Tips from the Archivist: Have Papers, Will Donate?

Most families have “papers” – a nebulous term for a collection of items that can include correspondence, photographs, scrapbooks, newspapers, artifacts, and schoolwork – and often these papers sit in basements or attics where they risk becoming damaged by mold and water or being thrown away. Many people think that their family papers aren’t worthy of donating to an archive, but that’s an incorrect assumption. Archives are more than the keepers of the history of the “Important People”- they are keepers of the history of society as a whole. That means that everyday families and individuals are just as important as those whose names are attached to organizations, companies, or politics.

Your grandmother’s college scrapbook or your father’s travel journal may not seem at first glance to hold much importance to a researcher, but a woman’s documented college experience from the 1920s or a mid-20th century man’s perspective on the world as seen through his travels can help enlighten a scholar’s research on a particular time or place. The collections of ordinary families illuminate what it was like to live during a certain period in history. And so there are many archives out there that would be interested in your family’s papers. How do you select an archive, and what do you need to know?

1. Call or email the archives before donating. This may seem obvious, but sometimes a box will just show up on the proverbial doorstep – and the archives may not want the materials in the box. It’s best to start communicating with the archives early and often. The more you communicate, the easier the process will be, for both parties.

2. Find out the archive’s collection policy. Often an archive’s collection policy is on their website. The collection policy states what the archive will and will not collect. For example, AJHS-NEA collects the papers of Jewish individuals and families or records of Jewish organizations in the Greater Boston and New England regions.

3. Archivists cannot, by law, provide you with an appraisal for tax purposes. They can, however, suggest the name of an appraiser who will be able to review your documents and provide you with an estimate for the donation.

4. Archives are often under-funded and under-staffed, and supplies for storage are expensive. If you are in a position to donate even a small amount of money to go towards preserving your family papers, it would greatly help the archive in question.

5. Ask about the archive’s digitization policy. In today’s tech savvy world, researchers expect archives to have digitized collections. If you are uncomfortable with your family’s papers being online, you must have that conversation with the archivist.

6. You also want to ask about the archive’s copyright policies. AJHS-NEA assumes copyright for all original (primary source) material donated to the archive. When a donor signs a deed of gift, they give AJHS-NEA the right to hold the copyright.

7. Prepare your papers before donating. The more information you supply to the archives, the more information the archivist can provide for the researcher. This includes identifying people in photographs, providing some preliminary organization (for example, organizing correspondence by person or date; separating photographs from text documents, and inventorying any born digital or obsolete media, including identifying contents, if possible.)

Other ways to organize your papers before donating:

-by individual (e.g.: Joe Smith’s correspondence is separated from Jane Smith’s correspondence)
-by family surname, in generational order
-chronological or categorical (e.g.: military papers, education, diaries.)

8. Remember that archives exist to ensure our history is preserved. Archives should be able to store your papers in acid free folders and boxes in a climate controlled environment.

9. When in doubt, ask! Archivists are happy to answer your questions about preliminary organization. Again, it all comes back to communication. The more you talk to the archivist, the more comfortable you will be with the process.

If you are interested in donating your family’s papers to AJHS-NEA, please contact Judi Garner, Director, at 617-226-1245 or

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