How to Give (Or Not to Give)

None of us likes to contemplate the idea of the dreaded genealogical cleanout – the prospect of an exasperated descendant pitching the trunkful (or roomful) of research that consumed a lifetime.

We comfort ourselves with the idea that someday we will organize all that stuff into some succinct form (we will, we really will!) and give it safe haven in a local library, historical society or genealogy society.

Someone surely will want that footnoted family history, not to mention great-great grandfather’s pocket watch. Right?

A recent topic on the Brooklyn, N.Y. genealogy list raised the question of where to donate genealogical research pertaining to New York City families. I found it interesting in light of what I’ve heard about existing nonprofit realities.

At one collection near me, families donated documents, manuscripts and artifacts for years, and relatively little was done to organize or assess them. Many of these items are extremely valuable, while some might be the stuff of which yard sales are made. Organizing it all is a real challenge for the current staff. I suspect their experience is typical of a lot of local and regional societies. Not everyone is able to accept just anything.

Vintage clothing is one great example. Costume collections are an extremely specialized area, requiring a lot of money to maintain properly. Not every local museum or society is able to do them justice. And who wants to accept an exquisite period gown, knowing it will only rot?

Artifacts in general are a tricky proposition. Depending upon what they’re made of, how big they are and how attractive they are to burglars, these can present headaches along with historical value to curators on a tight budget. Your best bet would be to direct your gift to an institution that specializes in that sort of artifact – textiles or firearms or timepieces – rather than a general historical institution.

What about those genealogical notes and annotated family histories? Probably fewer headaches attached here, right? I think so myself, providing they are truly useful for students of local history. For example

• They’re well researched, clearly written and conscientiously cited.

•  They really are relevant to the town or region.

•  The facility in question is really able to accept the donation and make it available to future researchers.

Many local and regional institutions are mindful of people’s desire to donate and don’t want to appear ungracious, nor do they want to miss out on a valuable addition to their collections. So a lot of them post donation guidelines on their websites to help clarify things for potential donors. Read before you give, and make sure what you’re giving is in a state to be truly helpful to future generations.


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