Last week the Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article about estate planning. In An Estate Plan for Your Treasures (subscription required to read the article), Veronica Dagher wrote about the decisions facing people about what to do with items that they have collected through the years. No matter whether you have a collection of mass-produced dolls, or (as one individual in the article has) a multitude of poker chips from Las Vegas casinos that have operated over the last century, none of us lives forever and there comes a time when you must decide what to do with it.
This same situation faces every genealogist as well. Through the years we tend to accumulate piles of original records, documents, and photographs (not to mention the large number of photocopies and digital copies of materials). Even after writing up your family history and sharing it with your family, you must still decide what to do with this trove of materials, or face having all of your work end up in online auctions or in a dumpster. Veronica’s decisions for collectors are pretty much the same for genealogists. there are three choices for you.
1. Passing it On
Talk to family members. Is there another genealogist to whom you could leave your materials? If not, is there anyone who has a budding interest who might be thrilled to receive it? One might think that the most challenging situation would be to have nobody interested. I would say, however, that the most difficult situation is one in which you have multiple people interested. How do you choose which one to give it to? In that event, my suggestion would be to split the collection (being certain to keep materials that came together in their original groups). Make copies of everything, and include copies of whichever originals someone doesn’t get with the originals that they do receive. Also, make a notation as to where the other originals went, in the event that they ever need to be located again.
2. Selling It
To me this is, of course, the last route that a genealogist wants to take. But, if you have no other choice, you might consider this. Remember that only original documents are likely to have any interest, and the older the materials the greater that interest might be. Online auction sites are filled with materials that close family members no longer have any interest in. Just this week I purchased a document to use as an example in a presentation. It was rather innocuous, a certificate of completion for agricultural work done for a club run by a school in the 1930s. Included with the document was a note from the seller informing me that the individual was the seller’s great-uncle, and he had military papers, letters, and deeds dating back to the nineteenth century for this person if I were interested in purchasing them.
3. Donating It
For me, this is far and away a better solution than selling your materials. There are many places to look to donate your materials. Libraries, private archives, museums, historical societies, and more, are always looking to add to their collections. Be certain to check with them first to ensure that your materials wit with their collection policies. And ask the staff what their processing backlog is, so you can know how long it will be before people can access the materials. If this is an important consideration for you, get that in writing as part of the deed of gift when you donate. Otherwise it could be decades before family members and researchers are able to access the materials. If the repository does not follow through with their promise, your executors and heirs can have the collection removed and given to another repository that actually will process the materials for you.