Who Collects What, Why, and How? / Erin Baucom

This study path guides learners in critically examining their institution’s current collections inventory and collection policy for gaps in what is and has been collected and learn about what these gaps show about the potential biases built into the collections at the institution and how to mitigate these gaps going forward.

By Erin Baucom, Digital Archivist and Assistant Professor, University of Montana

Learning Objectives

  • At the end of this discussion students will be able to explain how their institutions collect (objects, books/journals, archival materials).
  • Students will be able to interpret existing collection policies for gaps in what is collected, how the current collection developed, and what needs to be changed to be more inclusive of other groups while still staying within the mission and scope of the institution.
  • Students will become aware of the implicit biases that currently exist in many collecting policies and may become aware of how groups become underrepresented in collections.


This activity will introduce students to the implicit bias built into many collection policies. In some cases there is no written collection policy instead collections are built through a snowball method or “this is how it has always been done”. Before starting on this activity students should have read the Handel case study and the Carter article at least and have examined one of the listed Model Projects. Let these readings guide you when critically examining your institution’s collection inventory and current collecting policy explicit and implicit. This examination will lead you to learning about the history of your institution and its priorities, how those priorities may have changed over time, and gain an understanding of how to mold the collection policy to become more representative of all the stakeholders in your institution.

Prior Reading

  • Carter, R. (2006). Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence. Archivaria, 61

Reflection/discussion prompt

At your institution (discussion can be library focused, archives focused, or museum focused):

  1. Who is responsible for selecting materials? Is it a a team? A single person?
  2. How clear are selection policies and practices?
  3. What collection are representative of our institution?
  4. Which collections are absent? Is it clear?
  5. What avenues exist for students (or other stakeholders) to contribute to selection choices?

Evaluation and Assessment

  • Were the students able to identify gaps?
  • Were the students open to identifying potential bias?
  • Were the students able to offer up a way to mitigate bias in collection policies?
  • Were students uncomfortable during the discussion/assignment? If so was it a productive uncomfortableness that led to a need for more exploration?



“Active Collections: About.” n.d. Active Collections. http://www.activecollections.org/.
Carter, Rodney. 2006. “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence.” Archivaria 61. https://archivaria.ca/archivar/index.php/archivaria/article/view/12541/13687.
Nancarrow, Jane-Heloise. 2016. “Democratizing the Digital Collection: New Players and New Pedagogies in Three-Dimensional Cultural Heritage.” Museum Worlds; Oxford 4 (1): 63–77. https://doi.org/10.3167/armw.2016.040106.
Ormond-Parker, Lyndon, and Robyn Sloggett. 2012. “Local Archives and Community Collecting in the Digital Age.” Archival Science 12 (2): 191–212. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-011-9154-1.
Woods, Elizabeth, Rainey Tisdale, and Trevor Jones, eds. 2018. Active Collections. New York: Routledge.

Exemplary projects

“About - Witness.” n.d. Witness. n.d. https://witness.org/about/.
“Digital Transgender Archive.” n.d. Digital Transgender Archive. https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/.
June Mazer Lesbian Archives. 2018. “About Us - June Mazer Lesbian Archives.” June Mazer Lesbian Archives. 2018. http://www.mazerlesbianarchives.org/about-us/.
Kelleher, Christian, T.-Kay Sangwand, Kevin Wood, and Yves Kamuronsi. 2010. “The Human Rights Documentation Initiative at the University of Texas Libraries.” New Review of Information Networking 15 (2): 94–109. https://doi.org/10.1080/13614576.2010.528342.
ONE Archives Foundation. 2016. “About ONE Archives Foundation.” ONE Archives Foundation, Inc. 2018 2016. https://www.onearchives.org/about/.
“Open Archive.” n.d. Open Archive. n.d. https://open-archive.org/.
Underhill, Karen J. n.d. “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials | Underhill | RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage.” Accessed July 21, 2017. https://doi.org/10.5860/rbm.7.2.267.
University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2004. “About Documenting the American South.” Documenting the American South. 2004. https://docsouth.unc.edu/support/about/.
Williams, Stacie M, and Jarrett M Drake. 2017. “Power to the People: Documenting Police Violence in Cleveland.” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 2. http://libraryjuicepress.com/journals/index.php/jclis/article/view/33.

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