Advice on Archives—Q/A with Alan Divack

This interview by was originally published on the Glasspockets blog, Transparency Talk, on 28 March 2013. The original article can be found here.

“I think that foundations, as public trusts, are under an obligation (still undefined) to make their information public. The 990s alone just don’t cut it.”

Transparency Talk (TT): You mentioned at the forum that electronic data presents new challenges and opportunities for archival preservation, including the challenge of capturing data generated with changing hardware and software. How have these changes affected the functionality of archives in relation to the transparency of information for researchers?

Alan Divack (AD): The changes affect every aspect of records preservation and use of the material. I think that impact on transparency depends on these other fundamental issues. In order to keep electronic records available over time, institutions have three basic options: 1) the hardware and software platforms necessary for their use must be preserved; 2) the records must be converted to a more generic format more likely to be useable in the future (migration); or 3) systems must be developed that will enable future hardware and software systems to imitate the functionality of the original systems (emulation). Of these, 2 and 3 are the most promising, but each requires substantial planning and investments. If these investments are not made, the records will not be usable in the future and they become completely opaque to researchers.

TT: Based on your work to create the Global Archives at the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program, how can archives enable foundations to further their international human rights work? What documents or data are most important for facilitating a successful archival system in this area, and what are the risks involved with preserving and providing access to this information?

AD: I would actually flip this around and encourage foundations interested in human rights work to consider funding archival programs. A lot of human rights work depends on accurate documentation of offenses. When states or non-state actors commit offenses, it is often up to the non-governmental organization (NGO) sector to document what has happened, and then to preserve this documentation so that it can be used for both mobilization and individual redress. The Ford Foundation has worked with many grantees, particularly in Latin America, on this and I think that there is room for such programs in other regions as well.

TT: According to a new study by The Commonwealth Fund, “The Archives of U.S. Foundations: An Endangered Species,” 80 percent of foundations with archives are not keeping important e-mail messages, and more than half are not preserving Web site information. As a specialist in digitization and electronic records, what value can be gained by archiving e-mail and Web site data and what is lost by deleting it?

AD: I think that the full record format in most organizations is actually e-mail plus attachment. A report or memo may be saved in electronic format, but it leaves a lot of questions. Why was it written? For whom? How was it received? I once cataloged a hard-copy report recommending a new line of work for a foundation. It turns out the recommendations were set aside, but it was impossible to determine this from the documentary record. I only found this out later from talking to some of those involved. A thread of e-mails can provide a tremendous amount of information about the documents that they convey. E-mails tend to be less formal and controlled than other organizational records and therefore present particular challenges, more for cultural than technological reasons. While they are certainly valuable for internal use, organizations may want to be more cautious about their use by the research public. One possible approach is to restrict their use to on-site in research archives, rather than making them available with other electronic resources over the Internet.

Web content is sort of the flip side in that the challenges are more technical than cultural. Because most of it is vetted and designed for public consumption, Web content presents few access/confidentiality problems. The problems with Web content arise because it is changed rapidly and because of the networked nature of the document. What a user sees on a Web page may come from several different sources, and the result may be unusable unless all of the sources are transferred to the archives and linked appropriately. One resource worth exploring is Internet Archive, which tries to archive Web sites and would probably not only be happy to archive a foundation’s Web content, but would also do it better.

TT: According to John Craig, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Commonwealth Fund, most institutions do not archive declined proposals. Can foundations or researchers gain knowledge from these proposals, and should they be preserved?

AD: I think that for the most part, foundations are making the right decision on this. In my experience, most large foundations fund very few unsolicited proposals. However, they often get large numbers. I don’t see the long-term value in preserving inquiries that are often tangential to a foundation’s work. In general, proposals and partners are actively solicited by program staff in their fields. These proposals are the end-product of long conversations and interactions, and are very different from most received by a foundation. There are two exceptions to this: responses to Requests-For-Proposals, which are likely to be related to specific foundation initiatives, and cases where foundations actually do fund a large proportion of unsolicited proposals.

TT: Can you give us an example, or tell a story, about how foundation archives have been used to improve philanthropic work in the U.S. or abroad?

Just as, due to the complexities of social change, it can be difficult to attribute specific instances of change to foundation programs, it is difficult to cite uses of foundation archives with specific impact. However, I can refer to a number of research projects from my time at the Ford Foundation where the use of the archives may have helped change how the foundation approached its programming: an evaluation of programs in international relations, which included significant archival research, led to a reorientation of the foundation’s international programs. In a similar field, but with a narrower geographic focus, I believe that a highly critical report questioning the impacts of the foundation’s programs on dialogues between India and Pakistan led the foundation to redirect its resources there. More broadly, on the topic of evaluation and reflection, few foundations have the resources or the attention span to reflect on the long-term impact of their programs. By making their records available to the research public, there are scholars who will do that for them and contribute to knowledge in the fields that foundations continue to care about.

TT: Do you think that archives help foundations to tell their own stories versus having others tell their stories for them?

AD: It is not an either/or but rather a both. When I worked at the Ford Foundation archives, I think a majority of our research use was for foundation staff. Although communications staff were major users (telling the story), the largest group were program staff. There was little institutional memory, and this was a niche that the archives occupied. With broad availability of a robust intra-net within the foundation, this has changed. Most program staff information needs are for relatively recent information (let’s say the past decade) and enough of this is available electronically from the intranet, rather than from the archives, to meet these needs.

TT: What are the best access policies to balance the needs of both researchers and foundations?

AD: There is no single best policy. I think that foundations, as public trusts, are under an obligation (still undefined) to make their information public. The 990s alone just don’t cut it. However, I think that just because information or records should be made available, they do not have to be made available immediately and without restriction. In fact, if there are no restrictions and the presumption is that all records should be open to researchers at once, I think that records creators are less likely to create, capture, and maintain the kinds of information that will be of use to researchers, even in the near future. Access policies should balance the needs of the public and researchers to know in the medium term with the necessity of organizations to conduct business and make decisions in the short term.

One way in which I think electronic records will complicate this going forward is the extent to which they might be made universally available over the internet. The access challenges may be more cultural than technological. Institutions had a certain degree of comfort with historical records being used in analog form in a controlled setting. The open frontier of the internet is something else entirely.

Alan S. Divack is Senior Project Manager for Archives and Knowledge Management at the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program.

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