Archives Department Collecting Guidelines

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Archives Department Collecting Guidelines

Due to staffing cutbacks, the HSP Archives Department is reducing the types of collection donations we will accept, until further notice.

As a general rule, we will NOT accept the following: property deeds, postcards, ephemera, newspapers, unidentified photographs, or individual documents (such as letters, certificates, maps, or graphics). We will also not accept genealogical research collections unless they are well organized and their information sources are well documented.

We are primarily interested in collections of personal or family papers or photographs, organizational or business records, and well-organized and well-documented genealogical collections.

Please contact us before sending collection materials. Intended donations that have not been approved in advance may be discarded.

The overall parameters of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s collection development are defined by HSP’s mission statement and the Collections Scope document that has been approved by our Board of Councilors. The following guidelines further detail the types of manuscript and graphic materials that HSP will and will not collect. These guidelines are not strict, and we reserve the right to make exceptions. For more information on our collecting procedures and making donations see How to Donate Your Materials.


Geographic scope. For most manuscript materials, our focus is on the Philadelphia region and the eastern half of Pennsylvania. For materials that primarily document western Pennsylvania, we generally give first refusal to the Heinz History Center (the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania), the Pennsylvania State Archives, or other repositories as appropriate.

Inventories. For collections that are larger than 5 linear feet or contain 5 or more boxes, we ask the donor to provide at least a box-level inventory along with the collection (1-3 lines summarizing the types of materials and approximate span dates of each box).

Keeping collections together. HSP strongly prefers to collect whole manuscript collections rather than individual items, and we discourage donors and vendors from breaking up collections. We also seek to acquire materials that add to our existing collections. If a collection is offered to us and we know that another repository already has a part of the collection, we will encourage the donor to give the other repository first refusal on the new material.

Purchases. Generally we buy manuscript materials only from professional manuscript dealers. Occasionally we may purchase from private owners if the materials are of exceptional significance and have been appraised.

Size. Due to storage constraints, we currently cannot accept most collections greater than 20 linear feet.

Types of materials

Artifacts. HSP generally does not collect “three-dimensional” artifacts, such as textiles, clothing, furniture, cookware, machinery, or toys. We make exceptions for some small, easy-to-house artifacts (such as medals, coins, or political buttons) that are part of or directly related to a larger manuscript collection.

Audio/visual materials. HSP does not currently have a way to service audio/visual materials in our Reading Room. On a limited basis, we accept materials in the following formats: 8mm or 16mm motion picture film, open-reel audio tape, audiocassette, compact disk, VHS videocassette, or digital video disk. We do not collect other video formats, 35mm film, or phonograph disks.

Born digital materials. HSP does not currently collect born digital materials. We recognize that this will be an increasingly important area of historical documentation, but we need to research the issues involved and develop a policy before we can undertake collecting.

Confidential materials. HSP generally prefers to avoid collecting medical records; personnel files; student records; lawyer, therapist, or social worker case files; and certain court documents, as these must be closed to researchers for an extended period (usually 75 years from date of creation) for legal privacy reasons. We routinely destroy or black out Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, and certain other types of personal data when we encounter them in collections.

Deeds. Generally, HSP now collects deeds and related property documents if they are from before 1800 or are part of a larger manuscript collection.

Genealogical collections. We collect genealogical research collections that significantly document specific family histories or the practice of genealogical research itself. In such collections, we are most interested in original documents and photographs, secondarily in photocopies of original documents where the location of the originals is noted. We are least interested in notes and charts that lack specific citations. Genealogical collections of more than 2 linear feet are only accepted if they are well organized or are accompanied by a monetary donation sufficient to pay for processing.

Graphics. HSP has limited resources for dealing with graphic materials (particularly original art) and collects selectively in this area. We primarily collect items that document the Philadelphia area, including works of art on paper such as drawings, watercolors, and prints; maps; architectural drawings; and broadsides. We do not collect works on canvas or wood. Framed items will be deframed.

Hazardous materials. As much as possible, HSP avoids collecting materials that contain nitrate film, significant mold, or live insects.

Newspapers and serials. In general we collect only bound volumes or substantial runs. We may collect individual issues if they are exceptionally significant and hard to find, fill a gap in our holdings, or are part of a larger manuscript collection.

Oral histories. Oral histories should be accompanied by release forms (signed by both interviewee and interviewer) so that we can make them available to researchers. We strongly prefer that oral histories include a typed transcription.

Photographs. We collect photographic prints, negatives (film and glass plate), cased photographs (daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, etc.), transparencies, and slides. Generally we do not collect unidentified images, and we prefer to collect black-and-white rather than color photos because many color dyes are unstable. We do not collect nitrate film.

Photocopied materials. Although HSP routinely accepts photocopies as part of collections, we generally do not collect photocopies of whole manuscript collections. Depending on format, we may accept these into our printed collections.

Postcards and ephemera. We primarily collect only substantial sets of ephemera rather than isolated items, unless they are of special significance. (Ephemera include printed materials that are generally intended for short-term use, such as menus, tickets, calling cards, handbills, and tracts.)

May 2009