Best Practice for Organizing Donations of Photocopied Originals

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    • #133491

      I often receive donations that are photocopies, not originals, of photographs, letters, newspaper articles and sketches that are related to the subject of our museum. Is the best practice to accession these items as I would any other object (accession the item, assign a number, issue a deed of gift, etc,). All of our collections records keeping is manual at this point (not digital!) and we are a small, new museum. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

    • #133505

      We also get lots of that type of gift, but we have an active research archive as well as museums. Paper items that are not originals are accepted as non-accessioned gifts — we call them “Expendables,” and use them in the archives’ vertical files which are well used by researchers. Expendables are listed in a different Log book, and have a slightly different numbering system. Instead of the “year.donor number.item number” (2012.1.1) system used for accessioned items, expendables are numbered “E.donor number.year.item number (E.1.2012.1).” That way, even if the “E.” for “Expendables” is ignored, the person looking at the number will know that this is NOT part of the permanent collections. Donors are sent a thank you letter that contains the statement: “While not considered part of the museum’s historical collection, non-accessioned gifts are tax-deductible within IRS guidelines, and allow the museum to enhance and expand our research, interpretation, and exhibition programs.” The information recorded in the Expendables Log includes the use the item(s) were put to, and if they are disposed of, the date and method of disposal. We once received bolts of cloth and sewing materials from a retired seamstress which we used for creating costuming for the Living History program. This also was listed as “Expendable.”

    • #133504
      Ben Shaw

      In our museum we will often recieve not archival documents along with items that are defined as archival by our institution. Our research library was set up with a comprehensive subject file system which allows us to accept the gifts as non-accessioned items, and file them by subject.

    • #133503
      Kathryn Otto


      It depends on where the copies came from/where the originals are, if the donor has any rights, and how useful the material is.

      The two most common scenarios are 1) copies of things the donor still owns, but just doesn’t want to give them up; and 2) someone made photocopies for research purposes at some other institution and thinks your institution really should have copies.

      In scenario 1), the donor has the right to give you copies and if those copies have worthwhile content, then treat them like you would any manuscript collection. If it is the kind of material that is useful enough that people would actually cite it in an article/book/website, you would definitely want it accessioned and have a donor form to protect your institution when, perhaps years and years from now, the descendants of the person who donated it to you make a stink. Then the future you can whip out your donor form that shows their ancestor donated the items and intented that they be available for research purposes. You might need to adjust your donor form a little bit because the current donor might not want to give the copyright/literary rights to your institution. They might be fine with someone using it for research and using “fair use” quotations in a published article, but they might not be fine with someone doing a book that publishes the entire collection. (“Entire” could be just 2 letters, published in a compilation of letters on a topic.) You need to discuss the donor’s intention and, as always, make them aware of what they are signing.

      In scenario 2), some institutions are fine with having copies in other repositories as long as it is clear made where the originals reside (including call number, box/folder), and that they are the institution cited if the material is used in a paper or publication. Some institutions absolutely do not want photocopies of their materials in another institution. So in scenario 2), you need to contact the institution that has the original collection and see what their preference/policy is.

      In either case, you would want to note in the cataloging that the material was loaned for copying and, in scenario 1), that the originals as of [date of donation] were still in the possession of the original owner/creator. “Describing Archives: A Content Standard,” in Chapter 6 says “if the materials being described are reproductions and the originals are located elsewhere, give the location of the originals” (6.1.4). That’s really meant for scenario 2) and the 2 examples are institutions, but you could also put the name of the person from scenario 1 (probably just keep their address in your accession file rather than make that public). Examples given are: “Originals are in the Minnesota Historical Society,” and “Original letters in the collection of the Watkinson Library, Trinity College, Hartford, CT.”

      Photographs can be a little trickier if a professional photographer/studio is involved. Whoever is giving you the copies may own an original print, but that doesn’t give them any rights to make a copy of any kind to donate to you if the photograph was taken after 1923 and the studio still exists or there might be descendants out there who care about copyright (that’s the tricky part). With any kind of publication 1923 is again the magic date. If they are offering you a copy of the entire thing, it would be better to just purchase one yourselves if it is still available. Individual newspaper articles generally should not be a problem.

    • #133502

      It seems like I received a range of answers! It is interesting to learn about the various systems at different institutions. At the moment,especially since we are so incredibly new and small, I’m leaning towards using the “Expendables” method, but perhaps renaming it. Perhaps “Educational” would be an adequate reflection of its purpose. We are also developing our Collections Policy, and it is raising a lot these questions for us. Guidance is so much appreciated!

    • #133501
      Lloyd Baker

      I also really appreciate this topic. I’m also with a small new museum and we are running into a lot of this as we approach our opening day. Thanks to everyone who posted!

    • #133500

      One of the questions raised for me in this discussion and in the process of creating a collections policy, which is probably obvious to most, is regarding the difference between archival collections and the artifact collection. What items fit into “archival” and what fits into “artifact” in a museum? How do the policies and procedures differ? Do i need to write two Collections policies? One for the Archival Collection and one for the Artifact Collection? My goodness, the more I read the more questions I have!

    • #133499

      We have a policy for both museum collections and archives. There are some similarities in procedures, but it is entirely necessary to have 2 separate because they both have different needs. (By “we” I mean the Historical Society of Frederick County.)

    • #133498
      Janice Klein

      I would highly recommend the AASLH on-line workshop Archives 101. It provides excellent information about what-is-archival and what-isn’t, as well as basic vocabulary and techniques. The 2012-2013 schedule is not yet on the AASLH website, but the workshop is given at least twice a year.

      The original question has a wide range of “it depends” answers. From the purely “historical” archival perspective there is no value in keeping photocopies of original documents when the original is in another repository for anything but the kind of subject files described by other responders. However, from the perspective of institutional archives or collections records, the photocopy made indeed have a value. As an example of the first, photocopies of documents or articles used by an exhibit developer may be valuable in understanding the thinking behind a particular exhibit (wouldn’t we all like to know what the curators working on the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian were reading?) and thus be worth keeping as part of the institution’s exhibition archives. If the photocopied material relates to a particular collections object then the photocopy would be useful to keep in the accession file or with other collections records (which I guess is a variation on the subject file use, but “filed” by related artifact, rather than subject matter).

    • #133497
      Brent Burgin

      In regards to copies, I think it depends upon the needs of your users. We are a small Native American Studies Archive, and one large section of copied materials consists of Bureau of Indian Affairs Documents going back over 100 years. Were these copies not readily available, researchers would have to troll through widely scattered documents in Atlanta or Washington. These government documents comprise a heavily used area of our collections.

    • #133496

      In an above post Kathryn Otto mentioned manuscript collections. I would like to hear more about how people manage unpublished manuscripts in their museums and archives. Our system has not been very comprehensive in the past, with some manuscripts (generally typescripts or print-outs or photocopies) being placed in reference files, some being housed with the bibliographic collection, and others being accessioned into the archival collection. I am leary of putting them in the reference files, as we keep no records of materials placed there, but I don’t want to treat manuscripts (multiple copies of which are usually retained by family members)as discrete item fonds either. How do people manage manuscript collections? Thanks!

    • #133495
      Kathryn Otto

      Brent – I think that’s real typical of Native American archives. Those BIA records are so vitally important for doing any kind of Native American research, but who can afford to go to Washington, D.C., and spend weeks researching! Being government records, they generally don’t care if you have copies.

      Photocopies can act somewhat like microfilm “editions” of manuscript collections. Back in the day, archives could get grants to have their important collections microfilmed and then other archives would purchase copies of the microfilm. If a donor offers you photocopies of useful archival material that they just don’t want to give up, but you would really like to have in your collection, it’s kind of the same thing.

    • #133494
      Brent Burgin

      I very much concur. Perhaps I’m a bit nontraditional, but I have no problem with copies, provided the researcher gives proper credit to the host institution. Were there a disaster, would that document be gone forever? Few of us have the resources or staff, to scan all our collections, and I have no problem with a copy of some of our holdings existing elsewhere in another repository.

    • #133493
      Charlene Martin

      This was a great discussion. I was wondering if Janice Klein or some other members here could tell me how AASLH’s “The Basics of Archives” measures up to the Modern Archives Institute program. Reviews from the Modern Archives program are welcome!


      Thank you 🙂

    • #133492

      Kathryn: I love your answer and examples. Do you mind if I use some of what you said to help justify the need for a good accessioning policy to my archives committee?

      Janice – I know it’s a bit off topic. But I do believe you can find the information you mention about the Enola Gay curators at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

      Anonymous: Something that has been coming up for me recently is related to Kathryn’s scenario 1. We  have many “photos” that are actually photocopies or scans that have been printed onto photo paper. Many of these were received during the 60s through 90s, many years before I started working, most likely in relation to town histories that were being published. Unfortunately, whoever accepted these did not do as Kathryn has suggested, and I am currently unable to tell who gave some of these items. As I am beginning to work on a collaborative project with several other institutions, this lack of information has become increasingly frustrating. I would love to be able to track down the originals, but I have no way of doing so.

      My advice is that whatever you do, keep documentation of your choices. Not only do we need to be thinking of our users, but also those in the future who will be taking over our jobs. It’s an unfortunate thought, but we won’t be here forever.



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