Why contribute to an archive?
One of the most lasting things you can do is contribute your own historical materials to repository such as an archive, special collections library, historical society, or museum. From personal letters to family photographs to business records, your collection adds to a more inclusive historical record.
A repository can provide long-term preservation of your materials, while also allowing current and future researchers such as genealogists, writers, and students to better understand and analyze history. Even more importantly, your collection can enrich your community’s collective memory.
Here are some tips on what to do when considering donating your materials to an archive:
1. Examples of Materials
Some of the items an archive may be interested in:
- Professional/business papers
- Genealogical information/charts
- Brochures and flyers
- Limited run publications such as church or family histories
- Home movies/videos/audio tapes
2. Organize and Describe
- Organization of a collection is often best handled by the repository. The “original order” of materials can provide helpful clues to future researchers.
- It is helpful if you can provide contextual information (the who, what, when, and where), such as names of people who appear in photographs or the stories behind significant items that document personal or family history.
- You can choose to include letters and labels with your items to describe the items, just be careful to not cause damage. Do not use paperclips or tape that will rip materials.
3. Find a Repository
- An archive or repository is run by archivists, curators, or librarians whose priorities are the selection, the preservation, and the accessibility for research of historical materials. They will discuss with you the historical significance of your records and advise you which repository would be best for your records. Most repositories have a collecting policy that informs their decisions about what to accept. Historical societies and museums may also collect materials such as yours.
- Archivists can best assist you if you make an appointment in advance. If you are unsure how to contact a repository in your area, start with your state or local historical society or state archives. The Society of American Archivists can also provide you with suggestions.
- You may need to provide access to your collection for consideration, through physical inspection or photocopies/scans.
- Generally repositories acquire rare or unique items and are not interested in widely published items.
- It is not the volume of material that counts – a single item may be of significance.
- Both contemporary and older items may be of interest to repositories.
4. Things to Consider
It may be possible for a donor to take a tax deduction for the donation of a collection to a repository. Speak with your tax accountant or attorney about this possibility. Archivists cannot give tax advice or appraise the monetary value of a collection.
Donations vs. Loans
Most archives can only invest materials and labor in the preservation of items that they own, and will not accept items on loan. Donors are asked to sign a deed of gift form, which formally signifies that the materials become the property of the archives.
Access to donated materials is governed by the repository’s policies regarding availability, duplication, and publication. As a prospective donor, you should become familiar with such policies and discuss any special needs or concerns with the archivist or curator before completing the deed of gift. Final description of the collection may not occur immediately and repositories vary in the speed with which description of the collection is posted online.
Restrictions on Use
If you are concerned that material considered confidential or private may be represented in your personal and family records, be prepared to discuss with the archivist the possibility of restricting part of the collection for a period 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.
Credit: This work contains some derivative material sourced from Donating Your Personal or Family Records to a Repository – Society of American Archivists, utilized under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.