| Access to archival records: A review of current issues: A RAMP study |
5.1 Once rights of access have been established and enforced, and delivery mechanisms implemented, archives may consider attributing monetary value to some of their services. Such decisions will be motivated by two factors. First, user fees can provide financial support to institutions and, in some instances, ensure that the provision of greater public access is not done at the detriment of other archival functions. Secondly, the costing of services may serve as a moderating factor, ensuring that there is an actual need for the services requested. In the first case, the fees assessed may include a profit factor while in the latter they will be below the real cost of the service, as revenue generation is not the intent of the exercise.
5.2 The temptation of operating archives on a free-market system may be appealing to some and seem necessary to others. Russian archives, for instance, faced with critical resource shortages since 1990 have had to implement user fees to ensure their survival. In certain cases, these have been extended not only to services, but to the release of documents themselves. As is evident with the disclosures concerning the final destiny of the Romanov family, certain archival holdings have incredible financial value. Some American archives faced with enormous information requests - some from profitable commercial enterprises - have adopted pricing policies that enable them to recover the costs of providing such services and support some of the other operations of the institution.
5.3 Before considering the implementation of user fees, archives must ensure that established rights of access are preserved. Not only must archival information be available, it must also be accessible by all. If holdings require manipulation before they can be consulted, such as census records in electronic form, it is the responsibility of the archives to make the information available. What may be costed, then, are the additional or "enhanced" services provided to users. This principle poses enormous challenges for non-textual archivists who, in addition to having to overcome the often exhorbitant costs of making information available, have to face increasing and divergent research interests.
5.4 As a second principle, users must not be penalized for professional inadequacies in the area of archival description. After all, why should users pay for extensive searches when accurate descriptions of the records should have been prepared in the first place?
5.5 Various social and economic factors will influence costing decisions. These usually transcend the more obvious request-response scenario that we associate with user fees. In Canada, for instance, the National Archives has had to consider the interventionist role that the federal government has played in the development of the country. In some cases, it would not be appropriate to pass on the true cost of providing access as it would force the disappearance of some vibrant - but poor - research communities that have been credited with enriching the Canadian sense of identity.
5.6 Another factor would be off-site access. If archives decide to fully recover costs for the inter-institutional loan of microform or the copying of records, for instance, they immediately reduce access opportunities for researchers who live some distance away from the institution. This may be acceptable when travel costs for client communities are minimal but will be hard to defend when an institution is mandated to serve a large geographical territory.
5.7 In the case of public archives, the legal frameworks must be carefully examined to ensure that the implementation of user fees is permissible. As the corporate memory of a collectivity, public archives benefit from funding from the citizens whose history they document. Consequently, they have a responsibility to support the information needs of those citizens. User fees should not become a hidden form of double taxation. Prices must also be fair; archives should be careful not to determine prices exclusively according to the information value or commercial potential of the documents concerned.
5.8 This issue is particularly sensitive in the audio-visual sector as decisions are increasingly being made at a political level, with commercial value in mind. The audio-visual policies of nations, it has been argued, "are currently based on profit, market share, competition, economies of scale and rationalization." Even though archives are a minor player in this environment, they should assume responsibility for defending the educational and cultural needs of their users.
5.9 Once these issues have been resolved, archives can assess the cost of making archival information available. It is quite reasonable, for instance, to charge for the cost of reproducing or photocopying information. In some institutions, users are asked to provide the diskette, cassette, or videocassette on which the information will be copied. Others include the cost of this material in the copying costs. Information about the holdings, such as general reference guides and regular finding aids, however, should be accessible to all. Criteria to be used to determine whether or not user fees should be assigned to a particular service are a public good versus a special benefit, demand, value to user, impact of fee on user, importance of activity to an institution's mandate, user profile, and administrative feasibility.
5.10 Intrinsic to all of this is the concept of service standards. Users must clearly know what is available at no cost and what has an "added-on" value. In such standards, the relationship of the client to the provider of the service must be clearly spelled out and there must be an explanation of what are reasonable expectations. User fees also imply good service, speed, convenience, and accuracy - concepts that are often foreign to archives. Finally, before introducing fees for a service that was previously free, users must be advised and, if possible, consulted as the fee structure is being prepared.
5.11 In drafting the actual user fee strategy, it would be best not to include a profit factor but aim to recover the costs associated with providing the service. Researchers should not be responsible for filling the gaps in the normal resource allocation process of a repository. If the purpose of the exercise is to moderate use, the fees can be inferior to the services provided as making money is not the point or aim of the exercise. The services for which there will be fees also have to be assessed. It would be useless to develop a financial infrastructure for services that will never be purchased.
5.12 It is obvious that when audio-visual and electronic records are concerned, issues surrounding user fees and revenue generation are both extensive and complicated. For one, conservation and copying work often has to be performed before consultation can occur. This adds a cost dimension to the concept of universal rights of access. Decisions must also be made about who, if anybody, should pay for this essential work. Some public archives place this burden on the back of the first user of the record. Is this fair? In time, will this result in a decrease in demand for new records as users will only request the material already conserved and copied? Also, does this penalize those researchers who have to conduct in-depth (and consequently time-consuming) research into our holdings?
5.13 Archives, then, enjoy a certain amount of latitude in developing user fee policies and frameworks. The challenge in doing so, however, is to maintain a balance between the institution's resource requirements, its corporate responsibilites, and its public access mission. In such an environment, creators, donors, and user needs and expectations must be respected so that the ultimate purpose of archives - that is to preserve records of permanent value so that they can be made available - is justly served.