This past Friday I gave a presentation in Jersey City about HSP’s Adopt-a-Collection program, which allows people to donate money earmarked for processing and conserving a specific collection. My talk was part of a panel on “creative funding” for archives, at the fall meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC). There were three of us on the panel. Yvonne Carignan from the Historical Society of Washington, DC offered advice on how to recruit and manage volunteers, Joseph Anderson from the American Institute of Physics described their successful e-commerce program marketing images from their collections, and I talked about Adopt a Collection. About thirty people attended – not bad for a late-afternoon session on the Friday before Halloween. In this blog post I’ll summarize the highlights of my talk.
The Adopt a Collection page has a prominent place on HSP’s web site. Here we feature listings for a variety of collections, each with a paragraph of description, an image or two, and a cost estimate. People can contribute the full cost of working on a collection or just a part; in return they are recognized in the finding aid and invited to visit HSP and see the fruits of the work they’ve paid for. In addition to this online face of the program, sometimes our Development staff invites specific people to adopt specific collections. If Development knows that a prospective contributor is interested in a particular topic, they may ask Library staff to suggest some collections that fit this interest and that could benefit from adoption.
HSP collections that have been adopted through the program have varied widely in terms of topic, historical period, size, etc. Some examples include:
• Lea & Febiger records (a Philadelphia publishing house founded by Mathew Carey)
• Work Projects Administration posters from the 1930s
• Joseph Smith Harris correspondence (a 19th-century engineer involved in the Northwest Boundary Survey, Civil War naval operations, and the railroad industry)
• Caroline Katzenstein papers (Pennsylvania women’s suffrage activist)
• Christopher Marshall diaries (Philadelphia druggist and political leader during Revolutionary War era).
Overall, since we started the Adopt a Collection program in 2005, eighteen different donors have contributed a total of almost $90,000 to HSP, enabling us to process and conserve 24 collections totaling 292 linear feet. In addition, the program provided us with the funding match we needed for work on the 289-linear-foot Chew Family Papers, which was funded largely by the National Endowment for the Humanities. My favorite Adopt-a-Collection donation came from the Abington Junior High School History Club, which fundraised $157 for the Chew project in 2008 and then came back with another $400 this year. I went and met with the club in May, right before their summer break, and am hoping HSP can develop some kind of ongoing relationship with them.
As this example suggests, Adopt a Collection does more than let us process and conserve collections. It also helps us connect with supporters we might not reach in other ways and gives people a concrete sense of engagement in our work. It helps us show the public some of what it takes (and what it costs) to preserve collections and make them available: behind-the-scenes activity that all too often gets taken for granted. Internally, Adopt a Collection has also helped to strengthen communication and collaboration between HSP departments. Library staff (Archives and Conservation) and Development staff generally live in different worlds, but this program brings us together and gives us a direct way to help each other out.
Adopt a Collection has its limitations. It is not a steady, reliable funding source, and the amount it has brought in has varied widely over the past few years. Also, not everything is fundable this way. Some collections are too large or require too much work; others aren’t photogenic or attractive enough to donors, even if they contain historical riches. But for HSP, Adopt a Collection has become an important part of our repertoire of sources that enable us to work on collections, along with our endowment, grants, interns and volunteers, etc.
Several factors have contributed to the success of our Adopt-a-Collection program. First and foremost are the many great collections we have been able to showcase, collections that appeal to many different interests. Good collaboration between Development and Library staff has played a big role as well. Third, HSP is fortunate to have a good network of supporters who are able to contribute money – in some cases a little, in others a lot of money. Lastly, the fact that we offer different price points for collection adoptions means that people don’t have to donate thousands of dollars in order to participate. Collections pegged at the $100 level have been very popular, and we are happy to receive support for them. As the Abington Junior High students demonstrate, success in this program isn’t only measured by the size of the check.