Many Members of Congress choose to donate their personal papers to a state university or their alma mater. This historical legacy – including constituent correspondence, legislative research, and personal notes – could provide important insights for future policymakers and the public.
What Members and their staff might not realize is that the accepting repository has to conduct at least a preliminary review of the material before they can allow researchers access and sadly, most repositories already have a backlog of donations awaiting attention. Collections that are donated in a disorganized condition run the risk of sitting on a shelf, unused for many years.
We have seen the process from both sides, having provided archival services to more than forty congressional offices – many for office close-out services when material is being packed and inventoried for donation. We have also helped accepting repositories receive donations of congressional papers.
To find out how we could improve the transfer of congressional papers, we contacted congressional repositories directly to gain a sense of their most pressing needs – what congressional records they wished to acquire, their preferred formats, and their advice for potential donors.
We sent an online survey to nearly 250 repositories that were known to contain congressional collections; we received a response rate of 19 percent with 47 repositories responding to the survey. Here is an overview of what repositories would like donors to know:
Repositories are interested in constituent correspondence
More than two-thirds of our survey respondents would like to receive constituent correspondence, but format preferences varied: many wished to have the files displayed in their native software; others wanted to have the files exported to a more readily-available database or PDF format. A few wished copies in both options. Repositories are grappling with the cost/benefits of displaying the material exactly as it was originally presented (in native systems like Intranet Quorum – IQ) versus offering material in the ideal format to sustain long-term access (such as in a SQL database). Given the diversity of response, congressional offices should confirm with their accepting repository if constituent correspondence is desired and if so, what format is preferred.
Not all record types have equal historical value
Certain record types were mentioned repeatedly as having low historical value by congressional repositories. Prominent examples include flag requests, military academy recommendations, constituent casework, as well as memorabilia. The reasons why repositories prefer not to accession these materials vary, ranged from the high frequency of personally identifiable information (PII) to being routine in nature and not having much research value. Some repositories suggested sampling some collection materials, especially those that can potentially take up a lot of space such as congressional memorabilia.
Repositories want to hear from congressional offices early in the process
Finally, we asked the repositories what advice they would offer to Members of Congress. They noted that providing basic administrative information such as organizational hierarchies; lists of staffers including dates of service and responsibilities; and descriptions of office acronyms can be invaluable for archivists processing congressional collections. Repositories also expressed a desire to have at least a preliminary inventory of the records if one is available. Even a basic spreadsheet listing the boxes donated with a general description of the contents and an approximate date range will greatly help archivists understand the scope of the collection.
By far, the most emphatic advice (sometimes expressed in ALL CAPS) is that repositories would like to hear from a Member of Congress as soon as a decision is made to donate records. That way, both parties can have as much time as possible to coordinate how to organize this material for future access.
All input from congressional repositories was extremely helpful and will be used in our future discussions with congressional offices and receiving repositories. As archivists ourselves, we are committed to facilitating effective coordination between both donating Members of Congress and receiving repositories allowing appropriate and timely access to these valuable additions to the American story.