What Do I Do With My Research? or How to Have Your Hard Work Outlive You


by Jean L. Cooper

University Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

Having worked for twenty-six years in a variety of positions at the University Library, Ms. Cooper currently serves as Library Grants Officer and University Library Genealogical Resources Specialist.  She is the author of Virginia Genealogy; a Guide to Genealogical Resources at the University of Virginia and A Guide to Historic Charlottesville and Albemarle County, Virginia. The second edition of her Index to Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations was recently published by McFarland Publishing.  Ms. Cooper has a B.A. from Alma College, Alma, Michigan, and an M.L. from the University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina.

I’ve been asked the question “What Do I Do With My Research?” frequently over the past few months.

Genealogists tend to take a long view of history, and with that comes a long view of the future. It’s no surprise, then, that sooner or later, genealogists start wondering about what to do with their research files and books when that inevitable day comes. The perfect solution would be to pass one’s research on to the next generation, but there isn’t always someone younger who is interested in the family history. So what does one do? Many times we offer our material, the results of our hard work, to a library nearby, and then are disappointed when the offer is declined. Why would a library refuse a free gift?

Everything Has a Cost

In the library world, a free gift is never truly free. There are significant costs involved in sorting, listing, preserving, and cataloging every single item acquired by a library.

All libraries have a space problem. If a library accepted each gift that was offered, there would be no space to shelve everything. Also problematical, library materials require appropriate space for storage that will allow the library not merely to shelve the materials, but to preserve them as well. Paper items must be stored at a specific humidity and temperature or they will crumble into pieces.

Because each item in the library involves a cost, every library has a collection policy, whether it’s codified in writing, or exists only in the librarian’s head. These collection policies define what the purpose of the library is and what it will collect. Some libraries even have very detailed collection policies that specifically list the subdivisions of each subject that will be collected. For instance, a public library’s policy might be to collect materials strictly related to its community, while a special library might collect only those materials having to do with a specific area or a particular time period of interest to the organization that it serves.

Most libraries, therefore, find themselves limited in what they can accept due to their collection policies, finite storage space, and lack of funds.

Improving the Odds

How can we improve the odds that we’ll find an appropriate home for our research?

1. Inventory your materials. If your research includes published books, list each one individually. Organize your manuscript materials in folders by topic. Consider the possibility that you may have to offer different types of materials to different libraries depending on the nature of collection they have.

2.  List the family names, locations, and time periods covered by your research. Your goal is to discover the areas in which your material can help other researchers.

3. Locate appropriate libraries that might be interested in your research. Begin with libraries in the area your research covers, as they are more likely to be able to use such a gift. There are not many individual libraries dedicated to genealogy in the United States, but there are a few, including the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana; the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah; and the DAR Library in Washington, D.C.

In general, public libraries do not have large genealogical research collections, although there are some that do. For instance, the Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Library’s Virginia Room in its Main Library, contains extensive materials on regional history and genealogy, and the Virginia Beach (Virginia) Public Library has a large genealogy collection in its Meyera E. Oberndorf Central Library.  Publiclibraries.com can be helpful in finding which libraries are located in your area of interest. This website not only provides links to public libraries, but also to state libraries and university libraries.

Usually, the primary mission of a university library is to collect materials in areas that support the curriculum and degree programs of the university. Many universities and colleges have special collection libraries, but their collection policies are often quite restrictive. Study these policies carefully before deciding to offer your research to an academic institution.

Remember that local historical societies, and sometimes genealogical societies, also have libraries that might be receptive to a carefully placed gift. In addition, include state and private entities on your list, such as a state library or an historical or genealogical society. For instance, in Virginia, you should consider the Library of Virginia (state) and the Virginia Historical Society (private). It’s more difficult to find one site that lists historical and genealogical societies, but usually a state library will have this information somewhere on its site, such as the list of state societies found on the Library of Virginia site.

Study your chosen libraries. Find out what their collection policies include – you can usually find this information on their websites, but you might need to write to the library for this information. Look at their current collections and note areas of strength and weakness. This information will be useful as you consider your approach. Before you’re done, you should be able to rank the potential libraries for your donation from your preferred library to your least preferred.

Approaching the Library

Once you have done the legwork, it is time to consider your approach carefully. Your materials probably comprise what is called a “special collection.” It’s important to be able to give a concise description of your research collection, so spend some time writing a “punchy” description, the shorter the better. For instance, a fictional family collection centered around a historic house in the area could be described as

The papers of the Smith family of Smithton House in Essex County, Virginia, collected by John Smith. This collection contains 4 legal file boxes of manuscript papers (handwritten and typed) of the Smith family, dating from 1770 to 1950, plus 100 published books about Essex County, 20 volumes of manuscript diaries of Percy Smith (1770-1810), a postcard collection of Essex County scenes from 1900-1915, and 2 legal file boxes of genealogical research by John Smith.

In this sample description, 1) I was specific about the size, dates, and geographic coverage of the collection, and 2) I featured specific contents that might peak interest in the collection, i.e., reasons why the “target” library would want this collection.

So, you’ve identified the library, or a small group of libraries, that would be an appropriate home for your collection. You’ve described what’s in the collection. Now you have to sell it!

At this point in the process, you will want to make personal contact with the librarian in charge of the special collections library or library acquisitions. You might start by calling the librarian for an introduction, then following up with a letter giving your brief descriptive paragraph and explaining in more detail why your collection would be valuable to the library. Do not expect instant results. Libraries have hierarchical governing structures, so there are a lot of people who might have to sign off on your gift.

Don’t Be Discouraged

Don’t be discouraged when a library turns down your gift. That’s why you identified more than one possible home for your research collection. If possible, ask the librarian why her library made the negative decision, and if she can recommend another potential recipient. You may learn that the librarian didn’t think she had the physical storage resources necessary to house your gift collection, or that there was some other constraint on the library’s part that made accepting the gift impossible. If you are in a position to afford it and wish to “sweeten the pot,” you might ask if a donation of funds to support the collection would change the librarian’s mind. At the very least, you will know more than you did when you started out and will be able to apply your new knowledge to your offer of a gift collection to the next library on your list.

Finally your life’s research is too important to leave to chance (or to relatives who may not understand its value). So, if you don’t get around to donating your research in your lifetime, by all means be sure to furnish the name of an appropriate repository in your estate documents which represent your last chance to preserve your efforts and make your work accessible to others.

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