During the public Strategic Planning meetings, as discussions turned to this website, an audience member commented that their local historical society was overwhelmed with donated materials because people outside of the organization looked at them as “Grandma’s attic.” How do you keep control of materials your organization acquires, or, in professional–speak, accessions? How do you keep a collection from becoming “Grandma’s attic?” How can you get rid of, or deaccession, materials that either do not fit with your organization, or have no value?
To give you and your successors the ability to turn away donations, or get rid of items that do not fit your collection, there are polices that every institution should adopt. These are: Mission Statements and Collection Policies. Now, it is entirely up to you, how to craft these policies. Some institutions draft them separately, some as a single larger policy. Examples below are taken from a variety of institutions; there really is no wrong way to proceed.
To begin, you must define what your institution collects and preserves. Are you going to collect items related to your region, county, or town? What types of items will you collect—records, objects, both? Developing and adhering to a collection policy will also reduce competition for collections between cultural institutions and increase cooperation among them.
- Mission Statement
This is a general statement of the purpose of your organization. For instance, “The X County Historical Society exists to collect, preserve and present the history of X County.” This is a short statement, in most cases less than 3-4 sentences, establishing your organization’s reason to exist. Some institutions include this statement as part of their general collection policy, rather than having it as a separate document.
Other rules typically deal with operations—only staff will retrieve records from storage, only staff will make photo copies, etc.
- Collection Policy
This is probably the most important policy your institution can adopt. Collection policies establish the procedures used to select materials for your repository. The level of detail is really up to your organization.
You want the policy to be broad enough that you can collect the materials that fulfill your mission, but not so broad that you become a dumping ground for everyone’s “old stuff.” You may wish to state exactly what types of materials you will accept: papers, photographs, textiles, etc. There may be a specific time period, or subject to which you wish to limit your collection. This is also a good time to say what you will not accept: types of donations, duplicates of items already in the collection, etc.
The policy should also lay out the procedure for tracking from where items came, also called your accessions. You should keep a record of the donor, the item(s), a description of item(s), the date of acquisition, and any limits on use. This record is your proof that you have physical and legal custody of the item(s).
Related to accessions are deaccessions, or permanently removing items from your collection. It may be that your institution became “Grandma’s attic” or you find over time that items that you have acquired actually do not fit with your mission. You should adopt a procedure allowing you to dispose of items. Some institutions include this in their Collection Policy, some maintain it as a separate policy, the decision is yours.
Information that should appear in your Collection Policy
Donations offered to repositories should be evaluated based on the collection development policy. If the donated materials do not fall within the boundaries of the institution’s policy, then the institution should not accept the donation. In this case, repositories should provide donors with alternative repositories.
Repositories should not accept items that cannot be adequately housed or cared for, items that are duplicates of current holdings, or items of questionable authenticity or ownership.
All institutions should have a system in place for accessioning, or documenting the acquisition of, new material. This system should track donor information and an accession number assigned to identify material. Again, this is as complicated or simple as you choose to make it.
Institutions should periodically review their current collection. If the decision is made to deaccession materials, or remove them from the institution's holdings, they should first be offered to the donor or the donor’s family if known. If the donor cannot be located items should be offered to appropriate repositories. If your institution allows it, items without research value can be sold, with proceeds to benefit the collection development of the repository, or destroyed if they have no monetary value.
Sample Collection Development Policies
The following sample policies come from institutions of varying sizes. They are provided as examples of given policies; you are not required to adopt any of them.