Archivists, Donors, and the Grieving Process

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Sara Harrington about a survey she conducted about archivists and the grieving process. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable.

My first job after completing my undergraduate education was in a local vintage shop.  As a secondhand store, we acquired our merchandise from a variety of sources, including members of the public seeking to sell or donate items left behind by someone who has passed away.  In addition to our regular business, we also conducted estate sales or clearings for clients who have inherited the household of a recently lost loved one.  Although the lion’s share of the interactions with these clients was left to my manager, I was in a position to observe the process from initiation to completion.  As such, I witnessed countless moments of grief exposed:  moments of longing and yearning, moments of nostalgia and reminiscence, moments of indecision and confusion.  These moments, these glimpses into the heart of mourning, are inevitable when you work in an industry that centers on the remnants of living.

When the opportunity arose to conduct my own research project as part of my graduate education in archives, a study on donors and the grieving process seemed a perfect fit.  It allowed me to explore the future through the lens of the past–I could use my experiences with grieving clients and my education in psychology to examine an interesting topic that could prove to be highly significant to my new career path as an archivist.  My aim was to discover the ways in which the grieving process can complicate the archivist-donor relationship, and the methods or training employed by archivists to navigate this relationship.

During my review of the existing literature, I was surprised to find that very little attention has been given to this topic.  A precious few studies peripherally touched on the subject but, other than a single master’s thesis (Garbett-Styger, 2014), no empirical research had been conducted related to grieving donors in an archival setting.  With so little previous work to serve as a foundation for my own research, it seemed best to keep my study simple and fairly broad in scope.

A Quick Word on Grief

Early psychological models conceptualized grief as an arduous but predictable process consisting of several distinct phases that were played out over a delineated period of time.  These models did not allow room for outliers; failure to work through grief in prescribed order and within the allotted timeframe was considered problematic, if not pathological.  Modern grief science, however, demonstrates that the grieving process is more complex and less predictable than originally theorized.  Still, some patterns can be identified.  First, grieving is an iterative and fluctuating process; the bereaved often experience various emotions – both positive and negative – in waves.  Second, symptoms of grief – also known as grief reactions – generally fall into one of four broad categories: emotional, which may include anger, anxiety, or guilt; physical, which may include loss of appetite or sleep disturbances; cognitive, which may include indecisiveness or difficulty focusing; and behavioral, which may include increased irritability or aggression (Lamb, 1988; Cancer.Net, 2015; MedlinePlus, 2016).  These four categories served as a framework for both the construction and analysis of my survey.


To explore this under-served topic, I created an online survey using Qualtrics Insight Platform software.  This short, anonymous survey consisted of both closed and open-ended questions and was distributed via professional listservs, including SAA’s Archives and Archivists (A&A) List.  The target population for this survey was archivists and special collections librarians in an acquisitions or collections role in the United States.  The survey, though relatively short, provided a wealth of information.  It would be nearly impossible to adequately describe the full results without exceeding the word limit for this post.  As such, I’ll simply summarize those patterns that have the most potential significance to current or potential archivists.


Working with bereaved donors is a common experience for many professional archivists.  Of the 48 archivists surveyed for this study, only 3 (approximately 6%) had never worked with a bereaved donor before.  Despite the frequency of interactions with grieving donors, it is clearly not prioritized in the training and education of archivists:

  • 32%  reported that they had no previous training or education that aided them in their work with bereaved donors
  • 16% reported having taken coursework related to donor relations as part of a broader LIS course, but none had taken a course dedicated solely to donor relations.
  • 26% relied on onsite training or mentorship to prepare them for such work, while 21% relied on personal experiences with the grieving process.

According to grief experts, grief reactions generally fall into 1 of 4 categories: behavioral, cognitive, emotional, and physical.

  • Crying, restlessness, and verbal reminiscing were the most commonly reported behavioral reactions: 64% reported encountering “a little” crying, 43% reported “a little” restlessness, and 44% reported “a lot” of reminiscing.
  • Cognitive issues such as indecisiveness and hesitancy to let go of physical mementos were also frequently reported, with 34% encountering “a moderate amount” of indecisiveness, and  49% encountering “a moderate amount” of hesitancy.
  • Emotional and physical reactions were reported less often, probably due to being less noticeable to the archivists; however, 95% of archivists reported witnessing at least “a little” signs of sadness in bereaved donors, while 43% have noticed signs of fatigue in grieving donors.
  • Qualitative data collected suggests that as high as 27% of donors also demonstrate positive reactions during the donation process; respondents reported that donors often find a sense of relief or closure in the act of memorializing the deceased through their donation.

The archivists surveyed employed a variety of methods to aid in their work with grieving donors:

  • The methods most commonly employed by archivists in their work with grieving donors are empathetic listening (100%), reassuring the donor of the collection’s value to the institution (97%), and reassuring them that the collection will be well-cared for (97%).
  • Follow-ups about the collection (69%) and handwritten notes or other tokens of appreciation (67%) were also commonly reported.
  • Physical touch (36%) and allowing the donor to take an active role in crafting the future of the collection (31%) were reported less often.

Suggestions from those surveyed for better preparing future archivists for working with bereaved donors also varied:

  • Most of the archivists surveyed thought that seminars/workshops in donor relations (82%) or lectures/conference materials on the subject (62%) would be most helpful.
  • Those surveyed considered LIS coursework in donor relations (44%) and professional literature on the topic (44%) to be of equal helpfulness.
  • Qualitative data collected in the survey reflected that the archivists considered patience and empathy to be key factors in working with grieving donors.

Regardless of the amount of time that has passed since a donor’s loss, donating to a repository can arouse a variety of grief responses.  As one respondent stated, the grieving process “can last a few months, or years, or a long lifetime.”  At least one respondent encountered significant grief reactions in a donor over 40 years after their loss.  The nature of archival work makes working with bereaved donors – and thus, encountering such grief reactions – a common occurrence.  With this in mind, it seems clear that further research on this topic is very much needed in order to better prepare inexperienced archivists for the challenge of working with the bereaved in a competent, compassionate, and professional manner.


Cancer.Net. (2015). Understanding grief and loss. Retrieved from  Last accessed: 8/1/2016.

Garbett-Styger, M. (2014). Death, dying, and archives: Learning to work with grieving and dying donors (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from  Last accessed: 8/1/2016.

Lamb, D. H. (1988). Loss and grief: Psychotherapy strategies and interventions. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training25(4), 561-569. doi:10.1037/h0085382

MedlinePlus. (2016). Bereavement. Retrieved from  Last accessed: 8/1/2016.

Sara Harrington is an MLIS student at Louisiana State University.  She will obtain her master’s degree with a specialization in cultural heritage resource management in December 2016.  She is interested in the historical artifacts of popular culture, and the human side of archives. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.  

Response from I&A Poll Discovery or Not?

On June 24, 2016, we opened the I&A Poll Discovery or Not? The poll was inspired by two opinion pieces which were dated the previous week but were later pointed out to be from several years ago, regarding whether or not something could be discovered if it was in an archives. The poll remained open through July 1, 2016 and received 83 responses. Of those 83 responses, 19.5% identified as a member of the Issues & Advocacy Roundtable; 46.3% as a member of the Society of American Archivists but not the Issues & Advocacy Roundtable; 28% as an archivist but not a member of the Society of American Archivists; and 6.2% as someone who is not an archivist but wanted to weigh in.

Respondents were asked to read the two pieces and then asked what they thought. They were given four options and the results are as follows:

Discovery results

Respondents were asked if they had any other thoughts to share. Responses have been redacted to remove any potentially identifying information and have not been edited to fix any typos. The responses were:

  • There is a comment on each of the stories from an author who claims he cited the very same document in his 2008 book. It was not the original report at NARA, but a copy in a file at Georgetown. That basically refutes the researcher’s claim that “no one knew [it] was there.” But I also think her argument is flawed in general – just because archival collections are not processed to the item level does not mean every item found in that collection is a “discovery.” Perhaps the argument is semantics – based on how someone defines the term discovery. But the original article’s point that these “discoveries” often devalue or exclude the work archivists have done with historical material is an important one. I feel the researcher’s response missed that point.
  • Saying that a researcher “discovered” something in the archives is an unethical erasure of the massive amount of labor it takes to manage archives in the first place. Even if a contemporary archivist doesn’t specifically know about one piece of paper in a collection, that shouldn’t negate the labor and efforts of the repository or that one archivist’s predecessors. The records came into the archives because an archivist made the decision that they had enduring value.
  • “Discovery” depends on context. If it’s unprocessed or minimally-processed material, then it’s a lot easier for archivists or researchers to feel that thrill of seeing something for the first time in years. Even if the material is processed/described/accessible, if it’s highlighted or put to a new use, that also has the glow of discovery. My kneejerk negative reaction is that popular use of “discovery” also includes processed and described materials being put to perfectly ordinary use (there’s a difference between not CARING that something exists and not KNOWING it exists and/or an innovative way in which it can be used), and tends to disregard the fact that processing archivists discover things every day.
  • I agree with the researcher (who is also an archivist) that discoveries can be made and it is not to discount the efforts made by archivists. As a lone arranger archivist myself and under the time constraint of a two-year grant, I know perfectly well that I won’t know everything there is to know about my collection, it spans four generations and my best bet is to get it organized and then catalog what I can so that researchers can at least have a starting point. Archivists often do just make general decisions about a collection without sitting down and reading every item, we look at an envelope perhaps confirm the to and from and then file it where it belongs in the arrangement without ever looking at the actual content. I have even made these types of decisions when it comes to digitization, its time consuming and at times costly, you just choose those series you think most valuable to researchers but never know if one small item in the miscellaneous or another small series could be that one thing that changes a researcher’s whole angle on their topic. So yes, researchers make discoveries and their findings are very valuable to institutions, the public may not recognize the effort put in by the archives staff but those researchers do.
  • It seems that archivists have a lot of internal definitions that the general public does not share. I wonder about the broader importance of this issue. It seems that, as researchers’ skills and expectations change with the emergence of digital collections, we might revisit the importance of description. There is no way to describe a collection for every future researcher’s interests, but we do have a responsibility to ensure that description establishes appropriate context rather than assuming that researchers can hit control-f and find the items they require. To me, the issue here is whether we are enabling discovery (in archivists’ parlance) for modern researchers with different expectations and training than those of years past.
  • Discovery seems to me to be reliant on the concept of use and observation. I would argue that Columbus “discovered” America for Europe, for example, far more than did the Vikings who arrived there hundreds of years earlier. The former’s efforts resulted in actual change, whereas the latter’s attempts at colonization were scattered and ultimately doomed to failure. In the same way, an item may linger on the shelves for years or decades, but its value is only realized when a researcher or archivist finds it and makes use of it.
  • Even in the most well processed collections, archivists make decisions about what they’ll describe. In theory, we strike the perfect balance between brevity and detail that leads the researchers straight to the smoking gun, even if we don’t describe that gun itself. But maybe we don’t. And there are always items in the collections that even the archivist didn’t realize were there. So can the answer be yes and no at the same time? Schrodinger’s Hollinger box? Anything inside is both discovered and not discovered until the box is opened?
  • I don’t think the researchers analogy of King Tut’s Tomb holds water. A more acurate analogy would be saying that the tomb was “discovered” it in the 1300’s BC when it was built it is like saying Leland “discovered” the document when he wrote it. But of course in between when Leland wrote the report and when the researcher “discovered” it, there was an archivist at the National Archives who processed it…
  • I would say that the situation is nuanced but is also kind of boring and therefore requires less discussion
  • There are a lot of different ways we can think about “discovery.” You don’t have to be the first person in living memory to see something to “discover” it. I think “discoveries” are made in the archives all the time–it’s that aha moment, such as when a researcher finds what they were looking for. However, more to the point, archivists cannot necessarily know every single sheet of paper in their repository (although I would not say it is impossible). Even if a researcher finds an item that the archivist was unaware of, the item still falls under the responsibility of the the archivist. Users should be confident that the archivist has “taken care” of the items. I think documentation is a really important factor. Archivists do not have to describe at the item level to gain familiarity with the material and make note (if not in the finding aid, in an accession record or processing notes) of items that might be the most significant to users. Also, I think that archivists should provide means for researchers to comment on their research experiences. We should ask them: did you find what you were looking for? how could we improve our finding aids? did you find any discrepancies between the finding aid and the actual content of the boxes? Since researchers are the ones using the materials, archivists should respect their input and allow them to participate in the process of “describing” archival materials. Maybe then we can fill in some of the gaps and get a better understanding of the materials in our collections.
  • the articles in question appear to be from 2012, not a month ago or this week
  • I also blame MPLP. And sheer volume of materials. Archivists don’t look at item level. Why can’t this be a “discovery” with mutual shared credit (even, shared “author-ity”). Archivist led researcher to collection. Researcher found item. Neither possible w/o the other
  • If we’re not describing collections at the item level, let’s give researchers their due for highlighting discoveries from collections described at the folder/box/series level. If we really think that we’re not missing interesting records when we MPLP a collection, we’re deluding ourselves.
  • The original articles were written 4 years ago, not a month ago, but still quite relevant.
  • Even if an item is “findable,” the archivist’s knowledge of it doesn’t move it into the public arena as a scholarly/historical resource. It needs to be a partnership of archivist and researcher to save/protect/make available on one side and to explore/spend the time/read the documents/make connections on the other.
  • This question is nuanced, but I generally thought the “yes” opinion to be closer to my views. I think it is possible that there are uncatalogued items that no archivist in recent memory knows are there (like the Lincoln report). I also think there are many times when an uncatalogued item is well known by the archivists and is not truly a “discovery” for a researcher. It’s clear that more advocacy about the nature and value of the work that archivists do is needed.
  • Perhaps we can liken this to “personal discovery”….i.e. a friend could tell you your book purchases boarder on obsession long before you “discover” that truth when confronted with the bill. Archivist’s set the stage for discovery. It is up to the researcher what to do with that discovery.
  • We can’t possibly remember or know what every piece of paper is or says, even if we have come across it in our work. That’s much like saying that a librarian should know what content is on every page in every book in a library’s collection. Plus, our researchers find documents that have been long forgotten and it is a new discovery not only because we located it again but, also because we just located it within this time and place with a different perspective. The analysis of history changes over time depending on new discoveries and someone may have come across a certain document decades earlier; however, there may not have been any well-documented context for it until the recent ‘discovery’.
  • From nearly 40 years in the Archives biz I’d say that each person who discovers what he or she had not previously known, well, they’ve made a DISCOVERY! Does publication mean it was previously discovered? Do multiple copies mean it was previously discovered?
  • Repositories differ on levels of cataloging and amounts of metadata made available. These differences are often due to funding levels and/or size of the repository. If funding challenges and lack of personnel force archives to not list creator names, describe materials of note, or even make their finding aids public electronically, findability is restricted. Yes, researchers who habe time and funds to make in-depth searches make “discoveries”. But archivists would make more discoveries themselves if afforded the opportunity to catalog in a more detailed way. It’s unfortunate that MPLP often becomes “no product because no process” in lone arranger situations.
  • If it’s in an archives, even if unprocessed, someone decided the materials were important & needed to be preserved & cared for. Regardless of the stage of care, it’s presence in an archives makes it accessible & thus findable on some level. If the media & scholars would just acknowledge & understand the scope of what we do across formats & time with extremely limited financial & staffing resources, I don’t think it would rankle so bad when they claim to “discover” a document. These “discoveries” never turn into additional staff or supplies though. Given that they must market themselves & their research to get tenure, I doubt the media hype will change.
  • Discoveries can be made by both parties, either working together or separately. Plus, many of our institutions have poorly-described or unprocessed collections that could contain countless treasures.
  • It’s naive to think that our esoteric access tools make it obvious or easy for the general public to be aware of the contents of our collections. It can also be reductive and offensive to archivists’ hard work to imply that a document was completely unknown when it simply hadn’t been written about yet. HOWEVER, if the archivists themselves are completely unaware of a document’s existence, for example in the case of folder-level processing where specific contents are not understood, then I do think it can be framed as a discovery. It’s important to still emphasize that the item was well cared for and managed within a collection, not rotting in a forgotten basement.
  • Can’t they both me given credit?

Focusing on the Practical Needs of Community Archives

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Kris Bronstad about her survey that will gather much needed information on community archives.  If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email

Community archives are important. I’m not talking about the representative family or organizational papers sewn into the patchwork of a large manuscript repository, although those collections are important, too. I’m referring to independent community archives existing outside the reach of professional associations and networks, and representing communities chronically under-represented in relatively well-funded state or academic repositories. I think we intrinsically know, not just as archivists but as members of multiple communities ourselves, that these community archives are important, and have always been.

Many of these necessary community archives remain outside the traditional archives’ gravitational pull by choice. Some groups may be searching for technical advice or assistance, but are wary of asking institutional repositories. How can we offer our expertise as archivists in a way that respects community archives’ independence?  Archivists have been tinkering with the nuts and bolts of acquiring, organizing and making things accessible for a while now. Couldn’t we offer to supplement community archives’ own expertise with the practical knowledge we’ve acquired and already happily share amongst ourselves?  Although it would be foolish to assume such action would be free of the power dynamics existing between the state/academy/organizations we are agents of and the groups community archives represent, we believe the benefits of sharing what we know outweigh any potential harm of this interaction.

These were the conversations, among Sonia Yaco, Rebecca Hankins and I, that inspired us to consider developing resources aimed at community archives.  Through Sonia and Rebecca’s work with various community archives, we know at the ground level there’s a need for more resource and information sharing. While the UK and elsewhere have a history of infrastructure support for community archives, there seemed to be few publicly available resources here in the United States. This is of course with the exception of important work done by groups such as LAGAR, Library Juice and IMLS’s National Digital Platform. Definitely there are others doing similar, vital work.


But what are the needs of community archives? We found there wasn’t much information describing what aspects of archival maintenance community archivists want to know more about. Are community archives (and archivists working with them) interested in the technical aspects of arrangement, description, and access? Are outreach and legal issues bigger concerns? To find out, we need to know more about different community archives: who are the people who work with them, what are their needs, and how we can help if asked. We decided the best way of starting to ask these questions was to utilize the existing networks of individuals involved in both the professional archival world and in working with community archives. We’ve launched an online survey[i] asking our archival colleagues who have worked with community archives to tell us more about the communities they have worked with.

Finding and Defining Archivists

There are obviously some blurry lines here. The archival profession is elastic and defies strict definition. To get around that we’re surveying people who self-identify as professional archivists. If you have earned or are on track to earn a master’s degree in information science degree with archival coursework, or you are members of national professional organization for archivists, and/or are certified as archivists, you may recognize yourself as a professional archivist.

Why are we limiting the survey to those professional archivists I just attempted to describe? Our theory is that targeting professional archivists first and foremost­—and not individuals involved solely with community archives—gives us some practical advantages. First, it makes it easier to contact respondents. From where we sit, community archivists lack the same kind of visible, funded, and widespread specialized networks established used by professional archivists. Secondly, querying professional archivists increases the chance that respondents will be comfortable with archives-specific terminology and analyzing archival needs.

Focusing solely on professional archivists also provides obvious disadvantages. We’re not tapping the expertise of community archivists themselves, who have the most important say on the matter of their own communities and practices, and who have information and experiences professional archivists could learn from. We’re also guilty of not directly tapping the expertise of archival educators, who have done an enormous amount of work with community archives. Archival educators are theoretically a target population of our survey, but we didn’t know how active and prolific their relationships with community archives actually can be. We we will need different questions to properly investigate their work.  Listening to these communities (community archives themselves and archival educators) are essential areas of inquiry, and those investigations will hopefully constitute our next steps. Surveying those practitioners who work directly with community archives and are also plugged into professional networks is our first step.

 What do we want to know?

While our main goal was to figure out what tools were needed, we wanted to take the opportunity to find out about community archives themselves: what kind of materials they collect, broadly what sort of community they serve (Is it a community of interest? Location? Identity?). We also want to know what tools the archives have in place. These are all important in deciding the focus of future resources.

Some of the other questions we ask respondents concern:

  •  What help is most commonly requested of archivists interacting with community archives
  •  What issues the respondent has had trouble helping community archives with, if any
  •  What the respondent would most like to see in new resources for community archives

We will also collect demographic information about our respondents, including type of employer, country of residence, age range, and education. This is part of our attempt to understand if there are discernable patterns in which professional archivists have relationships with community archives.

Are there questions we’re not asking that we should be? Resources we’re overlooking? You tell us (please). This is an ongoing exploration.

If you have worked with community archives, we invite you to take the survey. The survey will be available until 11:59pm on June 27. You can find it here. It will take 10-30 minutes of your time given how much information you want to give, and will be anonymous.

If you have already taken the survey, thank you.

Kris Bronstad is an Assistant Professor and Modern Political Archivist at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville Libraries.

[i] ARCHIVIST RELATIONSHIPS WITH AND ASSESSMENT OF COMMUNITY ARCHIVES SURVEY UTK IRB-16-02885-XM — TAMU IRB 2016-3010 — UIC IRB 2016-0350. If you have questions at any time about the study or the procedures, contact me the researcher, Kris Bronstad, at If you have questions about your rights as a participant, you may contact the University of Tennessee IRB Compliance Officer at or (865) 974-7697.



Empowering Archivists Through Mentoring

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Alison Stankrauff about mentoring in the archival profession. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email

In crafting a blog post for Archivists on the Issues, I thought to largely take content from my recently co-authored article on mentoring that appeared in the Journal of Western Archives. Here are sections pieced together that are most pertinent to the key segue way between mentoring those who are new to the profession – or mentoring peers in the profession – and advocacy, and advocating for one’s self as a professional and for one’s institution.

Archivists, like most technical professionals, must deal with myriad issues on a daily basis. They include meeting the demands of learning the latest in arrangement and description standards, new content management systems, administration issues and, in some cases, navigating the tenure process.

Mentoring is a philosophy built upon the idea of advising or passing along wisdom and knowledge to a younger, or lesser experienced, colleague in one’s field. Library science programs, and by extension archival programs, do a good job of preparing students for the professional world. Yet there are many issues and skills that an education program cannot address, but which a Mentor can. In an ever-changing and demanding field like archiving, the Mentor/Protégé relationship has become increasingly important, yet, it is not being used as widely or fully as it could be within the archival field.

The lack of a Mentoring system within our own field makes the goal of preserving history for future generations harder to achieve, as mentoring, through best practice information, helps ensure the most complete historical record.   Mentoring, in and of itself, connects the past with the future. In addition, Archivists also have the goal of attracting and keeping people in our field who are passionate about archiving. Mentoring helps to satisfy that goal by smoothing the road, while sharing the passion of historical preservation. Archivists have had an informal mentoring system for years. We know that the greatest asset to any archivist is the archival community, and by sharing successes and failures, the whole community benefits.

New professionals face a unique paradox: you need experience to get the position, but you can’t get the position until you have experience. To expect a new professional to have the experience of a seasoned archivist is impossible, but to become seasoned a new professional needs to start somewhere. It is the job of the Mentor to help the Protégé gain confidence in their skills, point out resources, and offer guidance. Issues like advocacy and how to deal with budget shortfalls work differently for lone arrangers with little or no support. Lone Arrangers are often asked to take on many additional roles outside the archival scope. Protégés need help with how to cope with taking on non-archival roles like curator, administrator, teacher, and programming. The SAA Mentoring Program facilitates the peer-to-peer mentoring, which takes much of the pressure off the Protégé. A Mentor in a similar situation can offer insights others cannot.

Alison Stankrauff is the Archivist and an Associate Librarian at Indiana University South Bend.