Tracking Down Deeds of Gift

Thanks to the Visions and Voices grant, I was able to enlist the temporary help of Alex Barrows in tracking down deeds of gift for 110 GLBTHS photographic and AV collections. Within an archival institute like the GLBTHS, why do deeds even matter, and what is involved in obtaining one? Alex eloquently explains their necessity in the post below:

 During the months of April and May, I’ve had the opportunity to work under the GLBT Historical Society Project Archivist, Joanna Black, to track down missing deeds of gift for select collections pertinent to our NHPRC Visions and Voices project. My responsibilities for this include locating contact information for collection donors as well as undertaking provenance research both within and outside of collection files. At times, the simple task of double-checking and serendipitously coming across floating deeds helped the project along.

Signing a deed of gift is an invaluable step in donating materials to archives, as it documents the legal transfer of personal property from an individual or organization to the archives. As an instrument in writing, the deed of gift not only determines the levels of access and copyright status of the items being donated, but it also includes descriptive contextual information like the name of donor(s), their relationship to the records being donated, the date of the transfer of title, details on the materials to be donated, any restrictions of use, disposal criteria and, finally, the signatures of both the donor and the recipient (archives). Written in consistent and unambiguous language, the deed is a document that is in the best interest of both the donor(s) and the archives. While it is inherently formal, it can be customized to reflect any of the donor’s wishes.

For example, if the donor feels that restrictions must be put into place to protect the privacy of individuals named in a collection, it can be specified as such in the deed of gift. If a donor would prefer that any residual materials or items that we cannot keep (ie, duplicates, medical records) be returned to them, we can include the appropriate language to honor such a request in the deed. If a donor wishes to retain copyright for the items they have donated, we can also make this explicitly clear in the document. Overall, the deed is an opportunity for the donor’s needs to be expressed through clear and enduring documentation, which will continue to guide how a collection is maintained on our shelves.

Ideally, a deed of gift is intentionally written up and signed by both a representative of the archives and the donor after a period of consultation and negotiation between both parties. In working on this project, I find it is important to accept the fact that the more formal gestures of archival practice are sometimes put aside during times of crisis and grief—themes that make up the historical context in which the GLBT Historical Society was originally founded. “Informal” archiving is sometimes necessary when histories are in immediate jeopardy and face the perils of destruction or erasure. Retrogressively “formalizing” this paperwork is likewise a complicated endeavor, particularly in locating past donors and in summoning up difficult, if not displaced, memories.

In going over the collections with missing deeds (which started out as 130 collections), we were able to weed out about 20 items. Artificially-created collections, for example, such as our ephemera collections, do not need deeds of gifts. Items that were abandoned, dumped at the archives’ door or that cannot be traced back to their donors do not require deeds.

As of the third week of May: 11 deeds out of the remaining 110 deeds were found. 5 out of the 110 deeds were signed and returned to us.

For me, it has been somewhat exciting to contact people I think of as “collection celebrities”—donors of collections I particularly admire, archivists of GLBT histories and names I have only learnt about in history books. Overall, the Deed of Gift project has been a key tool not only in reaching out to donors of the past and present but in educating ourselves and our patrons of the importance of this kind of paperwork.

– Alex Barrows