Analysis and Evaluation

In this paper, I will examine how the ACLU Archives has adopted alternative cataloging practices to fit the special needs of their users and organization, as a non-profit institutional archives not situated within a larger library system.

About the ACLU Archives
The American Civil Liberties Union Archives and Records Management Office (ACLU Archives) is located at the national headquarters for the organization in New York City. Their holdings consist of inactive records created by the organization, some of which will permanently reside in the New York office and many that will eventually be transferred off-site to join their holdings at the Mudd Manuscript Library at Princeton University, where they maintain a publicly accessible reference collection. (Note: This paper will not address the holdings at Princeton.) The holdings in the national office are accessible only to ACLU staff and affiliates. Some examples of the types of records that the ACLU Archives maintains in the national office are: print publications, board meeting minutes, papers and files of legal staff, and ephemera. Materials such as board meeting minutes and publications are a part of their permanent holdings because of their significant historical value to the organization and organization staff routinely refer back to them for reference on ACLU policies or positions on past issues. Materials such as legal staff papers and files are held at the national office for 10 years and then they are transferred to Princeton.

Interning at the ACLU Archives
One of the first things I observed when I started my internship at the ACLU Archives was that they do not always follow many of the standard archival description practices, such as creating a finding aid for each collection and using Encoded Archival Description (EAD) to display them online. Having just completed taking course on metadata standards, I felt particularly enthusiastic about the use of standards. However, getting myself outside of the academic realm and into the practical realm of the ACLU Archives lead me to discover that there can be circumstances where it is appropriate, even necessary, for an organization to adopt alternative practices to suit their specific needs.

Archival Standards and Practices
The ACLU Archives follows basic preservation practices in processing and storing materials, such as re-housing materials into acid free folders and boxes, as well as removing any staples and/or paper clips. They also store all of their holdings in a climate-controlled room. The Archives also operates under the foundation principle of archival practice known as respect des fonds or provenance.  Anne J. Gilliland-Swetland defines provenance as having “two components: records of the same provenance should not be mixed with those of a different provenance, and the archivist should maintain the original order in which the records were created and kept (2000).”

Cataloging in a non-traditional library setting

The ACLU Archives catalogs materials using an an online public access catalog (OPAC) software program called InMagic Genie. They selected Genie because it is highly customizable, allowing them to create their own custom fields. The ACLU Archives uses catalog records in this OPAC system in lieu of finding aids, as opposed to as a supplement to them, as many academic libraries tend to do.  Most of the cataloging is done at a series or container-level (like a series statement in a finding aid), but certain materials, such as publications and ephemera, are cataloged at an item-level. With the exception of those latter materials, each catalog record corresponds to a box. At the time a box is accessioned, some basic cataloging is done and then more details are added at a later date, usually by an intern. This was a responsibility that I shared with 2 other interns during my practicum experience. For each box that I cataloged, I created a folder inventory list, checked and/or updated inclusive dates, and assigned Library of Congress Subject Headings.

In the traditional library and archival sense, these cataloging practices diverge from the standards. However, the ACLU Archives is a unique information environment, much like a corporate library, that is structured as both an institutional archives and a resource for employees of the organization. They have integrated both archival and records management practices to serve the needs of users - ACLU staff and affiliates. The holdings at the Archives are not accessible to the public. Due to the sensitive and sometimes confidential nature of the legal files, which make up a large portion of their holdings, these materials are not made available until 10 years from the date they are accessioned. Most non-confidential information about legal cases would be publicly available elsewhere. Though staff and affiliates are welcome to view the physical holdings, the Archives staff are the only users of the catalog. However, there is a plan to eventually open access to the catalog to ACLU staff through the organization’s intranet site, so the Archives has created a cataloging system based on the needs of those future users. The organization’s projects are organized by key civil liberties issues such as racial justice, LGBT rights, and women’s rights, so the archival materials are categorized accordingly. The Archives is also in the process of creating a controlled vocabulary for subject assignment. Using terminology specific to the organization to classify materials will make this catalog very easy to use for ACLU staff.

One might argue that the most important mission of an archives is to provide accessible, contextual information to its users. The first considerations for a new archives or one evaluating its methodologies are likely determining who the users are and how to best meet the specific needs of those users. In cases like the ACLU Archives, that has meant creating a hybridized, customized cataloging system. While this approach has not yet been tested, I think it will be successful. It is no surprise that the ACLU, an organization known for its advocacy, has chosen to take a bottom-up approach to creating their archives.

Gilliland-Swetland, A. (2000). Enduring Paradigm, New Opportunities: The Value of the Archival Perspective in the Digital Environment. CLIR. Retrieved from