Documentation planning (Spectrum 5.0 consultation draft)

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Use this procedure to improve your documentation systems and enhance the information they contain. This is more generic than many other procedures. Its focus is on planning and managing any kind of documentation project: defining objectives; writing a plan; monitoring progress; and responding to any problems along the way.

If your organisation does not yet meet the minimum standard for the Inventory procedure, this should be your first priority.

Not all documentation projects are ‘retrospective’ in the sense of recording information that should have been noted when objects were first acquired. Cataloguing, in particular, is an ongoing, open-ended process that is less daunting if treated as discrete research projects rather than a single ‘backlog’.

Planning improvements to your documentation should be done as part of your organisation’s wider forward-planning process. For example, the goal of putting collections images online might prompt a project to improve the copyright information needed to do this, or a planned exhibition might involve research that could enhance object records.

The Spectrum standard

You must have a written documentation policy (sometimes called a collections information policy). This should ideally form part of an integrated collections management framework – a coherent set of policy statements, plans and procedures that also includes the development, access and care of your collections. Your policy should include answers to these questions:

  • What are the various elements of your collection information system? (eg accession registers, forms, files, computer systems)
  • What ethical obligations and other standards do you aim to meet, and how will you do this? (eg your mission, Museums Association Code of Ethics, Accreditation, Spectrum)
  • What legal obligations apply to your collection information and how will you meet them? (eg data protection, freedom of information)
  • How will you maintain your system to keep it up-to-date, secure, backed-up, and meeting the needs of your museum and its users?
  • What are your priorities for improving your collections information and how will you achieve them?

You must also have a written procedure that explains the steps to follow when carrying out planning and managing documentation projects. Spectrum’s suggested procedure is a useful starting point, and is available as a workflow diagram or as a text file you can edit. However you do it, your own procedure must meet the following minimum requirements:

Minimum requirement Why this is important See (cross-references to be added in final version)
Review the collections information you already have and agree areas for improvement in the light of your collection management priorities. You do not spend time and resources working on things that interest you but do not contribute to the wider priorities of your organisation.
You have a written documentation plan setting out specific objectives that can be achieved within a realistic timeframe given the available resources. You break down ‘the backlog’ into manageable projects that meet your wider objectives.

In the UK this is a requirement of Museum Accreditation.

You review progress towards achieving your plan’s objectives regularly. You can celebrate ‘quick wins’.

You are able to address any problems that might cause the plan to fail.




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  1. I would like to see a glossary at the end of the whole document. This would mean that if a volunteer asked for clarification of a term, they could be pointed in the direction of the glossary which gave a standard definitition. Will this be possible and is it already in the plan?

  2. I’m not sure about the relationship between collections review and documentation planning, as it’s shown in the workflow: it seems as at odds with the suggested procedure. I think that a collections review can throw up the need for improvements to documentation; but equally, a documentation plan could include a collections review as a means to improve documentation. In short, I think collections review should appear twice in the workflow, and twice in the suggested procedure.

    I also wonder whether, rather than end with ‘plan implemented’, the workflow shouldn’t then go back to the beginning and ‘reviewing your collections information’. After all, aren’t we aiming for continuous improvement, rather than seeing documentation as something finite? On the other hand, if we’re worried that this will look like a never-ending cycle, leading to demoralisation and an unwillingness to even consider documentation planning, remember that you can say in the collection information review that your documentation meets your needs and no further improvements are needed. But I think it’s useful to make sure that this really is the case after implementing a documentation plan: they can take a while to carry out, and circumstances may change whilst the work is under way.

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Date created: 2017

Author: Collections Trust

Publisher: Collections Trust