by Mark Meyer
In a perfect world archivists would have unlimited climate-controlled storage space, a huge staff of material handlers, and the ability to never say “no” to anyone willing to donate material to their collection. Unfortunately, they don’t have those luxuries. Deciding what to accept to a collection is a never-ending challenge to curators that manage their collections. In speaking to local archivists from the Allen County Public Library, the ACPL Lincoln Collection, and The History Center, it was clear nothing is black-and-white when it comes to donating historical items. There are no hard and fast rules on donations but there are a number of things for you to keep in mind if you have items to donate that you feel may have historical or research value.
Provenance and history
Learn as much as you can about the item(s) you are wishing to donate to help the curator determine its value to his/her collection. That box of snapshots would take on a different value if they were work photos from International Harvester versus family pictures of little brother’s 14th birthday party down in the basement. You needn’t do extensive research, in fact the best information is likely that provided by talking to those around you. As Aaron Smith from the ACPL Genealogy collection suggested, “…there’s no more valuable source than Aunt Millie.” A personal, local connection (especially for The History Center) creates greater value.
One thing is clear, no archivist wants to provide a blanket list of “yes” and “no” items so your next step is to contact the organization to which you wish to donate. Simply call or email to provide an idea of the item or items you wish to provide. There are an almost unlimited number of items of historical value but the organization may not have a home for your item for other reasons than value. For History Center curator, Walter Font avoiding duplication is a big consideration. Display and storage space is limited so the uniqueness of an item is important to maximize collection space. There could also be issues with physical size of an item or, in the case of paper records, the sheer volume of material. Staff time to process the materials could be a consideration as well. But, remember, there are no rules. That huge item in your backyard or that collection found in a warehouse still may be desirable.
Once you’ve found a willing home you can ascend to the Donator Hall of Fame by taking some steps to make your donation more manageable. Some steps may sound rather obvious but you’d be surprised according to ACPL Lincoln Librarians Jane Gastineau and Adriana Maynard. They have seen their share of “buggy” boxes filled with cobwebs, nests, and dreaded silverfish.
Clean boxes please. Besides the obvious “yuck” of a buggy box, the insects and nests pose a threat to the organization’s collection. Yes, sometimes an organization might be willing to fumigate a particularly rare collection of donated items but in general, if you can help by donating in a clean, dry box, please do so. As Gastineau noted, watermarks on the outside of a box suggest there may be some dampness issues within, making it a candidate for a new dry box. (A special note on old textiles: please DON’T wash. Chances are the item needs a special cleaning process or may be preferred as-is.)
Organize. Organize the material as best you can whether by size, date, or material. It’s not critical how you organize but it is very helpful to use a single method. Be sure to clearly note what method was used.
Avoid paper clipping, stapling, and binding with rubber bands. The metal of the former rusts while the rubber of the bands breaks down and may stain or damage surrounding material. These would all have to be removed for archiving so save both you and the archivist some time by avoiding clips and bands.
Don’t mount or frame or place in sleeves. Vintage photo albums and scrapbooks can be treasure troves of information but often contain acidic paper, glues, or cumbersome plastic pages or sleeves. Yes, those vintage items are desirable, but there is no need to assemble your donated items in a binder or scrapbook. Your items may be in storage for an extended period before being processed so avoid making the mistakes of those vintage scrapbookers. Also, plastic sleeves provide protection but in most cases create a great deal of additional work for those processing the donation. Smith, who manages the ACPL Genealogy archives, noted that in this day of digital scanning, paper items need to be removed from the sleeves to be scanned. This adds a step to an already time-consuming process. In some cases donated papers can be bound as-is in hard back volumes but sleeves complicate the process. Smith has attended many a club meeting with attendees separating papers from sleeves as the meeting progressed! Finally, the History Center’s Font advises to refrain from the unnecessary expense of framing. A frame may make that document or letter more attractive but the item will most likely be removed from the frame for proper preservation and/or display.
Identify. There may be no single activity of more value to the curator than providing background information for the item(s) you donate. An old group photo of a dinner takes on new meaning when the event and the individuals are identified. Please don’t mark directly on the item (You’d be surprised!) but instead note on a separate piece of paper or post it note. Give as much detail as possible with special attention to names, dates, and locations. Chances are that you are the very best source for information about the item. As ACPL’s Smith notes, “…information degrades the further it gets from you”. Your notes will set a good foundation and help keep the info flow intact.
Copyright, taxes, and all that legal stuff
Be aware that your donation may become the property of the particular archive and as such be subject to the rules of access established by that organization. In some cases, for instance papers, manuscripts, photographs and other original material, you may be asked to provide a copyright waiver. You may also qualify for a tax credit. The organization to whom you are donating can provide additional information but it may be to your benefit to consult your attorney or accountant to determine the maximum tax benefit (if any) to which you’re entitled.
Despite these suggested guidelines I couldn’t help but feel any of the professionals I consulted would happily throw them all out in a heartbeat if your donation contained items of value to their collections. Don’t let this laundry list discourage your donation. And conversely, don’t give up if an organization says, “no”. Back in the ‘90s I contacted several local organizations looking for a home for hundreds of hours of local news footage from a TV station’s archives. Due to the collection size and its dated film and videotape format, no local organization could accept the donation. Fortunately it found a home at the Indiana State Museum which had the staff and warehouse to accommodate it. The real bottom line here is preserving links to our past. If we are able to do this in a manner most efficient for those folks who catalog, organize, preserve, and protect this priceless info, well, all the better.