. For more examples and details, see SCUA's donation and transfer guidelines. Don't hesitate to contact a SCUA archivist for help in identifying what might be worth archiving, Bailey said.

"You don't always need to be the judge of what's historical," he said.

Perusing personal papers

From their personal files, faculty and staff should consider records connected to their most significant research, teaching, extension, service and administrative work. That could include correspondence, research notebooks or data, committee minutes, annual reports, syllabi, diaries or scrapbooks. Labeled photos and videos are valuable in part because they show areas of campus that aren't well-documented, Bailey said. 

"When people want to see what the interior of a building looked like, we often don't have that," he said.

For personal papers, archivists prefer a coherent body of records over individual items. Confidential records aren't collected, such as those covered by legal protections for educational, medical and personnel information. Published articles don't need to be archived because they generally are accessible through journal databases.

Retirement often prompts faculty and staff to review their records, but starting early in the process is key, Bailey said. There is a backlog for processing submissions.

"Hopefully, we make a connection before your last day in your office," he said.

Institutional history

Some units regularly send certain records to SCUA, such as commencement programs from the registrar's office and annual reports on ISU farms from extension and outreach. And websites on are automatically archived for SCUA via a third-party service

But SCUA largely relies on departmental employees to select and transfer university records to archives. Of interest, Bailey said, are newsletters, reports, committee files, administrative records, departmental histories, flyers, architectural plans, photos, and recordings of speeches and lectures. Items that aren't accepted include transaction and financial records (other than annual budget reports), routine correspondence, personnel files, conference records and mailing lists.

"We aren't the dumping grounds for records people don't want to get rid of," Bailey said.

Some departments are in the habit of regularly submitting documents for archiving, but SCUA sometimes contacts centers or departments that have little or no documentation in the archives, he said. SCUA also has proactively worked with students and student organizations to preserve information about their notable activities, including campus activism and recollections of COVID-19's impact.

Preparing a submission

When faculty and staff donate personal records to SCUA, a deed form needs to accompany the gift. University-owned records already are Iowa State's property and don't require a deed to be transferred. In both cases, fill out a donation/transfer form before submitting documents to let archivists know what you are interested in providing.

When possible, donated files should be kept in their original order and stored in folders and boxes labeled with dates and subjects. Label physical photographs by writing on the back with pencil, including a date. Digital records should use consistent file names. Include the name and address of the sender and an inventory. An inventory template is available online.

More than just papers

SCUA doesn't solely collect documents. Guidelines for contributing to SCUA's rare book and manuscript collection are online in the collection development policy. It maintains several collections of oral histories, which can be a useful way to document the history of a department.

SCUA also holds about 3,500 artifacts, though Bailey said the bar for acceptance is high for artifact donations. Several types of items no longer are accepted, including copies of The Bomb yearbook, postcards, trophies and plaques.

To be accepted for collection, an artifact must have unique characteristics, hold high research value or potentially be useful for future exhibition, outreach or instruction. Items that meet more than one of these requirements are more likely to be accepted. Due to space constraints, larger items need to be even more significant to make the cut. Contemporary objects rarely warrant saving, Bailey said.

"We're really only looking for historical physical objects of an unusual nature," he said.