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Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, November 18, 2011

Can I conserve my own pile of documents?

This post continues a discussion about the disposition of huge accumulated piles of documents and related items pertaining to an individual family's genealogy. A comment was made to my last post, expressing some disappointment in my attitude towards repositories. The commentator did note that the responsibility for curation lies primarily with the accumulator of the documents. However, there is also a practical reality involved. For example, if you were to bring a number of boxes of genealogically related stuff to your local Family History Center, you would very likely be told that the Center has no ability to curate the documents or to even store them. Unless your ancestor had some outstanding community standing, it is also highly unlikely that any local library would accept a large collection of genealogically related documents any statements made by the repositories to the contrary notwithstanding. Preservation of these otherwise personal documents lies primarily with the family of the deceased. If the family is not amenable to preservation, i.e. throws them in the garbage can, there is really no one out there who can act to save the documents.

That said, if you have a huge collection of documents, you need to make adequate preparation and plans for their preservation before you die. From my own practical experience, leaving such instructions in a will or trust are only rarely fully observed by the heirs. Here is the statement made by The Society of American Archivists concerning private donations of personal documents and papers:
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.
The key words here are "deemed appropriate." I suggest you carefully read the entire article called, A Guide to Donating Your Personal or Family Papers to a Repository.  If you read this article carefully, you will see that they suggest shopping around for a repository. In one instance where I donated a sizable collection of documents to a repository, the staff person who met me at the loading dock to accept the documents was obviously not interested in the documents at all, until I spent a few minutes showing him the nature of the documents I had in my collection. He immediately changed his mind and invited me to his conference room where we reviewed the documents for a couple of hours. The collection is now readily available in a large university's special collections library. However, I did not give the documents to the library until I had exhaustively reviewed all of them, extracted all of the pertinent information and made my own digital image of the entire collection. In this case, my relative was the spouse of a reasonably famous person. Had my relative been someone unknown, the reaction would have been entirely different.

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