CoPAR Bulletin 5: Organizing and Transferring Records

Organizing and Transferring Records
by Ruth J. Person

In the course of a lifetime, a professional generates an extensive array of records. These records are part of an individual’s immortality, as well as a legacy to colleagues, the profession, and society. In spite of the significance of records for anthropology, most people who think about their records do so only when they (1) retire or change jobs; (2) no longer have room in their office; (3) complete a project. The legacy should be taken seriously and plans made to transfer your records to an appropriate repository. Once you make the decision to transfer records you need to make fundamental choices about how to organize them and when to transfer them.

Organizing Records

It is best if you organize your records as projects are undertaken and completed. If you have not done so, you should begin selecting a potential repository before you begin in order to receive advice about organizational methods. CoPAR Bulletin No.4, Finding a Home for Your Records, covers this topic.

Organizing and transferring records seems like a daunting task, but with help, it needn’t be. Some archivists prefer that donors leave the job of organization to the archivist. However, given the limited staff and the increasing volume of materials in many repositories, the more help a donor can provide, the sooner the transferred records will be made ready for use. Also, the overall arrangement of a collection gives it meaning, so it is helpful if you place your own collection in order if possible. If you decide to do this, how should records be organized? Some of the ways are subsumed under the following schemes. Most likely, a combination would be used:

Date. Chronologically (the simplest method, which shows the relationship between documents and the events to which they pertain and creates a time sequence).

Type. Correspondence, class notes, research project, etc., internally arranged alphabetically or chronologically.

Project. Materials from each discrete research project.

Topic or Subject. Information relating to specific topics, such as kinship (this may fragment a collection and be difficult to use since a single document may refer to more than one subject).

Media Type.  Paper, videotapes, audiotapes, photographs, computer disks, etc.

Affiliation.  Different professional roles, personal information, etc.

Locale.  Materials from different culture or geographic areas.

Institutional Base. Papers relating to place of employment or affiliation. Be aware that the archivist who is receiving your materials may not be knowledgeable about your subject area or its sensitivities. Therefore, you should identify potentially sensitive materials and consult with the archivist about whether to physically separate the materials from the main body of your work. Remember, too, that public repositories may be subject to public records laws that do not allow access to be restricted.

When To Transfer

Besides organizing your records, you must also decide when to transfer them. While there is no formula for selecting the correct time, some parameters can make the transfer more efficient and logical. Basically, you can transfer all of your papers at one time, or in increments, (e.g., on a yearly basis). This should be an individual decision worked out with the repository that you select. Should you decide to transfer your records in time-specific increments, the repository you select should provide for you to have ready access to your materials after transfer.

The Transfer Agreement

You should always discuss the transfer of papers with a repository beforehand, because archives have the right to refuse property. When you transfer your records (through gift, bequest, or purchase), you are freely transferring ownership of the physical records to the repository. You do not automatically transfer copyright unless this is so stated in writing. The legal characteristics of a gift are a clear offer, acceptance, and delivery; donations are gifts, and title to the property passes from the giver to the recipient.

Transfer can be accomplished through an exchange of letters that includes a clear offer, its terms, and acceptance. In preparing these letters, you should consult with your literary executor, literary advisor, or designated trustee. (See CoPAR Bulletin 6, Appointing a Literary Executor.) Moreover, in cases where the records to be transferred have potential monetary value, you should discuss estate planning with an attorney to consider the various forms of lifetime transfer or testamentary transfer and their possible tax advantages. You should confer with relevant persons from the chosen repository about the tax implication of such gifts.

You will need a contract, signed by both parties, to transfer papers. The receiving archive will need to know that donors have clear title to the materials, which is especially important when heirs are transferring papers. The contract should cover:

Identification of parties, including names and addresses of donor, creator if different, and recipient.

Preamble giving the reason for the agreement (the wish to make records accessible to researchers, the desire to ensure better conservation of documents, etc.), including the nature of the deposit. If the materials are going to a public university/museum and hence would become public property, it should say “for the purposes of deposit at the archives of X university.” If the university has a private foundation that accepts donations from private sources on behalf of the university, this should be specified in the deed.

Nature of contract (donation-bequest-sale) with dates of transfer of title and property. This information may be important for tax purposes, especially if the transfer will take place over a period of years.

Description of archival-accession unit and its contents (the more detailed the better), including who created or collected the material, its volume, and inclusive dates of material. (Some of this information can be included as an appendix.)

Statement of ownership for the physical documents themselves.

Price (if any).

Terms (especially if loan).

Copyright ownership, including an indication of who owns the copyright to the intellectual property and for how long. It is possible to transfer the physical property to the archives while reserving the copyright for the donor, or the copyright can be transferred to the archive or to the public at large.

Access conditions (access to records or restrictions on use, which should include time or content or both, and to whom the restrictions apply.) Statements should be clear and unambiguous, and they should describe type of materials to be restricted (if any); the authority for the restriction; the duration, either as a fixed period of years or as contingency of an event; and who can lift the restrictions.

Management of archival unit (including right to dispose of parts later and whether the donor or heirs must be consulted.) This should also contain a statement of who can impose and lift restrictions, such as temporary waiver/closure or permanent opening (by the donor, the donor’s designee or the archivist).

Provisions to cover subsequent gifts (important for incremental acquisition of materials or for acquisition of records of ongoing institutions) so a new deed does not need to be prepared each time.

Special privileges (such as continued access to one’s own materials and any special conditions or privileges). This can also include a statement of revocation rights by which the donor could withdraw the donation.

Amendments (means to amend the deed if necessary without having to engage in further legal transactions).

Reassessment (indicating whether the archivist can reassess the materials after a certain period of time, and transfer, exchange, or discard any part of the collection).

Financial support. If you intend to provide financial support for the organizing, storing, and managing of your materials, a statement should be provided indicating the amount of support and the conditions under which it is provided.

All of the above matters should be discussed with the representative of the receiving institution and a professional archivist before a transfer takes place. It is always best to keep restrictions to a minimum whenever possible.

More Information

A Guide to Donating Your Personal or Family Papers to a Repository, 1997. Society of American Archivists, Chicago. <>

Hall, Stephanie A. 1995. Ethnographic Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture; A Contributor’s Guide. Publications of the American Folklife Center, no. 20. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. <>

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