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The Secretary of the Interior's
Standards and Guidelines for
Preservation Planning


Preservation Planning
Standards & Guidelines

Standard I
Standard II
Standard III
Managing the Planning Process
Developing Historic Contexts
Developing Goals for a Historic Context
Integrating Individual Historic Contexts--Creating the Preservation Plan
Coordinating with Management Frameworks
Recommended Sources of Technical Information
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NOTE: These Standards and Guidelines are part of Archeology and Historic Preservation: Secretary of the Interior's Standards and Guidelines, which appeared in the Federal Register, September 29, 1983 (48FR44716). Also included are standards and guidelines for identification, evaluation, registration, treatment, and documentation. Visit the entire set of Standards and Guidelines. Use your browser's "Back" button to return to this page.



General Approach

Available information about historic properties must be divided into manageable units before it can be useful for planning purposes. Major decisions about identifying, evaluating, registering and treating historic properties are most reliably made in the context of other related properties.

A historic context is an organizational format that groups information about related historic properties, based on a theme, geographic limits and chronological period. A single historic context describes one or more aspects of the historic development of an area, considering history, architecture, archeology, engineering and culture; and identifies the significant patterns that individual historic properties represent, for example Coal Mining in Northeastern Pennsylvania between 1860 and 1930. A set of historic contexts is a comprehensive summary of all aspects of the history of the area.

The historic context is the cornerstone of the planning process. The goal of preservation planning is to identify, evaluate, register and treat the full range of properties representing each historic context, rather than only one or two types of properties. Identification activities are organized to ensure that research and survey activities include properties representing all aspects of the historic context. Evaluation uses the historic context as the framework within which to apply the criteria for evaluation to specific properties or property types. Decisions about treatment of properties are made with the goal of treating the range of properties in the context. The use of historic contexts in organizing major historic preservation activities ensures that those activities result in the preservation of the wide variety of properties that represent our history, rather than only a small, biased sample of properties.

Historic contexts, as theoretical constructs, are linked to actual historic properties through the concept of property types. Property types permit the development of plans for identification, evaluation and treatment even in the absence of complete knowledge of individual properties. Like the historic context, property types are artificial constructs which may be revised as necessary.

Historic contexts can be developed at a variety of scales appropriate for local, State and regional planning. Given the probability of historic contexts overlapping in an area, it is important to coordinate the development and use of historic contexts at all levels. Generally, the State Historic Preservation Office possesses the most complete body of information about historic properties and, in practice, is in the best position to perform this function.

The development of historic contexts generally results in documents that describe the prehistoric processes or patterns that define the context. Each of the contexts selected should be developed to the point of identifying important property types to be useful in later preservation decision-making. The amount of detail included in these summaries will vary depending on the level (local, state, regional, or national) at which the contexts are developed and on their intended uses. For most planning purposes, a synopsis of the written description of the historic context is sufficient.

Creating a Historic Context

Generally, historic contexts should not be constructed so broadly as to include all property types under a single historic context or so narrowly as to contain only one property type per historic context. The following procedures should be followed in creating a historic context.

  1. Identify the concept, time period and geographical limits for the historic context.

    Existing information, concepts, theories, models and descriptions should be used as the basis for defining historic contexts. Biases in primary and secondary sources should be identified and accounted for when existing information is used in defining historic contexts.

    The identification and description of historic contexts should incorporate contributions from all disciplines involved in historic preservation. The chronological period and geographical area of each historic context should be defined after the conceptual basis is established. However, there may be exceptions, especially in defining prehistoric contexts where drainage systems or physiographic regions often are outlined first. The geographical boundaries for historic contexts should not be based upon contemporary political, project or other contemporary boundaries if those boundaries do not coincide with historical boundaries. For example, boundaries for prehistoric contexts will have little relationship to contemporary city, county or state boundaries.

  2. Assemble the existing information about the historic context.

    1. Collecting information: Several kinds of information are needed to construct a preservation plan. Information about the history of the area encompassed by the historic context must be collected, including any information about historic properties that have already been identified. Existing survey or inventory entries are an important source of information about historic properties. Other sources may include literature on prehistory, history, architecture and the environment; social and environmental impact assessments; county and State land use plans; architectural and folklife studies and oral histories; ethnographic research; State historic inventories and registers; technical reports prepared for Section 106 or other assessments of historic properties; and direct consultation with individuals and groups.

      In addition, organizations and groups that may have important roles in defining historic contexts and values should be identified. In most cases a range of knowledgeable professionals drawn from the preservation, planning and academic communities will be available to assist in defining contexts and in identifying sources of information. In other cases, however, development of historic contexts may occur in areas whose history or prehistory has not been extensively studied. In these situations, broad general historic contexts should be initially identified using available literature and expertise, with the expectation that the contexts will be revised and subdivided in the future as primary source research and field surveys are conducted. It is also important to identify such sources of information as existing planning data, which is needed to establish goals for identification, evaluation, and treatment, and to identify factors that will affect attainment of those goals.

      The same approach for obtaining information is not necessarily desirable for all historic contexts. Information should not be gathered without first considering its relative importance to the historic context, the cost and time involved, and the expertise required to obtain it. In many case, for example, published sources may be used in writing initial definitions of historic contexts; archival research or field work may be needed for subsequent activities.

    2. Assessing information: All information should be reviewed to identify bias in historic perspective, methodological approach, or area of coverage. For example, field surveys for archeological sites may have ignored historic archeological sites, or county land use plans may have emphasized only development goals.

  3. Synthesize information.

    The information collection and analysis results in a written narrative of the historic context. This narrative provides a detailed synthesis of the data that have been collected and analyzed. The narrative covers the history of the area from the chosen perspective and identifies important patterns, events, persons or cultural values. In the process of identifying the important patterns one should consider:

    • Trends in area settlement and development, if relevant;

    • Aesthetic and artistic values embodied in architecture, construction technology of craftsmanship;

    • Research values or problems relevant to the historic context; social and physical sciences and humanities; and cultural interests of local communities; and

    • Intangible cultural values of ethnic groups and native American peoples.

  4. Define property types.

    A property type is a grouping of individual properties based on shared physical or associative characteristics. Property types link the ideas incorporated in the theoretical historic context with actual historic properties that illustrate those ideas. Property types defined for each historic context should be directly related to the conceptual basis of the historic context. Property types defined for the historic context "Coal Mining in Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1860-1930" might include coal extraction and processing complexes; railroad and canal transportation systems; commercial districts; mine workers' housing; churches, social clubs and other community facilities reflecting the ethnic origins of the workers; and residences and other properties associated with mine owners and other industrialists.

    1. Identify property types:

      The narrative should discuss the kinds of properties expected within the geographical limits of the context and group them into those property types most useful in representing important historic trends.

      Generally property types should be defined after the historic context has been defined. Property types in common usage ("Queen Anne houses," "mill buildings," or "stratified sites") should not be adopted without verifying their relevance to the historic contexts being used.

    2. Characterize the locational patterns of property types:

      Generalizations about where particular types of properties are likely to be found can serve as a guide for identification and treatment. Generalizations about the distribution of archeological properties are frequently used. The distribution of other historic properties often can be estimated based on recognizable historical, environmental or cultural factors that determined their location. Locational patterns of property types should be based upon models that have an explicit theoretical or historical basis and can be tested in the field. The model may be the product of historical research and analysis ("Prior to widespread use of steam power, mills were located on rivers and streams able to produce water power" or "plantation houses in the Mississippi Black Belt were located on sandy clay knolls"), or it may result from sampling techniques. Often the results of statistically valid sample surveys can be used to describe the locational patterns of a representative portion of properties belonging to a particular property type. Other surveys can also provide a basis for suggesting locational patterns if a diversity of historic properties was recorded and a variety of environmental zones was inspected. It is likely that the identification of locational patterns will come from a combination of these sources. Expected or predicted locational patterns of property types should be developed with a provision made for their verification.

    3. Characterize the current condition of property types:

      The expected condition of property types should be evaluated to assist in the development of identification, evaluation and treatment strategies, and to help define physical integrity thresholds for various property types. The following should be assessed for each property type:

      1. Inherent characteristics of a property type that either contribute to or detract from its physical preservation. For example, a property type commonly constructed of fragile materials is more likely to be deteriorated than a property type constructed of durable materials; structures whose historic functions or design limits the potential for alternative uses (water towers) are less likely to be reused than structures whose design allows a wider variety of other uses (commercial buildings or warehouses).

      2. Aspects of the social and natural environment that may affect the preservation or visibility of the property type. For example, community values placed on certain types of properties (churches, historic cemeteries) may result in their maintenance while the need to reuse valuable materials may stimulate the disappearance of properties like abandoned houses or barns.

      It may be most efficient to estimate of the condition of property types based on professional knowledge of existing properties and field test these estimates using a small sample of properties representative of each type.

  5. Identify information needs.

    Filling gaps in information is an important element of the preservation plan designed for each historic context. Statements of the information needed should be as specific as possible, focusing on the information needed, the historic context and the property types it applies to, and why the information is needed to perform identification, evaluation, or treatment activities.

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