Whose woods these are…

Occasionally, it happens that the faculty papers or departmental records I make appointments to review are not the faculty member’s papers or the office’s records at all. Instead they are carefully crafted research collections or the archives of a professional society or another institution.

These collections within collections are often the result of a group or organization being unable to care for its records and as a substitute they are turned over to a well-meaning faculty member or administrator. Once that person retires or moves on to a different university, the records are left behind at an institution where there is no administrative connection and a dwindling provenance to their origin.

These materials can be just a few folders at the end of a box. They can also be multiple filing cabinets that could produce 18-20 linear feet of material.

It is easy to state that these materials fall outside the collecting scope for the project. However, the potential for loss becomes greater as fewer and fewer options become available for their long term storage and management. It highlights the utilitarian versus preservationist ethical dilemma in archival work. We preserve what we can, hopefully, in a sustainable method.

To paraphrase Robert Frost, “Whose records these are I think I know … But I have a mission to keep.”