I have hesitated responding to this heartfelt and increasing common dilemma not because it is not real, but because the answers contain more variables than Carter has pills. My own bonafides in this matter are that I am the long time volunteer Chairman of Collections at California State Railroad Museum (a lively committee of professional staff and dedicated volunteers), a major part of which includes the library and the archives.
Disposal of my own personal collections are also a very personal and quite relevant household topic. These are my observations, not that of CSRM.
A major continuing issue for CSRM is how to exactly to respond to such posed rich gifts such as Jared’s? The Museum may love to have them, even die for them, but…..do we have the resources -professional personnel, space, materials, and…..money- to process, catalogue, preserve and conserve them for public access and use? Where would such a collection fit within CSRM’s formal and fully vetted Scope of Collections?
I can safely say that most of our donated personal collections of paper over the years are in countless libraries, historical societies (big and small); museums big and small, formal or informal, institutionalized or not; piled on the floor, overflowing on shelving, packed into file cabinets, etc. They are not organized, inventoried, catalogued, or have undergone the most rudimentary archival conservation or preservation. There they still lie, while the generations for which they were intended to serve for posterity have -astoundingly- moved on from any common or cultural knowledge of steam (“Where are the motors?”); fallen flags, e.g. Milwaukee, NYC, Burlington, even…Santa Fe; and most sadly, even the Railroad itself, because railroads and railroading is simply not a part of current culture. Those of us holding down the forts in these venues are being succeeded by so many others whose passion for these is not personal but much more arm’s length. These very facts underlie the the increasing paucity of institutions willing to take our railroad collections, process them, and provide the professional staffing to make them publicly available.
Hard questions to ask as you consider sites for donations (random order):
If the donation is a gift, is the institution actually willing to receive it?
If the donation is a gift, is the institution free to gift, sell, or discard the same donated items?
If the donation is a gift, will the institution commit to process, catalog and make available your materials within a reasonable time?
Will the receiving institution actually have the resources to process the materials (aside from providing floor space)?
Does the receiving institution have institutional longevity, i.e. a future beyond current dedicated, committed, and even profoundly knowledgable volunteers? A Business Plan that gives assurance of strong financial footing into the future? Professional key staffing? Will the institution in fact be around?
Will it give you heartburn if your carefully-collected materials end up on eBay, at the flea market, or……even in a dumpster?
CSRM has truly enviable archival facilities (so described by a visiting accrediting officer from the largest US museum), but at current professional and volunteer staffing and tax-supported budgetary levels, it would take an informally-estimated 5-10 years of work to bring all of our materials into the public arena. This is because for a number of decades (the museum library and archives are now 38 years), the museum was not so very choosy about what to take into its collections, largely because all attention was being deferred to the large artifacts, major catalogued photo collections, and the corporate records of major railroads. The problems were and are made worse by the fact that all donations -paper, or solid- become the property of the sovereign state of California; as a result of which, any disposal of same requires a constitutional Byzantine process that makes an Act of Congress look like a piece of cake.
What can one do with thirty-odd copies of Kip Farington’s MEN OF ERIE? What does one do with a huge box of random unidentified piled-up -hundreds, thousands?- Kodachrome slides of GN wrecks (taken by a GN wreck foreman)? What does one do with two such massive piles of unidentified freight and passenger equipment slides donated by a very-active now departed long time prolific contributor to this and other lists? These duplicative and pragmatically-unusable gifts take up hundreds of feet of archival shelf space that, if emptied, would open up staff time and resources better to receive more useful materials.
As a result of this, CSRM now critically vets all proffered and potential gifts, giving up-front consideration to those gifts that are already catalogued and organized, are within CSRM’s scope of interests, are in archival sleeving, and -if meeting all other criteria…..are also accompanied by a gift of money to underwrite the costs of bringing the materials to public use.
This is a major balancing act, matching CSRM's ardent public duty to collect, preserve, and make accessible its collections, against the realities of what CSRM can actually do within the bounds of reality. It has been a major subject of discussion and concern as recently as our last meeting several weeks ago. We are optimistic that we will gain some relief with better funding and staff additions. As we speak, we are actively vetting two major national collections in the wings that personally I believe should be a slam-dunk, but….my better self knows will be better served for posterity by going through all the hoops.
In my own case, I have been disposing of excess duplicative materials through our local Friends of the Sacramento Library, who sells them at Book Fairs and on eBay. Other museums and libraries will receive materials special to their interests and locales.
I intend to begin my own selective saving of all my own Kodachrome slide materials, sufficient that they will be in a package small enough to be acceptable (no guarantee, no honor in my own house).
This is a difficult but apt subject without a lot of good answers.
Denny S. Anspach MD