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.  

If Not Us, Then Who?

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Verónica Reyes-Escudero about cultural competence in 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

“My mother would turn over in her grave if she knew her papers were going to the Yankees.” One of my donors spoke these words as he considered donation of his mother’s papers with us. As a donor of Mexican decent, his words captured his fears and misgivings about donating his family’s legacy to a U.S. academic institution. Two years into our relationship, he was on a visit to our archive, and I was demonstrating what we had to offer to preserve, process, and make his mother’s invaluable papers accessible. We were standing by one of the stacks. I could see he was delighted by the future we offered for his mother’s papers – preservation, organization, access – especially in light of their state in his home. But anxiety came over him as he contemplated the decision. What would it mean to him – to his extended family? to his mother’s legacy? – to deposit her papers in a place, institution, and a nation representative of so deep a history of marginalization, even rejection? I understood his misgivings – the tremble of his voice — the knot in his throat. And I didn’t just understand: I knew it, too.

I recently co-authored a book with Patricia Montiel-Overall and Annabel Nuñez entitled Latinos in Libraries, Museums, and Archives: Cultural Competence in Action!An Asset based approach. The Issues & Advocacy (I&A) Roundtable generously invited me to blog on cultural competence in archives after the book was announced on the Archives listserv. When my colleagues and I began to discuss writing about working with Latinos, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to take on the task. But my professional service had led me to see the importance – the imperative – to write about cultural competence in our field. For me, the opportunity was timely: Dr. Montiel-Overall had written on the topic of cultural competence, and I had already presented widely on building relationships with donors from underrepresented communities. Our colleague Annabelle Nuñez had long worked as a health sciences librarian, brokering relationships between community and colleagues in Public Health.

I did not take on a book lightly. It was a substantial commitment for all of us. We would necessarily sacrifice evenings, early mornings – and, for me, the only family day each week with my small children. And, as a minority faculty, I wondered whether or not research on diversity and cultural competence would be taken seriously. (I’m sure there are one or more studies on how research by minority faculty is discounted – especially when they research diversity.) After many cafecitos to discuss our ideas and experiences, we decided the issues, and our commitment to them, was too important. If not us, then who?

In my now longish library career as a librarian, I’ve immersed myself in several areas, including more than twelve years in special collections. As Associate Librarian and Borderlands Curator for Special Collections at the University of Arizona Libraries, I’ve worked with many donors with misgivings just like the one I mentioned above. Slowly, I began to realize I brought assets and competencies into my work with donors I was otherwise taking for granted.

Special Collections Librarians and Archivists working with the Latino and other communities face a variety of challenges in pursuit of collections. We heed the calls to acquire materials from various underrepresented communities. We join our efforts to those of other institutions. Yet we’ve hardly considered the skills necessary to work within, and with, these communities. As we wrote Latinos in Libraries, Museums, and Archives, we had long conversations about our respective clients, donors, patrons. Most importantly, we recognized the importance of tacit knowledge. We began to tease out long-ago learned behaviors and knowledge so deeply held it was second-nature, and hardly valued. It did not escape me what we were delving into what might be described – perhaps diminished – as “soft skills.” But I know now, through our experience and the research, these competencies are essential, hard-won, even painful insights to our communities. Trust and relationships with our underrepresented communities cannot be taken for granted. Research, identity, and the historical record depend on trust and relationships. While the Latino community is our book’s focus, the suggestions will ring familiar to anyone working with other underrepresented communities.

There is much to be said. A previous post delves into some of that conversation already. What I offer here are some competencies necessary for work with the Latino community, and brief thoughts on their importance.

In Latinos in Libraries, Museums, and Archives, we listed characteristics of a culturally competent professional. I have used all of them in my work as an intermediary between donors and my home institution. My cultural awareness – of myself and others – and my awareness of context and history has informed my actions many times. I am of “the same background” – in my case Mexican – but I see, understand, and appreciate differences and the nuances of the Mexican community. I understand how various factors affect how we communicate and relate to one another. We are varied. We cannot be depicted or represented with the same brush. And who we are affords us assets: ties to others, knowledge of resources, the ability to speak more than one language, and the knowledge of the place and significance of experience found in archival material. By practicing an ethic of caring, librarians and archivists doing the hard work of building trust with the disenfranchised and disregarded learn respect and patience, and the importance of an open mind, an open heart, authenticity and genuine commitment to building trust.

Culturally-competent librarians and archivists alone are not enough. To be successful, our institutions must understand and support commitments to diversifying collections and nurture cultural competency. Institutions must do the important work of self-reflection. What institutional values are in place? Have the parent institution and the library established standards for diversity? Are the institution’s or library’s statements about diversity focused, manageable, and clear? Or are they too broad? Has the institution committed resources to meaningful diversity projects?

Anyone working with donors knows the necessity of managing expectations. When building trust with the Latino community or any other underrepresented communities, we know missteps can take enormous energy and time to repair – or prove irreparable. Our institutions must understand their commitment is paramount. We cannot be looking over our shoulders, wondering about institutional support. And, given past experiences, many of our donors are looking over our shoulders at our institutions, and they are dubious about the depth of commitment. Our knowledge of our own institutions and archival standards and ethics go hand-in-hand with our cultural competencies.

The end to my donor’s story proved something of a fairy tale, as several things came together. Standing there in the stacks and shelves, voice trembling, my donor decided to donate his mother’s papers. His family, learning about the deposit, and with some additional relationship-building, donated still more material. Their collections afforded the opportunity for our inaugural Spanish-language finding aid. At an event to celebrate the launch of a related, bilingual digital exhibit, long-standing family differences were set aside to celebrate an extraordinary legacy and an archive preserved, open for research, and accessible.

At an interview in preparation for the same event, my donor was asked what made him decide to donate the archive to our institution. I was there to translate. He spoke of me, our relationship, and my institution. You were authentic with me, he said. I could see that you were a serious person. And you had the institution behind you to do what needed to be done.

Verónica Reyes-Escudero is Associate Librarian and Borderlands Curator at the University of Arizona Libraries Special Collections.