Do your loved ones simply recycle all that paper? Perhaps they take it home and leave it in a box at the bottom of a closet? Maybe, they leave the paperwork in the attic for the next homeowner to find? Who knows? Yet, possibly, you are proactive with your life’s work and leave it an archive.
Imagine, that you resolve upon your passing to donate your professional paperwork to a local archive. You contact your lawyer to write up your will and the local University Library for a deed of gift. Decades, upon decades follow before your demise. Eventually, your executor decides to pile up all of your home office into boxes for an Archivist to pick up and take to their Special Collections department. Think of what is in your desk… That random coupon to Wawa for a .50 cent coffee, a discarded grocery list consisting of milk and bread, the phone number to the dog groomer so Fido can get a bath, that doodle of a snail that you drew while bored, and of course the actual work that you want preserved. Now, a complete stranger has to make sense of your handwriting, short hand and organize every stray piece of paper and random object for researchers to utilize, including the coupon to Wawa.
An inventory is created to track all of the paperwork and artifacts. Usually the next step is to rehouse the items for better preservation, especially if the boxes are acidic. Formal organization follows, with an Archivist assigning Subject Headings. According to the University of Mississippi guide on the Library of Congress: “Subject Headings are a type of controlled vocabulary that is used to take the guesswork out of searching by using a single term to describe a subject.” Thus, a researcher would simply look for ‘compact disc’ to find a listing of all the donor’s CDs, instead of wading through all of the boxes looking for one item. The Finding Aid and Scope typically follow with the Biography of the donor wrapping everything up. Yet, the order of steps can vary based upon the Archivist and institution.
Remember, you don’t have to wait till you’ve entered the great beyond to donate your life’s work to an archive. However, do your research first! Archives have the power to refuse your papers if they don’t align with the repository’s mission. First, take an objective look at your paperwork. Does it have historic, cultural, or popular significance? Would it be important to local, national, or international researchers? Speak with an archive, library, museum, or historical society that might be interested in your items. Also, if accepted, you have sign a deed of gift, which gives legal ownership of that paperwork to the institution.
Three cheers for Allan Blank for preemptively Willing his compositions to the Old Dominion Special Collections! Hoorah for researchers interested in his work! Hooray for employing historians!