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.