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Insuring Nebraska's Documentary Heritage: A Strategic Plan



Introduction

In 1982 the Nebraska State Historical Records Advisory Board (SHRAB) completed a year-long historical records assessment and planning project which resulted in a report entitled The Final Report of the Needs Assessment and Reporting Grant. Similar statewide assessment reports were completed in the early and mid-1980s by all of the states and territories through a funding initiative provided by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

The Nebraska report provided information about the status of historical records programs in the state so that programs designed to seek, preserve, and make accessible historical records and manuscripts could be cultivated. The report included assessments of state government records, local government records, historical records repositories, and functions of statewide importance such as conservation, education and training, and program coordination. The report also recommended steps that could be taken for future program development.

Unfortunately, though, the SHRAB became inactive as board members were not reappointed during the years 1985-1992 and the recommendations made in 1982 were not followed. This situation was alleviated somewhat by a statewide preservation planning project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and spearheaded by the Nebraska Documents Preservation Advisory Council (NDPAC). NDPAC, a coalition of many groups interested in developing long-term strategies for preservation in the state, was formed in 1988. The report it produced in 1991 entitled A Preservation Action Agenda for Nebraska identified preservation needs and recommended solutions with an agenda and timeline for the implementation of preservation program measures.

Although this plan provided a good basis for preservation planning, some topics were noticeably absent from the workplan. Foremost among these was the omission of measures to preserve media other than paper. That is, new technologies of audio and video cassettes, photograph, motion pictures, and electronic records were not surveyed and their preservation needs and special access requirements were not considered during the planning process.

With both the 1982 assessment and the recently completed preservation plan to build upon, the SHRAB embarked on a series of strategic planning meetings in 1995-6 to determine what progress had been made since 1982, while also gathering information on problems and deficiencies in historic records programs within the state. Though progress could be seen in areas of on-site guidance through the Nebraska State Historical Society's field representative program and the completion of the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center in Omaha, deficiencies noted in the 1982 report, such as limited and/or untrained staff, inadequate physical storage facilities, and financial difficulties, had not changed.
The SHRAB recognizes that much needs to be done. A primary goal of the meetings held over the past eighteen months was to solicit the concerns and objectives of diverse groups interested in Nebraska's historical record so that a strategic plan, incorporating those issues, could be devised. This, then, is the result of that process and the culmination of that goal. The SHRAB views this plan as the blueprint that it will use in developing programs relating to improved records accessibility and preservation, education and training, coordination and networking, and support of historical records issues. The work that lies ahead will be challenging, but the partnerships formed in this plan's preparation give rise to optimism that the goals and objectives delineated can be met.

Mission Statement (Adopted January 15, 1994)

"The Nebraska State Historical Records Advisory Board (SHRAB) provides leadership in encouraging, promoting, and assisting the advancement of programs to preserve and make accessible historical records in Nebraska. As the central advisory body for historical records planning, the Board's role is to investigate and report on the conditions and needs of historical records in Nebraska; to determine state priorities for historical records projects based upon National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) guidelines and record conditions and needs; to solicit, foster, and develop proposals for NHPRC projects to be carried out within the state; and to review grant proposals submitted by Nebraska institutions and make recommendations to NHPRC based upon their merit."

The SHRAB: Who We Are

The Nebraska State Historical Records Advisory Board is a state board, appointed by the Governor, under the authority of federal statutes and regulations governing the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) program of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), 44 U.S.C. 2501; 36 C.F.R. 1206. The Director of the Nebraska State Historical Society and the State Archivist are permanent Board members. At least eleven other members are appointed by the Governor for three-year, renewable terms.

The Nebraska SHRAB members represent a variety of constituencies-members include a county historical society director, a high school teacher, history professors, the Director of Nebraska's Records Management Division, and a humanities scholar-and also reflect a geographical balance as all three of the state's congressional districts are represented.

Workplan

During 1995-96, the Nebraska SHRAB met with 210 Nebraskans in all regions of the state to learn about the condition and use of historical records in the state. Holding nine meetings over the course of eighteen months, the SHRAB heard from historical society and museum curators, historians, genealogists, librarians, county and municipal government officials, tribal representatives, professors, teachers, and a variety of records users.

Comments received from the participants centered around three primary issues: preservation, access, and education/coordination. Everyone recognized that without the preservation of collections and, therefore, their continued existence, other concerns become moot. Records custodians and records users were worried that inadequate knowledge and funding often stood in the way of access to records. All agreed that records use would be improved by a coordinated effort to educate and inform, a role that the SHRAB could fulfill.

The resulting report reflects all of the concerns and comments expressed during the strategic planning sessions. The format of the plan is consistent for each issue. Five goals of equal importance are identified. A brief narrative describes the general discussion which took place relating to the issue. Specific comments are also listed. Finally, the SHRAB recommendations are enumerated noting when they should be implemented. The order in which they are to be accomplished also denotes their priority status.

Issue #1: Training and Professional Development

Goal: All custodians of historical records will be trained to use basic management tools in the care and preservation of the records under their care.

The lack of adequate training in records management and curatorial care of documentary collections was a common concern among participants in all of the planning sessions held across the state. Not only did the public who use collections comment on the scarcity of resources necessary for the proper care of records, but the records custodians themselves also recognized a need for better, or at least some, training in areas of preservation, storage, appraisal, and archival arrangement and description.

Other concerns expressed by meeting participants were that:

  • Local groups need education on topics that would enable them to manage and care for historical records collections.
  • Officials are unaware of the whereabouts of records generated by their offices in the past.
  • Officials possess limited knowledge of records management programs and are unaware of records retention requirements.
  • Custodians lack experience in grant writing and in seeking grant funds.
  • Local historical societies, organizations, businesses, churches, and Nebraska's Indian tribes need help in establishing their own archives.

In its leadership role, the SHRAB can provide training programs so that historical records custodians will be better equipped to fulfill their responsibilities. In addition, the SHRAB can support projects that keep records custodians informed of their duties and of new technologies and procedures that can be applied in their repositories. In its efforts to solicit and develop potential NHPRC projects in Nebraska, the SHRAB can provide grant-writing advice and training. The SHRAB and the State Historical Society have worked with various Native American groups and the Nebraska Indian Commission to help develop tribal archives. Advice, training, and consultations can advance the progress already made.

Recommendations

  • During 1997­98, provide workshops and training on collections care (See also Issue #2).
  • Continue to consult with records custodians about the care and preservation of their records.
  • During 1997­98, develop orientation packet for new officials so that they are aware of their records responsibilities.
  • In a preliminary effort to deal with new records formats, develop procedures for creating and managing electronic records.
  • Continue to work with Native Americans seeking to establish tribal archives.
  • During 1997­98, train records custodians in grant-writing strategies, encouraging particularly those projects that would receive NHPRC consideration.
  • As requested, present workshops to government records custodians and historical organizations holding archival records on topics that would help them to manage collections.

Issue #2: Records Are At Risk

Goal: Important historical records will be identified and will be cared for and maintained in a repository that will safe-guard them.

There are over 230 local historical societies in Nebraska, most of which receive no public funds. Private support is also problematic and this situation means that little consistent funding goes toward the identification, solicitation, and continued preservation of Nebraska's historical record on the local front.

The Library/Archives of the State Historical Society, while its funding is secure and constant, also has little excess money in its budget to seek out and acquire documentary collections in the state, or beyond its borders, that relate to Nebraska history. In large part it is dependent upon private donations of manuscript material for its collection of non-public records; statutory requirements insure that government records of lasting historical value will be transferred to the State Archives for permanent retention.

Despite the lack of funds available to local historical societies for their work in maintaining and caring for historical records, they often receive materials, much like the State Historical Society, as donations. Staff is often ill-prepared to manage the material and the building is often ill-suited to house documentary collections. County courthouses, too, are not immune to inadequate facilities for housing historical records. These factors contribute to placing Nebraska's historical materials at risk and the following concerns raised by the meeting participants emphasized this point.

  • Local organizations have inadequate storage space and shelving.
  • Local records are deteriorating and need to be microfilmed or need to have conservation measures applied.
  • Photograph collections are deteriorating.
  • Moving image and audio collections are often available only in obsolete formats.
  • Lack of funding limits the work that local historical organizations can accomplish in preserving historical records, microfilming, and providing adequate storage.
  • Some county officials, through ignorance or intent, may dispose of permanent records without facing stiff penalties.

While the SHRAB cannot supply the financial means to correct all of the records storage problems and microfilming needs in the state, it can provide the educational means, through workshops, consultations, and other advisory methods, by which proper storage decisions and microfilming strategies can be made. The Board's future work will build upon this first series of planning sessions and will incorporate information gathered at future meetings to coordinate cooperative microfilming projects of merit. Other cooperative ventures, such as group purchasing contracts for archival supplies, will be pursued, as will the enforcement of records laws currently on the books

Recommendations

  • During 1997­98, provide workshops and training on collections care (See also Issue #1).
  • Support local efforts to preserve valuable collections through the use of conservation techniques.
  • Whenever requested, provide information on storage supplies to records custodians.
  • Continually encourage cooperative microfilming projects that can be funded in state or through regrant funds.
  • Regularly publicize the Nebraska State Historical Society's ability to convert obsolete media into usable formats.
  • By June 1, 1999, submit regrant fund request to NHPRC, while also seeking funds from the Nebraska Unicameral and private sources, to assist local historical organizations in meeting basic storage needs.
  • Work with the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center to implement cooperative purchasing agreement for archival supplies to historical records repositories and organizations statewide (see also Issue #5).
  • Pursue stronger legal penalties for willful destruction of public records.

Issue #3: There Is An Incomplete Historical Record

Goal: Identify areas where further collecting efforts need to be made so that every aspect of Nebraska's history is adequately represented.

Previous collection surveys in the Library/Archives of the Nebraska State Historical Society have indicated that various groups and themes of Nebraska history have been overlooked or underdocumented. Among these topics are environmental and political action groups, labor groups, cultural groups, social welfare organizations, public institutions, municipal records, business and industry, agriculture, and religious and ethnic groups. Efforts should be made to acquire collections documenting these areas.

In recent years many groups and organizations have expressed interest in establishing and maintaining their own archives. This has been the case particularly among ethnic and religious groups who have developed their own museums and research centers. Nebraska has a Jewish Historical Society, museums and research centers tracing the state's Mexican American, African American, and Czech American ethnicity, and two Native American historical societies. Nebraska is also the home of Boys Town, whose Hall of History maintains records of the organization which became the home for many of society's castoffs. These organizations have helped to preserve information about underdocumented groups, but a union list of available resources is not available to the researcher (see Issue #5).

Native American participants in our sessions, representing Ponca, Winnebago, and Omaha tribal members were adamant in their expression of support for repositories of their own records in proximity to their reservations. Although Sioux representatives were not in attendance, the need for a repository in their area of residence was also discussed.

Other underdocumented groups mentioned included poor farm inmates and public institution inmates, students, and the dead as reflected in undocumented cemeteries. Surveying of records that exist on the local level or in state agency records still maintained by the Department of Public Institutions may provide information on recipients of public assistance. School records maintained by the County Superintendent and cemetery records, which may or may not be compiled, may provide the desired documentation for the other two areas.

Among the comments raised at the sessions were these:

  • Native Americans want and need repositories holding their own tribal records.
  • Coordinated collection development plans do not exist.
  • Oral traditions are dying.
  • Historical groups come into existence without being recognized or supported by the larger historical community.
  • Businesses are unaware of the historical importance of their own records.

As stated in the discussion and recommendations for Issue #1, the SHRAB can provide, through workshops and consultation methods, advice and help to organizations-businesses, churches, tribes, ethnic groups, and others-wishing to develop their own archival collections and facilities. In their gathering of oral histories, a strong component of Native American tradition, the SHRAB can support Native American (and other groups as well) in their efforts. A network of like-minded organizations, as well as the Nebraska State Historical Society's Statewide Services program, can assist the SHRAB in this work and they should be recruited to participate in this educational work whenever possible.

Recommendations

  • Continue to work with Native Americans seeking to establish tribal archives.
  • In working with the Nebraska State Historical Society's Statewide Services program, encourage local historical organizations to formulate collection policy and development plans.
  • Continue to support oral history projects in an advisory and informational capacity.
  • Maintain working relationships with other organizations, such as the Nebraska Museums Association and the Nebraska History Network, that work to increase public awareness of the importance and value of historical records.
  • Whenever known, assist businesses that wish to create their own archives.

Issue #4: Access

Goal: Nebraska's historical records are accessible to all.

The 1982 historical records assessment bemoaned the fact that paid professional staff and adequate funding were not the standard in most of Nebraska's records repositories. The strategic planning meetings held in 1995-6 indicated that little had changed in the intervening years. In addition, the records problem has grown during this time as government offices have produced more records and historical societies have acquired additional paper collections. Accessibility has been hampered because there isn't adequate staff to deal with the burgeoning paper parade and funding for professional staff in Nebraska's local repositories is not the norm. Specific comments raised by records custodians and records users at the strategic planning sessions covered a gamut of concerns relating to records accessibility:

  • Repositories and their holdings are not made known to researchers.
  • Local organizations do not have the equipment necessary to read microfilm.
  • There are no statutes of limitations for restrictions on access to certain records, e.g. public institution inmates.
  • Procedures by which a person can obtain copies of a restricted record are not clearly described, e.g. how to obtain a court order.
  • The technology to digitally enhance unreadable images is not widely available in the state.
  • Many records are in obsolete formats.
  • Agencies do not always have sufficient staff to comply with requests for information.
  • As offices are consolidated or liquidated, the records disposition is not always known.

Although this litany of concern is real and problematic, the SHRAB can assist by playing a crucial role in the education and training of the staff that is available. The primary recommendations under Issue #1 address this objective. In addition, the SHRAB can spearhead efforts to survey records in the state so that a coordinated network is established to connect researchers to the records that they need. It can build upon the support system that it has established during the strategic planning sessions to inform custodians, users, and the general public about historical records issues that affect them locally. These recommendations cover a wide array of concerns that would increase accessibility to Nebraska's historical records.

Recommendations

  • During 1996-97, support Council of State Historical Records Coordinators survey of historical records holdings of manuscripts repositories (see also Issue #5).
  • Build on this survey to coordinate union listing of historical records holdings that will culminate in a statewide database.
  • Support microfilming projects and other activities that increase access to historical records.
  • In 1998, produce finding aid to county government records held at the Nebraska State Historical Society.
  • Continually support local efforts to raise funds for microfilm readers in historical organizations and records agencies.
  • Seek statute of limitations on permanently closed records, when appropriate, so that they can be opened to the public after privacy concerns are met.
  • During 1998, produce an informational packet explaining the procedure for acquiring information from a restricted record when such a possibility exists.
  • On a regular basis, inform county officials of their role in the accessing of public records.
  • Continually develop contacts locally so that school consolidations and other local political changes that might impact the collection/disposition of records are monitored.

Issue #5: Coordination and Networking

Goal: The State Historical Records Advisory Board will spearhead efforts to insure that repositories work together to achieve common goals.

Through its contacts with other groups sharing similar concerns-the SHRAB coordinator reported to a session at the annual meeting of the Nebraska Museums Association in 1995; the Deputy Coordinator has presented workshops for the Nebraska Association of County Officials (NACO); SHRAB members are involved in the Nebraska History Network - the Board has begun to develop working relationships with organizations that can be partners in carrying out SHRAB recommendations. The Nebraska State Historical Society's Field Representative program, through its contacts with local historical organizations, has laid groundwork that the SHRAB can build upon to coordinate cooperative efforts. The need for coordinated efforts is desired, as comments received at the planning sessions made clear.

  • Repositories don't know what their counterparts in the state are doing.
  • A coordinated group of archives in Nebraska doesn't exist.
  • Government officials should be aware of what local historical groups are trying to accomplish.
  • Local groups have a hard time affording preservation supplies because they buy in small quantities.

Although diverse audiences attended the planning sessions, a common interest in the preservation of and access to historical records exists among the participants. This basis of common interest can assist the SHRAB in carrying out the recommendations listed below.

Recommendations

  • For the next round of SHRAB appointments, include at least one county official, preferably an official with ties to the Nebraska Association of County Officials (NACO).
  • Whenever possible, include a municipal official on the SHRAB.
  • During 1996, participate in the Council of State Historical Records Coordinators survey of Historical Records Repositories (see also Issue #4).
  • During 1997, develop standardized survey form for Nebraska repositories to report collection level holdings.
  • In 1998, investigate structure of network architecture; in 1999, devise database for network access to repositories' holdings.
  • Support the creation of a Nebraska Archives Interest Group.
  • Continue to work with organizations like NACO, the Nebraska Museums Association, and the Nebraska History Network to inform them of current archival projects and shared programs.
  • Work with the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center to implement a group contract for the purchase of archival supplies for historical records repositories and organizations statewide (see also Issue #2).
  • Whenever possible, advocate the placement of original records in local repositories when they have been microfilmed or when they are not eligible for transfer to the State Archives.

Conclusion

With the approach of the 21st century, records custodians face challenges in the management and care of their records, while records users share concern for the continued well-being of historical resources. The Nebraska State Historical Records Advisory Board believes that the actions suggested in this report can rectify many of the problems and concerns raised by audiences who participated in the discussions that identified the state's historical records program shortcomings. The interaction with Nebraska's citizens and partners sharing the same concerns encourages us to follow the path outlined here to meet problems that can be resolved through strategic activity. We look forward to continuing the work and seeing progress as this plan becomes the means whereby the challenge is met.


Nebraska State Historical Records Advisory Board

Dr. Roger Davis, Kearney, 1996-
Molly Fisher, Lincoln, 1993-
Magdalena Garcia, Omaha, 1995-
Dr. George Garrison, Omaha, 1993-1995
Donald Hill, Plattsmouth, 1993-1994
Matthew Jones, Lincoln, 1993-
Dr. Dennis Mihelich, Omaha, 1993-
Andrea Paul, Lincoln, (Coordinator), 1993-
William Ptacek, Lincoln, 1993-
Dr. Michael Schuyler, Kearney, 1993-1996
Mary Jo Van Schuyver, Scottsbluff, 1993-
Lawrence Sommer, Lincoln, 1993-
Richard Warneke, North Platte, 1993-
Kent Wilson, Beatrice, 1994-
Steven Wolz, Lincoln, (Deputy Coordinator), 1993-
Sandra Yoder, Grand Island, 1993-

This report was made possible by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

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