Can Archives Split Up a Family History Collection?

Post contributed by Andrew Harman, MA, CA

Yes, and we did. Seemingly going against the principle of respect des fonds and the overarching rule of archives to not impose order, keeping collections intact, our archives did the unthinkable. But hear me out.

The Center for American War Letters Archives at Chapman University specializes in the individual stories of soldiers and their loved ones during war time. That is narrowed further to the American experience of war, but overall the topic is fairly broad. Any American during any war. We have collections highlighting combat experiences, of course, but we also hold many stories focused on the home front and those that never left our shores. We ingest correspondence, as the name suggests, but our collections also round out these stories with contextual materials such as photographs, documents, artifacts, and even uniforms. Whatever our donors are willing to provide to complete a story, we will generally accept.

Why, then, did we remove some materials from a particular Second World War correspondence and family papers collection? The answer is that we respected that other time-honored tradition of archives: access.

To give some context, the collection contained correspondence from one soldier, the donor of the materials, during the Second World War, as well as a unit photograph from his father who served during the First World War, a Japanese flag, clippings, tin type photographs, and family documents dating back to the eighteenth century. For the purposes of this article, the name of the collection and the repository to which the materials were sent will remain anonymous.

Upon inspection of this collection, it appears it was originally donated by the soldier in its entirety. This is common of older donors who find every aspect of their family history crucial to the largess of their story. The materials donated, however, proved to be less valuable to our research audience but incredibly valuable to another. They included land deeds and specific information pertaining to the town from whence the family hailed in Massachusetts. With a quick search online, there exists a history center in that town well-equipped to preserve this material that is much better suited to the research audience of these documents. I reached out and they gleefully accepted. The collection was a “treasure-trove” to their repository, but would have fallen silent in ours.

I often say that if nobody is looking at the materials in an archival repository, if there are no researchers, then that storage room may as well be a room full of blank pages. The audience of a particular archives is just as important, and should very much shape, its collecting scope. In that spirit, I was taught early on that there is an ethics to collecting. If a collection or item really belongs somewhere else, then that is where it should go, no matter how valuable or “cool” or how enticing it may be to keep.

This principle generally does not require one to split up a collection, however, so how did we make that decision? For the most part, that decision was easier than may be expected. Our collecting scope, and audience, rely on materials that will tell the story of Americans at war. Fitting that mold were the materials pertaining to the soldier and his father, as well as some tertiary materials relating to an earlier relative (grandfather) not related to the side of the family hailing from Massachusetts (Vermont, in fact).

All other materials, including land deeds and legal documents specifically pertaining to property in that town, were separated both by subject and time. They were of another “family,” in essence. A group of people from another place and time. Neither the soldier’s story nor the family history would be affected by the loss of the others’ materials. In the end, that was the clinching determination. These were not subjects to be separated, or organizational changes to be imposed by me as the archivist, but in all practicality two separate collections only loosely related by ancestral ties.

In conclusion, this is a case study of recognizing practicality in following professional standards. Adherence to the letter of the tradition of respect des fonds would have that treasure trove sadly wasting away in an inappropriate repository. It was our recognition and belief in the ethics of finding the right home for these materials that allowed them to become much more visible to a much more appropriate audience.

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