Gift Horses

by Lou Liberty | Apr 10, 2012

Perhaps nothing in the world makes us feel as virtuous as a good cleaning out, throw away, and recycle. It is human nature. A thorough de-cluttering and purging of material goods and objects lightens our burdens, restores our souls, and brightens our lives. In the process, we often become "Gift Horses."

We uncover items for which we no longer wish to care but which represent significant moments in our lives or the lives of loved ones. We can't see this memorabilia going to the grinder, the trash heap, or the thrift shop because of its sometimes-intrinsic value, but most often because of its former importance in our lives. In many situations, this personal collection of objects, papers, and photos ultimately finds its way to an archive as a gift. Thereby the accessioning problem begins for the archivist. This is a two-fold problem and is especially complicated for the Independent School archivist strapped for space, time and money.

"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth," we've often been told.

We have intuitively known that the statement is a metaphorical expression encouraging gratitude without assessing value. Few of us know its origin, however, ours being an age in which actual horses are rarely gifted in general practice.

The phrase was first recorded in 1546 in John Heywood's book about proverbs. It is related to the phrase, "long in the tooth". Those knowledgeable about horses know that as horses age their teeth project further forward each year. A horse's age, and therefore its value in productive years, can be estimated by measuring how prominent its teeth are.

When we have been encouraged to not look a gift horse in the mouth, we have been asked to avoid making judgments about a gift lest we reject it. Independent School Archivists must not only look the Gift Horse in the mouth, they must carefully measure and evaluate, and they must discriminate.

An Independent School Archivist is at times a cross between an active treasure hunter, a keeper of an invaluable hoard, and a diplomat. The job is most complicated for the Independent School Archivist when the Gift Horse is a member of the alumni because in a very real way, through their loyalty and money donations, the alumni are the lifelines of the school.

While most Independent Schools publish a gift or planned gift policy, few if any publish a gift policy for their archives. The Madeira School is a good example of planned gift policy publication.

While addressing general sustaining gifts, it does not publish a gift policy for its extensive archive.

The Choate-Rosemary Hall Archives does have a brief statement addressing gifts to the archive.

What is an Independent School Archivist to do in these circumstances? This is where a certain amount of clairvoyance is helpful - that and a clear, well thought out acquisitions policy, even if all of it is not published.

The Society of American Archivists, the SAA, provides valuable insight and guidelines to help archivists evaluate gifts to the archive. Among their articles are ones pertaining to college and university archives, and articles regarding collecting policies for social history.

While these articles and books are helpful and good food for thought, they do not directly address the crux of the problem that faces Independent School Archives. It is extremely important to have a clear gift statement regarding the archive, what will be well received into it and what will not.

For example, at some point, everyone wants to donate his or her old yearbooks to the school archive. The truth is, the Independent School Archive simply cannot accommodate the numerous copies of yearbooks that wish to come its way. This is especially true if an institution is long lived. The archive does not want school yearbooks. The school library probably already has multiple copies of each year.

The situation is very different from public schools. Local and regional historical societies seek yearbooks from the public schools and often welcome those from private institutions in their towns. The same is true of local museums.

Whenever possible, it is important and beneficial for the Independent School Archivist to offer an alternative repository for donations that do not fit well with the school's needs.

The Independent School Archivist is also faced with the primary problem regarding gifts, one shared with all archives. All materials bring with them a cost in time and dollars to process and maintain. Rarely does the giver include money to care for the donation and make it available for future use. An important aspect of formulating a gift policy for the archive addresses this genuine challenge.

Again, the SAA is helpful in formulating gift policies. One of its publications is especially helpful in formulating an overall gift policy. It is SAA: A Guide To Deeds of Gift. The information in this guideline is beneficial to both the donor and to the repository.

Once a clear gift policy is articulated, it is very important for the Independent School Archivist to not look upon it as inflexible. Obviously, the Independent School Archive wants materials focused on the life of the school and its students. In general, the archive does not want materials outside that framework. Much depends on how one interprets "the life of the school and its students".

Interpreting that phrase broadly brought into the Sandia Prep Archive two collections that you would not normally expect to be there. The first was the first American edition of Winnie The Pooh accompanied by an original Steiff Pooh Bear. This was a treasure from a student's childhood before her time at Sandia, a gift to the school archive along with other materials from her estate. As archivist, I saw these items as relevant to establishing, time, place, and lifestyle of the school's students, a memento of a larger social history of the nation and therefore important to the school's history.

The second example is items of clothing; specifically a hand tailored sidesaddle riding habit and a tea dress belonging to the school's founder, Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms. Originally given to the drama department by the Simms family to be used as costumes, the drama teacher recognized their potential historical significance and passed them along to the archive. Although the preservation of these items of clothing required an unexpected expenditure for conservation and storage, I again saw them as important items expanding the context of life for the school community and its historical origins, thereby significant to the collection.

Frequently an Independent School Archivist is tasked with discriminating between what is public information and what is private. Distinguishing between public and private information is usually simply a matter of good sense; often it is a matter of knowing the law.

Independent School Archives are part of a private institution and therefore the archivist can in a number of situations make available items without concern for the law defining "public information". Likewise, the Independent School Archive can forbid access to any information it wishes or it can put conditions on access not allowed to public institutions. Most of the time, the decisions regarding access are up to the school archivist.

For example, are the love letters between a member of the alumni and her fiancé during World War II an item for the school archive? Does the fact that the young man was shot down over the North Sea during the war and never returned influence the revelation of the intimate contents.

If the letters came to the school archive from the alumna's estate, simply one of a number of items boxed up during the cleanout process, and the gift was without restriction, nothing prevents the archivist from accessing them or even destroying them. If the decision is to place the letters in the archive's collection, it might be incumbent on the archivist to contact the donor as a matter of courtesy before accessioning them. The letters do have a significant value as social history and they do have an extended value as a reflection of the life and times of one of the school's graduates.

The question of public and private information is a thorny one and more importantly, it varies from town to town, state to state and on the federal level. An informative and quick overview regarding public records can be gained from Wikipedia.

The Federation of Genealogical Societies has long held an interest in keeping public records open and accessible. The Records Preservation and Access Committee is a watchdog regarding the laws governing public and private information and an invaluable source in finding your way to information.

Independent School Archivists are delighted when alumni decide to indulge in a good cleaning out. Although the archivist is duty bound take a quick peek into their mouths when the Gift Horses trot up to the door, they are always made welcome. After all, their gifts are the foundation of the school's rich and evolving collection.

The Phrase Finder

The Madeira School - Understanding Gift Planning

Choate Rosemary Hall Archives

Society of American Archivists (SAA)

SAA: Guidelines for College and University Archives

American Archivist. "Managing Change and Chance: Collecting Policies in Social History Archives" (PDF free download)

SAA: A Guide to Deeds of Gift

Public Records overview - Wikipedia

Federation of Genealogical Societies

Records Preservation and Access Committee


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