What does it take to develop an active archival collecting program? How can we focus our acquisitions on the materials we really want to collect, rather than simply the ones people offer us?
Overseeing archival acquisitions is one of my main tasks at HSP. We collect a wide variety of materials, some of them mundane, some of them unique and wonderful. Over the past half year, as examples, we’ve taken in the letters of a U.S. Army corporal who worked at General MacArthur’s occupation headquarters in Tokyo, 1946-47; a set of 22 daguerreotypes and ambrotypes depicting members of a Philadelphia-area family in the 1860s; letter and account books of a 19th-century Lehigh Valley tannery; compositions of an early 20th-century Italian American composer; and papers documenting a World War II Red Cross program to pack and ship care packages to Allied prisoners of war.
HSP’s archival collecting is guided by our board approved collection scope document and a more detailed set of collecting guidelines written by staff. Although we purchase a few small collections each year, most material comes to us as donations. And almost all of our collecting work is passive, in the sense that it starts with a phone call or email from someone who has something to offer, rather than with us going out and soliciting collection donations. There have been two reasons for this — space and time. First, the collection shelving currently in our building is almost full. By limiting our acquisitions to collections that people bring us, we’ve put off the day when we would have to say, “Sorry, no room.” Second, going out and actively looking for new collections takes time — potentially a lot of time if we want to do it systematically. Being chronically understaffed like most archival repositories, we have to think very carefully about how we allocate staff time.
This situation began to shift very recently, when HSP secured state and city funding to help pay for some critically needed building renovations — including installation of compact shelving in three storage vaults. This will give us about 7,000 more linear feet of storage space — not a huge amount, but enough to buy us about ten years of breathing room. Longer term, we’ve begun exploring other possibilities for expanding our storage capacity. Suddenly, one of the two barriers to active collecting — lack of space — seems to be crumbling.
This makes it easier to envision ways around the second barrier to actively collecting — lack of staff time. A key issue here is efficiency — if we have a clear idea of where and how to concentrate our energies, even a modest, consistent investment of time could have a significant impact. Having a clear, focused plan is also critical if we want to bring in any project funding to support this work, either from traditional funders or other private sources. (In the 1980s and 1990s, the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, which merged with HSP in 2002, conducted two highly successful grant-funded collecting projects — one in the Northeast Pennsylvania coal region and the other in the Delaware Valley. Since then, grant money has gotten scarcer and funders’ priorities have shifted, but there may still be some useful lessons in how the Balch went about this work.)
Developing an active collecting plan involves many different elements. For example, to help us define our area(s) of focus for active collecting, we need to identify major areas of strength and major gaps in our existing holdings, and in the holdings of other leading repositories in the Philadelphia region. More broadly, we should try to identify topics within our collecting scope that are significantly underrepresented in the documentary record. Ideally, this work would involve conversations with other departments within our organization, colleagues at other repositories, and scholars and other researchers in a variety of fields.
Along with a clear area of focus, we also need a clear work plan. Active collecting is largely about building relationships — getting to know some of the people and organizations that have potential collection materials; talking with people about what archives do and what’s involved in donating papers; and learning about their experiences, histories, and perspectives on what’s important to document. As much as possible, I think it’s important to approach collecting as a collaborative relationship, not just “taking people’s stuff,” but working with them to preserve their history in a way that addresses their needs and concerns.
These are just a few preliminary thoughts. I hope to be giving these issues a lot more thought in the weeks and months ahead.