A Guide to Donating Your Personal or Family Papers to a Repository
For millennia, written records have provided essential clues to the past.
Through letters, diaries, and unpublished writings of many types, and also
through the audible and visual records of recent times, researchers have been
able to study and understand much about the history of particular families,
communities, businesses, and organizations, the history of specific events
and broader societal trends, and the history of the United States in general.
Letters, diaries, photos, and other material collected over the years give
vital and unique information regarding your life or the history of your family.
And while these papers obviously matter to you, they may be important to your
community, state, or nation, too. Whether or not members of your family attained
a degree of fame, they have contributed to the heritage of a certain place
and time. When you donate your personal or family papers to a manuscript repository,
your family history becomes a part of your community's collective memory.
What is a Repository and What Can It Do for You?
Manuscript repositories—also called archives, historical societies, and
special collections libraries -carefully preserve collections of written,
visual, and audible material created by private citizens both past and present.
Such repositories ensure that these personal and family papers will be available
for research by generations to come.
A manuscript repository is run by professionals - archivists, curators,
or librarians - whose first priority is the preservation of historical materials.
They can discuss with you the historical value of your papers, and advise
you on which repository would be best for your papers. In addition, once
you donate papers the staff will continue to work with you as you locate
or identify other materials to donate.
If your personal or family papers are deemed appropriate for a repository's
collections, and you agree to donate those papers, you stand to gain many
benefits. A repository can provide the papers with environmentally-controlled,
secure storage and can oversee their proper handling and use. Equally important,
it can provide research access to the contents of the papers, both to you
and to the scholarly public. In future years, researchers - including students,
professors, genealogists, journalists and many others may thus find your
papers both interesting and of value to their work.
What to Preserve
Most repositories accept donations of as little as a single item and as
large as dozens of boxes. Material need not be organized; it need not be "old";
and it need not relate to a famous individual, event, or organization in
order for it to be historically significant. Generally, however, repositories
are more interested in a coherent body of material rather than individual
items; photos, tapes, and films should be identified. Repositories usually
ask that historical material itself not be mailed or dropped off without
first consulting with the staff; a repository must evaluate all material
offered and ask the donor to sign a donation agreement.
Do you need to "cull" the papers or reorganize them?
Archivists are experts in identifying materials that should be transferred
to a repository or manuscript library. Because the research value of records
may be diminished if items are removed or if the records are rearranged,
donors are encouraged to con tact the repository staff before weeding, discarding,
or reorganizing their papers and records.
Examples of historically valuable material.
While it is important that the archives staff be permitted to survey papers
or records in order to determine which materials have enduring historical
value, listed below are types of materials that are often valuable to a researcher.
These lists, which are suggestive and not definitive, illustrate the wide
range of documentation often useful for historical and administrative research.
Among the types of materials in personal and family papers of interest
to researchers are:
- scrapbooks/photo albums
- professional papers
- genealogical information
- business records
- subject files
- legal documents
- brochures and flyers
- photographs (labeled)
- films/videos/audio tapes (labeled)
Also of interest are files relating to the individual's civic, business,
religious, political, and social activities.
Churches, political organizations, businesses, economic interest groups,
community groups, voluntary associations, professional associations, and
other collective enterprises all produce records which document their purpose,
policies, and activities. An individual or family may hold the records of
such a business or organization, and this material, too, may be significant.
In addition to papers and records, some archives (or their affiliated museums
or libraries) also collect artifacts, art, books, maps, and music.
Will a repository take everything you offer?
Although a repository cannot accept everything that may be offered (whether
because of staff and space constraints or because the papers are not within
the collecting mission of the particular institution), it welcomes the chance
to review material; if it is not appropriate for one repository, there may
be another one to which it could be referred. Some material, though, may
be of more sentimental than historical value, and should be kept by the individual
or family itself.
Donating Personal or Family Papers to a Repository
Archivists can best assist you if you make an appointment in advance. If
you are unsure how to contact a repository in your area, you may wish to
begin by speaking with someone at your state historical society or state
archives. The Society of American Archivists (email@example.com)
can also provide you with suggestions.
Most archives can only invest materials and labor in the preservation of
items which they own. Therefore, most archives accept donations of individual
or family papers, but will not accept such material on deposit or on loan.
Donors are asked to sign a donation agreement, which formally signifies that
the papers become the actual property of the archives.
Access to Collections.
Once material is donated to a repository, it does not circulate in
order to insure that it is preserved as long as humanly possible. Access
to donated papers is governed by the repository's written policies regarding
availability, photo duplication, and publication. A prospective donor should
become familiar with such policies and discuss any special needs or concerns
with the curator before completing the donation agreement.
Restrictions on Access.
Sensitive material that may exist in individual or family papers should
not be removed by the donor. Instead, the donor should discuss with the archivist
the possibility of restricting part of the collection to protect the privacy
of the donor or others. While archives desire to make all papers freely accessible
to researchers, they normally will agree to reasonable and equitable restrictions
for limited periods of time.
Assignment of copyright is often complex, and you should work with the repository
staff to clarify issues of copyright ownership. Generally, copyright belongs
to the creator of writings and other original material (such as photos and
music), but can be legally transferred to heirs or others. Moreover, ownership
of copyright is separable from ownership of the physical item (the letter
or photo). Curators often ask donors to donate not only the physical papers
but also any copyright in them that the donor might own. This request is
made to make it easier for researchers to use quotations from the papers
in their work.
A repository usually is not able to promise that donated materials will
be placed on exhibit or used in some other specific fashion as a condition
of accepting the gift.
Monetary Appraisals for Tax Deductions.
In certain circumstances, it may be possible for a donor to take a tax deduction
for the donation of a manuscript collection to a repository. Donors are encouraged
to speak with their tax accountants or attorneys about this possibility. Curators
cannot give tax advice, nor are they permitted to appraise the monetary value
of a collection. The curator may be able to provide donors with a list
of local manuscript appraisers who can (for a fee) make monetary appraisals
for the donor. It is up to the donor to arrange for and bear the cost of
any such appraisal, although the repository will make the collection available
to an appraiser hired by the donor.
Most repositories are non-profit organizations. Preparing papers for use
by researchers is the most expensive operation in a repository. Although
such grants are rarely a prerequisite for the acceptance of a collection,
donors who are able to assist repositories by making grants toward the arrangement,
cataloging, and conservation of their donations of papers are encouraged
to do so.
This brochure was prepared by the Manuscript Repositories Section of the
Society of American Archivists. Grateful acknowledgement for permission to
borrow from their respective brochures is made to the Nebraska State Historical
Society, the Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan, and
the Minnesota Historical Society.