Written by Julie I. May, Managing Director of Library & Archives, Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn, NY
Brooklyn Historical Society receives many calls and emails from people interested in donating to our collections. The Founder of the Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus (FROGG) called me one recent afternoon offering the organization’s records to the Library & Archives. It was immediately compelling due to the fact that the Gowanus Canal is a Superfund Site and records pertaining to that struggle would have high research value, but also that contemporary collections bring their own set of appraisal quandaries that require careful evaluation.
FROGG was founded by a long-time Gowanus resident in 2004 in opposition to developers who sought to replace low-rise industrial buildings with luxury condominiums and a strong proponent of designating the canal a Superfund site. The organization continues to lobby for the preservation of the neighborhood’s industrial buildings and to educate the public on the canal’s history. The 16-linear-foot collection consists of research files relating to development and environmental protection of the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, with the bulk of materials dating from the 2000s to the 2010s in mostly good condition including reports, clippings, photographs, protest signs, educational posters/maps, files on CD-ROMs, and artifacts from the 19th century and early 20th century.
I considered the records in relation to collection scope defined by BHS’s Collection Development Policy based on its 7 main principles:
Scope: the materials have enduring historical and cultural value that document Brooklyn, NY
- Formats: the materials are published and printed materials including organizational records
- Geography: the records pertain to Brooklyn, New York
- Time period: the records document a period between the mid-17th century and the present day
- Language: materials are in English
- Subject areas: within the long list of subject areas we collect, the materials fall into Business & Industry, Geography, Land Use & Real Estate, Organizations, Politics & Public Affairs, and Social Action and Activism.
Where things get tricky is the Collection Rationale articulated as Scholarly research value is the primary criterion for collecting materials; exhibit and educational value are also considered. Collecting foci are based upon our knowledge of researcher needs, and are guided by current strengths as well as areas where we see a need or opportunity to build the collection. Condition, extent, and preservation or conservation needs of materials, as well as our ability to meet those needs, are also considered in any collecting decision.
The records have research and educational value based on research trends observed in the reading room and from area teachers/faculty who bring their students to BHS for Library Seminars. A search of existing collections reveals a few photographic collections of the Gowanus area but skimpy representation in other formats making this subject area neither a strength nor a need, but deeming most additions welcome. Despite the collection being stored in a basement of a low-lying geographic area, the materials showed very little signs of mold or other condition issues. However, several factors arise when we consider extent. The collection is a significant size for BHS, but in order to process the collection, we need to send it to our off-site storage facility in the meantime while we search for funding.
The organization is still in existence and would continue to send accruals to the collection on an occasional basis. However, the organization lacks funds to support the retrieval, processing, rehousing, and maintenance of the collection. Since the bulk of the collection is 2000-2010, the processing archivist and I will need to carefully consider appraisal of the collection at a more granular level in order to keep only what BHS can responsibly care for. Therefore, we will likely consider publications that are available elsewhere, clippings that are in poor condition and/or maintained by a digital repository, artifacts that lack provenance as candidates to return to the donor or for destruction, and closely consider other as yet unknown items that are on the border but would usually be considered worthy of retaining. While this is a more aggressive method to adopt when we seek to maintain contextual connections among records and acknowledge the organization’s collection logic, contemporary collections offer this as a sustainable option for BHS given our staff, financial, and space resources.
Thanks to A&A Steering Committee member, Julie, for submitting this article. The A&A team is currently seeking submissions for more “repository updates” to feature on the blog. New writers welcome.