At the American Folklife Center, we regularly get questions from fieldworkers about how to find an archival home for their collections. This post aims to consolidate some of that information in one place, and benefits from thoughtful feedback from several staff members. Disclaimer: This is general guidance and does not necessarily reflect the Library’s acquisitions policies.
You or your organization need not be old or famous to have generated significant cultural documentation worthy of long-term preservation and access in an archives. Certainly, there is a lot you can do on your own to preserve your collection. Yet, there may come a time when you want to seek an institutional home for it.
While the term archives is contested, for the purposes of this post I am referring to institutional archives — places where trained archivists collect, preserve, and make accessible unique collections using infrastructure (software, servers, storage facilities, etc.) that has continuous funding support.
At the American Folklife Center, we often get inquiries from documentarians who might have photographs, sound recordings, moving images and field notes they created during the course of their work. They want to see it preserved, but they aren’t sure how to engage archivists. This post is aimed at giving those folks some things to chew on when considering donating their documentation to a suitable archives.
Initial questions to ask yourself
What’s in it?
Who created these materials and why? Are the materials rich in possibilities for additional research and discovery by others? First ask yourself, what constitutes your collection? Modern documentary collections go well beyond “a box of tapes and some notebooks” to include digital audiovisual materials, emails, datasets, etc. At base, it is likely audiovisual documentation, your notes, and resulting products generated from the documentation such as field reports/research papers/blog posts, a documentary film, book, traveling exhibit, etc. Is there other documentation of enduring value, including digital communications and artifacts, in scope?
Archivists will want to know the people and topics documented in your collection, as well as general information about quantities, formats, rights issues, age and condition.
As you start to assess the readiness of your collection for transfer to archives, a useful exercise is to have someone else sit in front of the collection, be it digital or physical. Without prompting, have that person interpret the current organization of media and documents. Could they make sense of it? Where might it be unclear? But before you set off to rearrange it, read on.
Is it yours to donate? What rights and ethical issues are in play?
Was the documentation created during a work-for-hire project? Is your agency’s cultural heritage documentation considered state records? Was the documentation created while you worked for a university or other organization, which may hold rights to the intellectual property? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you may not be considered the records owner and therefore not in a position to negotiate the transfer of the collection. When applicable, be sure to check with your agency’s records managers or the entity that sponsored the research.
Did the people documented give you explicit permission to document them? Signed permission forms with contact information are ideal, however those don’t always exist. Can those you documented be contacted to obtain these permissions? Permissions can sometimes be murky, especially with older materials, but there are ethical ways to address issues of access. Be sure you ask about this and convey any concerns you might have about collection use.
Are you still using the collection?
Documentary records differ from regular archival records in that for you they may be “active,” providing a well of material for use and reuse for years. Continued use of your documentary research is fine, but know that your access to that documentation will be impacted once you transfer the collection. It may not be in the queue for digitization until funding can be secured, it may be over in the Conservation unit for treatment, or it might be stored off-site and take a few days to arrive onsite. Also, the ability to get digital copies of the materials is not a given so any of those terms need to be considered. Still working on that book based on that documentation? Discuss any proprietary concerns with the archivist prior to the transfer of the collection.
Who are the potential users?
As you consider which repository might be a good fit, ask whether the documentation should stay in close proximity to the community of origin. Often, ethnographic materials are the most useful to the people documented and should kept close to home. Or, for whatever reason is it better to try to place the collection in a repository known for collections that document similar subject matter? There are several of ethnographic archives, but documentarians of all kinds should not discount the value of donating to a mainstream repository. Yes, ethnographic archives are particularly attuned to working with multi-format, inter-related documentation and the associated ethical considerations of human subjects research. Still, mainstream archivists are often also well aware of those issues and sometimes their institutions have more robust preservation and access offerings than specialized archives.
Once you’ve mulled over these basic questions, you’re ready to start a conversation with an archivist. Remember that archivists can often provide good advice and referrals, even if your collection isn’t deemed a good fit for that archives.
What archivists are thinking
The two major factors in deciding whether to acquire a collection are collecting priorities and available resources to properly care for the collection. Questions they will be asking include:
Is this collection a good fit for the archives?
At the Library of Congress, each curatorial division maintains a collection policy and submits an annual top desiderata list that identifies research areas/subjects to pursue and specific collections/items to be acquired. That said, more than half of AFC’s acquisitions in the last fiscal year were not specifically identified at the beginning of the year. They did, however, fall within our strategic collection areas.
What will it cost to care for the collection?
“Preparing papers for use by researchers is the most expensive operation in a repository,” according to a Society of American Archivist brochure on donating family or personal papers.
The archives has to consider the impact a collection will have on staff time and resources. Factors include the condition of the materials, the formats in the collection, and the desired level of processing. For example, it can take 3.5 hours to transfer and describe every hour of disc recordings, assuming it is in good condition. Documentary collections tend to have a lot of audiovisual materials. Transferring those files takes up a lot of server space and requires specialized staff and equipment. Additionally, the collection needs to be made discoverable through description in some combination of catalog records, inventories, and finding aids. While a simple catalog record can take an hour, a detailed finding aid could take up to 50 hours.
Archivists may do an onsite collection appraisal to assess the value of the collection and the processing load. They will weigh the potential processing costs and time along with the restrictions placed on the collection by the donor against future research value. If you have the means to donate money for the care, processing, and dissemination of your collection, all archives need additional resources to care for collections.
What to think about if it’s a match
Are you prepared to donate?
What are the terms of the agreement?
If you and the archivist come to agreement that your collection belongs in the archives, together you will craft a formal donor agreement outlining terms. Be prepared to weigh in on several issues, including: collection scope, ownership, intellectual rights, transfer schedule (all at once or in installments/accruals), the archives’ rights, who pays for shipment, etc. Donors can also negotiate into the agreement other details, such as getting the right of first refusal on anything that might be deemed out-of-scope and removed from the collection. Archives aren’t fond of donors placing restrictions on access and use of collections, though they may agree to a limited-term embargo if there is a compelling reason.
Most institutions have limited acquisitions budgets and primarily accept collections by donation, in which case you can seek a tax write-off. You may want to get your collection appraisal for tax purposes.
Preparing the collection for transfer
Your help identifying who is documented, the context of creation, rights information, etc. greatly contributes to the usefulness of the collection and the speed by which it is made accessible. At the same time, the research value of your collection could be diminished if you remove or rearrange items. Do not weed, discard or reorganize the records without first speaking to an archivist.
Sending in digital files requires particularly close coordination with the archivist. At AFC, we provide donors with a spreadsheet aimed a capturing the necessary information we need ensure a successful transfer. One resource that might be useful is “Born Digital: Guidance for Donors, Dealers, and Archival Repositories.”
An enthusiastic, engaged donor can do a lot to assist with collection discovery and promote use. Working with the archives to find resources to support the arrangement, cataloging, and conservation of the donations is often encouraged.