Living Donors and the Maintenance of Legacy

It’s 95 degrees and about 75% relative humidity. I’m hunched over a box of documents in the un-air-conditioned attic of a former US Senator who now lives in Chicago. As I flip through hundreds of file folders, I remove all financial records and anything that says “FEC.” To the left, my boss stands and hands folders one-by-one to the Senator, who reviews every document-be it a lawsuit or a Christmas card- and tells a brief story before approving it for donation or discarding it. 30-odd large boxes surround us, brimming with files and papers yet to be sorted. After 4 stuffy hours, we’ve made it through 1/10 of the material. Does anyone have a bucket of ice water I can borrow?

After some rehydration and reflection on this archival materials pick-up I recently accompanied my boss on, I realized how the experience can be used to examine some of the benefits, pitfalls, and other issues archival professionals face when dealing with living donors.

Living donors can be an amazing resource for archivists- and indirectly for historians. Donors can answer questions and provide context for their collections through storytelling or other verbal and written communication. Interaction with donors also gives the archivist an idea of the donor’s personality, which could lead to insights when arranging and describing a collection. Such knowledge can also be shared with users to provide deeper context for their research.

Of course, the politics of working with a living donor can be difficult too. Some donors make demands for control of the arrangement and description of their collections. Some donors ask for materials back after they have been legally signed over to a repository through a deed of gift. Headaches, to be sure.  But to me, the most interesting aspect of a living donor is the desire that often manifests for one to edit-or in some cases censor- one’s own legacy. We all want to look good in the history books, right? When donors are alive, they can decide what not to include in their own record. And in the name of shared authority, this is unquestionable. But it makes for an incomplete historical record.

It also raises questions about who has the right to dictate a legacy. Should an individual alone decide how he or she is remembered? Does that right fall to those who were most affected or closest to the individual? What about outsiders or third-parties (including but not limited to Public Historians) who can come in with a supposedly unbiased approach? Of course in the case of archives, it is less about memory and more about creating and preserving a complete and accurate historical record. A gap in context created by the omission of one document could shape historical interpretation for centuries.

Of course, legacy maintenance is nothing new. Court historians have flattered their monarchs to keep their jobs (and sometimes their heads). Corporate lackeys have shredded papers to escape prosecution but also to erase histories of corruption in their companies. Because all primary resources are biased in some way, archival professionals must recognize the importance of working with living donors to document recent history and to ensure the most robust historical record possible.

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