The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation
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MIND: Documenting Invention

Inventing | Documenting | Things to Collect

Collecting Papers, Records, and Artifacts

Archivists rarely document their selection process. It tends to be organic, intuitive, nonlinear, and case specific, varying from inventor to inventor. But it typically begins as either a response to an offer received or as a contact initiated by the archivist, and ends with the transfer of the inventor’s materials to the repository through a deed of gift or bequest.

However, certain questions can guide each assessment and selection:

  • Does the material fit the repository’s mission?
  • How does the material enhance the repository’s holdings?
  • Does the collection fill gaps in the repository’s holdings and/or existing materials available on the subject?
  • Do similar materials exist at another repository?
  • Are the materials complete?
  • Are they duplicated elsewhere?
  • Do they contain confidential information?
  • Has the donor placed restrictions on the use of the materials?
  • Are there associated artifacts?
  • What condition are the materials in?
  • How large is the collection?
  • Does the repository have the resources to maintain and service the collection?
  • Are the materials in danger of being destroyed or lost?

These questions can help an archivist plan the proper course of action.

Sampling is another tool that can be helpful in assessing and selecting materials, especially when a collection is large. Sampling provides an overview of the types of records present. Though some researchers will be disappointed that the complete body of records is not available, others will value this larger snapshot that will allow them to draw conclusions about the collection as a whole.

Whichever method is selected, think holistically and be sure to identify materials that are not well documented in other ways (for example, in published articles and books). Whenever possible, an archivist should undertake and/or oversee the assessment, selection, packing, and shipping of a collection, to ensure that best practices are followed and that the materials arrive with some level of control.

Last Update: 27 Oct 2010

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