Cultivating a Special Collection

How the personal touch can sow the seeds for a major acquisition

May 1, 2013


John T. Scopes and his wife Mildred are pilloried for defending evolution. Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Library and Museum CollectionOne telling image embodies the ridicule he endured. In it, his face and that of his wife Mildred are superimposed on a drawing of two monkeys’ bodies. Movie stills and ephemera from the making of Inherit the Wind (1960) document the celebrity status achieved by his attorney, Clarence Darrow (fictionalized as the thinly veiled Darrow stand-in Henry Drummond, portrayed by Spencer Tracy). Scopes’s collection also includes evolution-themed postcards, greeting cards, books, programs, magazines, letters, and news clippings that date from 1925 to three months prior to his death. They attest to how his decision to stand trial affected his career choices and outlook for the remaining 45 years of his life.

Lessons learned

Our foray into acquiring the Scopes collection is a lesson for librarians. The profession is on the front lines of protecting local, national, and global history for researchers. We are well aware that those potential donors’ possessions can present a more complete political, religious, economic, and social snapshot of the past.

But what is common knowledge among librarians is news to the general public. Donors want to know what you do and how it relates to them. It may take years to persuade friends or casual acquaintances that the family heirlooms they have kept are never “just stuff,” and that one person’s junk really can be another’s treasure. Collectors need time to accept that, rather than betray the family trust by destroying long-held items, they can donate those inheritances to a special collections department and share their story with the world.

Fruitful acquisitions can come about when we operate according to proven concepts:

  • Like a good salesperson, know your hook. If you are handed a ticking stopwatch with three minutes left, what sentences would you use to pique a potential donor’s interest? McDaniel calls herself the “trash cataloger” and responds to listeners’ bewildered reactions by adding, “I not only keep what many would put in the trash, I catalog it and put it online so others can find it.”
  • Know your collection’s strengths and interests. Would you have taken Uncle J. T.’s suitcase if it had been offered to you? If someone asked you what your collection goals are, what would you say? Richey has said yes to such questions as “Do you really want my childhood photos from 1963?” and “This photograph is damaged but I’m told it was taken in Bowling Green in 1865. Want it?”
  • Know how far to push. For some potential donors you are asking for their most prized possessions, but for an equally large population you are offering freedom. A June 26, 2008, New York Times article ably described the ambiguity that family members feel when faced with “the tyranny of the heirloom.” In many cases, WKU’s potential donors have been reluctant caretakers of their relatives’ belongings—unwilling to pitch the items, yet tired of feeling responsible for the memorabilia of loved ones or, sometimes, family members they barely knew. Such potential donors welcome relationships with special collections librarians who offer a solution. Not only can a repository take the caretaking burden off their shoulders, but they can brag that experts value the family’s heritage enough to give their items a home. As a result, the family story lives on.
  • Remember that people give to people, not to organizations. Maintain your integrity as a professional interested in preservation of the past. Let your enthusiasm be contagious.
  • Don’t expect to always score the big donation just by asking. Recognize the role that your colleagues can play. Often the talk you give to a seniors group or to a meeting of baby boomers with aging parents is an opportunity to share your collecting mission with the general public. At the end of the presentation, consider saying: “You are now all honorary field collectors. Tell your friends about us.”
  • Maintain your relationship with the donor even when you have to say no to what is being offered. Repositories, like closets and attics, have space limitations. Is it worth accepting an unimportant item to seal the bond of trust necessary to acquire the real prize? As the gatekeeper, be ready to offer alternative solutions. A donor may not want to keep an artifact, but it’s still hard to have an expert explain that something he has held on to for years belongs in the trash.
  • Let your previous harvests, many now digitally available to the public, provide seed and nourishment for future acquisitions. Capitalize on the donor’s delight that what he or she once had hidden away now gets “hits” on the internet. Nothing is more effective than a donor turned special collections promoter.

Digital special collections increase the appetite of researchers and the general public to explore previously inaccessible resources. These serendipitous acquisitions of irreplaceable items ensure the future of our repositories. As we sow the seeds of academic and general interest, we enable a wider audience to feast on our bounty of unique collections, even as we preserve their enduring value.

SUE LYNN MCDANIEL is special collections librarian and NANCY RICHEY is visual resources librarian in the Special Collections Library at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.



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