Monday, August 18, 2008

The administrative cost of access restrictions

This post is largely concerned with thinking about archival management. As with many posts here, it is a speculative thought experiment. In essence, I am probing the question of whether restraints should be put on what sort of restrictions ("tax" is a better word, actually) that donors impose on their materials. Every additional restriction imposed on a fond raises administration costs and serves to partially frustrate one of the primary goals of archives, providing access to information. In support of the thesis that archives should consider requiring financial donations to accompany donation of materials, I am going to reference the National Trust in the United Kingdom and the accounting concept of total cost of ownership (TCO). Should archives actually require financial donations as a matter of policy? Probably not, but I think it might be economically useful to signal to donors that their requests are not all the same.

How did I get thinking about these issues? Well, a big part of it is that I am simply curious and like to think about issues like this. However, it was also partly inspired by something I'm doing at work. Essentially, I am fixing the metadata of a large organization that has placed a wide variety of restrictions (usually chronological; x file opens on y date) on its materials. It is fairly labour intensive to administer such restrictions and I wonder if this is necessarily the most productive use of the organization's resources.

In technology and computing management, there is an interesting notion called the total cost of ownership (TC0) which seeks to make a more complete estimate of the costs involved in owning something. According to Wikipedia, this notion become popular in the late 1980s but has longer routes. To take a simple example, the cost of acquiring a desktop computer is far more than the cost to buy the system itself. You need to include the cost of support (either in-house or contracted), the cost of software, the cost of the electricity, the cost of space, e-waste and perhaps some appreciation of how that purchase will affect other costs. Lately, I have been thinking that this concept may apply to archives.

There is some precedent for non-commercial organizations to make requests like this. The National Trust is an English organization that cares for both lands and built heritage, the latter often including the country homes of the aristocracy. Following the Second World War, many aristocrats were no longer able to maintain these large estates in light of taxes and the declining income of agricultural lands. As a result, some donated their estates to the National Trust for a tax benefit. It soon became apparent that this was not sustainable as the Trust was incurring substantial costs to keep these properties in good repair. As a result, the organization began to decline such donations unless they were accompanied by a financial endowment to help with the administration costs they produce. As a result, the National Trust is better able to care for the responsibilities in its care and preserve them for future generations to enjoy.

To be fair, I have not heard of any library or archives ever doing anything like this, but perhaps they should. The "suggested donation" could scale with the size and complexity of the donation. Ultimately, I don't think any archives will do this but it does serve as an interesting way to raise the issue.

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