[Ask an Archivist]: Finding Aids and Deeds of Gift

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Ask an Archivist Question:

I am a new archivist in a library setting. I have two questions:

There have been several situations since I arrived where I’ve had to explain and defend archival approaches and best practices, and I just wanted to hear your thoughts about situations that other more seasoned archivists are familiar with and how they approached advocating for their professional standards or deciding when to comply. For example, I have often been asked to create finding aids for artificial, topical collections of published materials, because my administration feels that archival description is basically ‘cataloging redux.’ Also, the administration can also be very focused on acquiring the physical ‘stuff,’ often without a deed of gift (!) and or attention to IP. When I’ve asked some archivists about acquiring the IP with the Deed of Gift, some have a very hands-off approach, where other places I’ve worked at are very proactive. I just wanted to get a pulse on what other professionals in the field and their institutions are feeling about that.

Ask an Archivist Answers:

I find myself struggling throughout the week with the purity of the profession and the reality of most institutions. Even if you have supervisors or institutional leaders who understand the contours of our profession, many circumstances can override our ideal archival standards. As a curator, sometimes I ask our processing staff to include published materials in a collection/finding aid. This could be because it is critical to the story of the donor, difficult for a researcher to access, or we want to keep a donor happy. When it comes to deeds of gifts, I find that library leadership is incredibly adamant that signed  gift agreements are an absolute necessity; however materials can change hands in all manner of informal meetings. Even if it is not collected at the time of transfer, it is someone’s responsibility to track a gift agreement down – which might be inconvenient but not really at odds with the profession. For both scenarios, if you are a lone arranger, you may want to exert more control over these processes so that you can be sure that collections are handled properly. If your work becomes duplicative or haphazard, I think that you can use the literature or case studies to explain your position and present your alternative. We can’t expect colleagues to understand our decision making without some context — 80 years of sound archival science should provide some guidance.

Chaitra Powell
African American Collections and Outreach Archivist, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

My suggestion would be to implement a standard deed of gift form, much like the one ARL released a few years ago: http://publications.arl.org/rli279/7. That will prompt a discussion of copyright and IP issues for you to have with your donor, and possibly your library administrators. You can say that this deed of gift (or something like it) ensures that there’s a clear document and acquisition paper trail that will provide the donor with important information they need to decide whether or not to donate the collection, as well as provides the library with important documentation should a question about the donation arise in the future. 

Depending on the set-up and staffing of your cataloging department, this might be a good time for cross-training. Maybe they can learn DACS and EAD to help describe small manuscript collections, as you lend a hand describing these published collections. Or maybe you can set up a workflow to route certain kinds of collections to the best “expert” to describe them.

A lot of these practices depends on your local context. If you’re the first archivist the library has had, I would suggest scheduling a few open houses for staff to come and see highlights from your collections. That will help them to understand how the work you do is different from theirs, yet serves the researchers. 

Lori Birrell
Historical Manuscripts Librarian, University of Rochester

Being an archivist in a library setting can at times be daunting. Often the approach to arrangement and description can be at odds. The first thing I would do is find out what the mission of the library is, who are they trying to attract with these finding aids? Perhaps what you are doing is informing the world of your archival collections. It doesn’t matter if they are artificial or otherwise, what does the user need. Every archive has artificial collections. It is what works for the institution.

Professional standards are just that, Standards to be aspired to. Many cases standards are thrown out the window. Why, because it does not work for the user base. Interning, I was asked to dismantle a collection and not keep it in the original order, Why? Because users would not be able to use it easily and it made no sense. It threw me a bit, but it made sense for that institution.

So ask yourself why “administration” is not complying with “professional standards”. The institution may have a good explanation.

As far as deeds of gift go, we try our best to have a written deed of gift for all accessions. Sometimes it is not always possible. IP is something else entirely. For most of our collections we do not own the IP, the creator does, until it runs out. The archives is the holder of the information and it would be incumbent upon the user of the material to seek out copyright permission.

If I worked in an archive with patent material, of course I would never own the IP for those patents. I am the repository for the patents. A scientist, writer, artist, etc. would probably never sign over IP to the archive. I would be very surprised if that were the case.

A hands off approach at times is smart, just to get the material and have it available for use.

Most importantly, remember, rules are made to be broken or bent a little to benefit the institution and user. Until you are in charge of your own shop, you will realize that sticking strictly to archival standards, practices and theoretical approaches is never practiced in the real world.

Ellen Pierce
Director, Maryknoll Mission Archives

I have less of a problem with creating finding aids for published materials than with accepting collections without a deed of gift and at least seeking copyright. We have collection-level descriptions of many of our rare books collections, yearbooks, and city directories, which helps with their discovery. I’m not sure I understand what it is they want you to describe, but if someone asked me to create a finding aid for groups of books in the main library’s general, circulating collections, I’d try to help them find another way to solve whatever problem it is they think the finding aid will solve. Circulating collections are too volatile – things come in, things get lost or damaged, and the collection changes. You’d be updating the finding aid all the time. If they want to take this on, though, they might work with LibGuides, which would allow a non-cataloger/non-archivist to easily update whatever listing they want to maintain. 

As for not obtaining a deed of gift… that’s a problem. I would explain to them the repercussions of not having a deed of gift: you can’t really process the collection because you don’t really own it. If you start arranging, rehousing, etc. and then hear that the donor wants it back, you have no protection. I would argue that it’s not wise to invest institutional resources on assets that arguably do not belong to your organization. While this is unlikely to happen, even under the best circumstances you don’t know what you can do with the extra/irrelevant material.

We normally seek copyright, where the donor can assign them to us (obviously, they can’t assign rights they don’t have). We are often flexible about this when working with artists (mainly photographers and musicians) because they may still have an expectation of income from licensing their work, but we try to have copyright revert to us at some future time. We work with the donor to define licensing terms that will allow us to do what we need to do in the meantime to preserve the material and to provide access (albeit often only on-site). Not having copyright limits what you can do with the materials. For example, we don’t put a collection online unless we feel it is in the public domain, our use is fair use, or we hold copyright.

 Is there any way you can be part of the acquisition process, or follow up with the donors after the material is received? Following up afterward is not as effective – we are still trying to get a deed of gift for a large set of materials a previous dean accepted on our behalf about 10 years ago – but it gives you a chance, at least.

Carrie Daniels
University Archivist and Director, Archives and Special Collections, University of Louisville

I must say that creating finding aids for artificial, topical collections of published material is something I do think is germane to an archival program w/in a library. Assuming, that is, that the catalog record is for the group of materials—not if each item is individually cataloged and then an archival finding aid is created. I say this because, led by Cornell and followed by many repositories, the archival approach of approaching material as a group rather than as items has been integrated into (particularly) rare books backlogs of artificial collections of pamphlets, handbills, and other ephemera. One catalog record is created, and then the group of items is arranged and described in the finding aid. Depending on the collection and its importance (and audience) it may be defensible to have the finding aid list every author, title, publication date, etc.; in other instances a more general description should suffice. This has proven appealing in many libraries, where ROI and efficiency in the face of budget reductions have become mantras—archival concepts and practices can be introduced as doing more with less.

Archival (and special collections) collecting and management can further be justified as one of the library’s most significant assets and undoubtedly one of the few holdings and programs that can be said to bring uniqueness to the library, however large. “In today’s academic…context, special collections are increasingly seen as an element of distinction that serves to differentiate an institution from its peers. Many original primary source materials reside in special collections and serve both as basic fodder for scholarly work and as a source of inspiration to students and others who may be undertaking their first research project [Jackie M. Dooley and Katherine Luce, Taking Our Pulse: The OCLC Research Survey of Special Collections and Archives (October 2010): 23-24]” and “In an environment where mass digitization of books and periodicals for Web access is accelerating, and electronic journals and aggregated databases are part of the shared landscape of scholarly communication, it is their accumulated special collections that increasingly define the uniqueness and character of individual research libraries…[Association of Research Libraries, Special Collections in ARL Libraries: A Discussion Report from the ARL Working Group on Special Collections (March 2009), 9].

An administration that understands neither the necessity of a deed of gift nor the importance of actively seeking transfer of IP is, possibly, beyond hope. (Just kidding.) It is, I believe, Trudy Huskamp Peterson, “The Gift and the Deed,” in Maygene F. Daniels and Timothy Walch, eds., A Modern Archives Reader: Basic Readings on Archival Theory and Practice ((Washington, 1984) in which the phrase, “an agreement based on a handshake isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.” So true. Some of us or our staff members have spent literally decades trying to secure formal deeds of gift to collections received on a handshake in years past—it’s troubling that such practices continue today. However, please know that a statement of intent to donate made in a letter to the repository constitutes a legally binding contract as soon as the repository indicates acceptance of the gift. So you might own more collections than is obvious. The SAA pamphlet, A Guide to Deeds of Gift (http://www2.archivists.org/publications/brochures/deeds-of-gift#.Vwvbcv_mrX4) might be a publication, along with Peterson’s, that can begin to educate your administration. Both items touch on IP.

What follows is based on my own experience, readings, and several years of service on the SAA Intellectual Property Working Group. It is true that for good reasons the degree that having IP donated along with the physical material is pursued varies not only from repository to repository but also from collection to collection. It generally doesn’t pay to assiduously work on securing IP from an author—their IP is their livelihood. Similarly with individuals who plan on penning their memoirs (though only a tiny fraction actually do so). It is also true that the idea of IP is completely new to many prospective donors and so they may well be suspicious because of what they don’t know. Many other donors, however, are completely comfortable donating IP. The person negotiating the donation generally has the best feel for the donors’ attitudes about IP.

It’s important to understand, though, just why some repositories do not worry as much about IP compared to others. There are 3 reasons: 1) Even an outright donation of IP by a donor covers only a small fraction of the material in a collection. This is because the donor can only convey the IP s/he/it owns. For example, an individual can only donate copyright to copies of letters s/he writes and such self-created items such as speeches. Letters to him/her, material s/he collected or were given to him/her, etc., are under copyright by the creators and not covered by the donor’s transfer of copyright. So IP donation covers only a portion of the collection in any event. 2) Even when considering the donor’s own copyrights, if the repository does not acquire them many researchers will feel no impact. This is because of fair use. Students and scholars writing purely educational papers/monographs most often can use items still under the donor’s copyright because the fair use provision will normally weigh well in the researcher’s favor. Now, many publishers are so risk averse that they will require authors to secure permissions even when that is unnecessary. 3) The situation with “orphan works.” This is copyrighted material, donated (even without a written agreement) years ago, where now the copyright holder(s) are not able to be found without excessive effort. Slowly, US case law has permitted use of orphan works by researchers without written permission.

Mark A. Greene
Former Director & Emeritus Senior Archivist, American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming


One thought on “[Ask an Archivist]: Finding Aids and Deeds of Gift

  1. Sasha Griffin

    “I find myself struggling throughout the week with the purity of the profession and the reality of most institutions.” — Yes, multiplied by 100,000. Especially at institutions whose work cultures are based heavily on tradition and who have less regulatory compliance requirements, balancing between what is best and what is realistic can be really difficult.

    Loved all of the advice in this column. Thanks!


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