[Ask an Archivist] Q: Why would you reject a collection in your archive?

Ask an Archivist Question:

Why would you reject a collection in your archive? What steps made you come to this decision?


Ask an Archivist Answers:

I would have several reasons for declining a collection. The first would be if it was out of the scope of what my collection development plan says we collect. The second reason would be that it was too big for my staff to handle, or that it included a format we couldn’t handle. The third reason would be if the donor-to-be had too many requirements or restrictions on the collection.

– Gerrianne Schaad

I imagine the appraisal reasoning might consider the value of collection itself, the value of it against other collections already held, the cost of keeping it against its value, and whether or not the repository can properly care for the collection. some specific questions to consider are:

1. Is the collection within the scope of the collecting policy? If I’m in a medical archive and someone wants to donate their collection on literary autographs, I’d reject that. If it is a collection of medical greats autographs, there are other factors to consider before accepting it, including how that collection compliments other collections in the archive, or if yours is a more science-orientated only archive, this might be one to pass over (or not, sometimes a curator might want to branch out in to a broader collecting policy – all depends.)

Another facet in this question is this: does the collection have many artifact-like items in it that are of interest, or that your archive could take care of? there is a fine line between archival collections and museum collections. If a donation includes many pieces of say, artwork, or decorative art items, etc., are you able to properly care for this facet in the collection?

2. Are the materials of enduring research value? If the materials being offered to above example are full of published sources available fairly easily along with one or two original things, thumbs down again. Are they found less easily? Well then, are they usable by at least some part of your user pool? Russian language published sources in the above same example may be useless. That doesn’t, by the way, mean that the collection is useless, it just may be better placed in another library.

3. Is the donor asking for too many restrictions or some other unreasonable request? I’ve heard of donors asking that a collection remain closed for 100 years – that is something to factor into your accepting it – a long time to house a collection not being used. (this is a budgetary issue, we have to admit it though some do not like to do that.) However, if it’s JFK’s secret diaries (and they are proved genuine) that might be worth it. If there’s going to be a lawsuit over ownership of said diaries, errrr maybe not. (money issue again plays a role)

4. Here is something I do not hear happening very often, but know of at least one occasion when it should have been a factor: if your repository does not have the equipment to properly store, process, and make available particular materials. If you have a small repository and you struggle with space, and particularly temperature controls in the areas materials are stored (which affect the physical materials more in film and audio vs. paper) and you are offered a terrific collection that is on film that takes up hundreds of LF, but no one on staff knows how to deal with film, the storage, as mentioned is not appropriate for it, it’s going to sit around for a long time before someone can do something with it, and there is no money to buy the equipment to view it, in order to describe it, etc. not to mention make it readily available for research, it is better that it goes to a repository that can properly support it.

This list isn’t comprehensive, but I find that these are the basics of thinking about taking in collections.

– Michala Biondi

The first cut is scope. Every repository should have a collection development statement based on its mission that defines its scope of collections. This could be based organization, state/region, subject, or a combination of factors. If it is out of scope – don’t take it. If you don’t regret it, your successors surely will. Perhaps they will stand up and present at SAA and mention the previous archivist at their repository that took in everything. Don’t let it be you.

If it is in scope there could be other factors that lead to it being rejected. These could include size, preservation concerns, or format – such as obsolete electronic media. These all fall under preservation and/or access. If your repository does not have the space, staff, equipment, etc. to care for and provide access to the collection then you will have to think very hard about taking it. If it is very important to your repository, perhaps it can be the spark for a promotional campaign to increase funding or more staff. If it seems more than you can handle, then it might end up languishing.

– Michael Nagy

Yes, I reject collections–I honestly believe this is one of the most important thing an archivist can do for her repository. It helps to reject collections which might water down the research strengths of your repository, especially when you can reserve your efforts for priority collections which add to collection depth.

There are several components to making my decision-making process:

1. For the most part, I depend on a detailed collection development policy (which is reviewed frequently). Any collection offered should fit in with the criteria and our collection priorities. In many cases, if we do not accept a collection, I always make sure to recommend a better repository home.

2. I also discuss with my staff, to get their opinions as well.

3. I review our storage capabilities–are we able to fully process this collection and make it available? Do we have the staffing? Do we have the space?

4. Is this a political decision? There are times, unfortunately and fortunately, when archives have to take one for the team, and accept a collection which ordinarily, would not be accepted. In these cases, I try and make sure we follow our policies as closely as possible, and also provide as many guidelines as I can.

While the following document applies to law collections, it does provide a nice overview of the importance of collection development policies: http://www.aallnet.org/main-menu/Publications/spectrum/Archives/Vol-4/pub_sp9912/pub-sp9912-prodev.pdf

I also apply these criteria to deaccessioning collections as well.

These Guidelines are particularly helpful: http://www2.archivists.org/sites/all/files/GuidelinesForReappraisalAndDeaccessioningDRAFT.pdf

– Tanya Zanish-Belcher

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One thought on “[Ask an Archivist] Q: Why would you reject a collection in your archive?

  1. Pingback: News for May 30, 2014 | Florida-Archivist.org

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