Communication, Trust, and Collaboration: Getting Everyone Invested in Acquisitions Work

By Meaghan O’Riordan

Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives & Rare Book Library, Emory University
Based on a presentation by the same name given at the 2019 meeting of the Society of American Archivists]

I am the Accessioning Archivist at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives & Rare Book Library at Emory University, and I have been at the Rose for nearly four years. In addition to managing the accessioning program, I also manage the acquisitions process and our stacks space. I am responsible for stewarding all new collection material from the point that it is selected to the point at which it is made available in our reading room. This means that I am always the person asking, “Do we own this?” I need to know if we have a deed and other additional paperwork before I can carry the acquisitions forward for accessioning. I have found that my obsession with this question is frequently misunderstood by fellow colleagues, yet it is important to cultivate a sense of investment in them in order to spread that messaging to donors and make sure ownership is clear.

Paperwork associated with our acquisitions can include invoices, deeds of gift and sale, vendor paperwork, gift-in-kind forms, and/or acknowledgement letters. We require a deed signed by the donor or seller and the director for every acquisition from an individual (i.e., not a book dealer) in order to transfer legal custody of the material from them to the Rose Library. Finance requires an invoice for every purchase, as well as vendor forms for anyone who has not been paid by Emory in more than fourteen months (or ever). The Office of Advancement and Alumni Engagement requires a Gift-in-Kind Contribution Form for every gift. The Rose Library prefers to send a somewhat personalized acknowledgement letter signed by the director for every gift. For context, we acquire between 30 and 40 new collections every year for an average of about 850 linear feet, so when each acquisition requires between one and three forms of paperwork for finalization, that is a significant amount of time and labor to complete just that part of the process.

The problem with unseen work like this is that I cannot do it without collaboration from my colleagues. From their perspective, the paperwork just gets done. From mine, I need them to at least kick it off so that I can get it done, and, even then, it doesn’t happen with a snap of my fingers. It is important that I spend time convincing those responsible for selection and donor relations that this tedious paperwork is important so that they will then convince the donor. Curatorial investment yields donor investment in this process.

One example of how important a deed can be for an acquisition is through the story of the Leslie Dunbar papers. Dunbar was best known for his work in the 1960s with the Southern Regional Council and the creation of the Voter Education Project. His son, Tony, donated the additions to his father’s papers to the Rose after Leslie’s death in 2017. I started attempting to accession these 15 linear feet in June 2019. I realized that there were multiple restrictions in place on the existing material. Some was restricted because of legacy practice of restricting access to newly accessioned material, but some seemed to be restricted based on the deed, so off to the collection file I went.

Leslie Dunbar papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University

In the handwriting of a former department head, the restriction in the deed reads, “No correspondence to be opened for research until reviewed and arranged. Donor requests separation of letters regarding personal family matters – see letters of Dunbar and Department Head dated November 14 + November 20, 1991 (regarding letters of [redacted]).” This is the only deed for the collection, and it is from 1991. Notice there is no date of determination in this restriction; the only way to lift it other than to consult with the donor is if someone does additional arrangement and description on the correspondence. I needed to get Tony involved to at least help me put an end date on these restrictions if not lift them entirely.

The letters mentioned in this restriction are also in the collection file. The letter from November 14th is Dunbar to the department head, and the letter from November 20th is her response.

Dunbar’s letter sounded to me like he wasn’t that concerned about privacy issues in the correspondence, except for the two letters between him and the individual mentioned in the restriction. After reviewing these letters, I think the department head decided to restrict all the correspondence rather than searching for two letters in a newly acquired collection, a decision I might also make today if I couldn’t convince the donor not to restrict at all. The crucial error occurred in the department head’s reply to Dunbar. She mentioned a 25-year date of determination to lift the restriction, which did not make it into what is written on the deed. It could be that she thought referring to the letters where she mentions the 25 years would be enough.

Going through this process with Tony was more difficult than I thought it would be. I don’t think he wanted to try to interpret what his father might have wanted or intended in 1991 and was hoping that the letters in the collection file would provide a clear way forward. I explained what “reviewed and arranged” and “fully processed” would have meant in 1991 and why, if we left those restrictions in place, the full extent of the collection might not ever be opened. After several weeks of email correspondence, he wrote to me at the end of July 2019 and said that because his father and the named individual are now deceased, he felt we could lift the restrictions.

Now I can bring the finding aid in line with our current practice, adding additional description and opening all of it for researchers. None of this could have been done without the paperwork and, yet, the past use of the paperwork is also what caused the problem in the first place. Without taking special care to be specific and clear about the meaning of the restriction in the deed,

Tony and I had to do some interpretation of letters from 28 years ago. We could have skipped our discussion of the history of archival practice nuances had Dunbar and the department head worked out a clear agreement and put it in the deed prior to transfer.

This story explains why this documentation is not just a formality. It’s not something to view as an annoying task or obstacle to the goal, something to be done at a later date when there is time. It should not be handled casually.

Leslie Dunbar papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University

When we acquire a collection with high research value prior to obtaining legal transfer and then don’t follow up, is it because the physical transfer looks and feels like ownership? We can see it sitting right there, so do we need to ask the question, “Do we own this?” But having something shipped to the library is not the same as taking ownership over it, and it’s certainly not the same as fulfilling our mission to the donor, our users, our communities, and the profession by providing access to it. We have to get better at communicating that message to each other and to our donors; custody is about more than just physical control, and we’re all implicated in following through with it, even if I, alone, continue to be the queen of the paperwork.



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