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August 20, 2015

Historical Society Refuses to Return Woman's Donated Archival Material

Perhaps this story is a warning for all of us - genealogists take note! A noted local historian named Nan Horsfield decided several years ago to donate her huge archive of historical and genealogical documents and research to the Sandyston Historical Society in New Jersey.

Mrs. Horsfield believed that the Society would make all her documents available to the public but that was not the case. In fact the documents are held where there is no public access. So Mrs. Horsfield wants them back.

She has been denied entry into her donated Archives and the floor on which they are housed. She's appealed to both the Sandyston Township Committee and Sandyston Historical Society to no avail. 

It's an interesting, perhaps horrifying, story of misunderstandings and miscommunication and now it has become a case for lawyers.  Personally I think anyone donating years of work to a museum, archive or library needs to have a contract which specifies exactly what is being promised by the repository.

Continue reading at Sandyston woman wants her archives back

Image a screenshot from the New Jersey Herald


Gail Dever said...

You are right, she should have signed a contract before making the donation. Without a contract, the organization can do whatever it wants with the collection, including giving it to someone else. Live and learn. Still the society is beyond foolish not to provide her with access.

Pam Beveridge said...

Recently for sale on eBay: an archive of very early handwritten documents from one of the founders of a town in Maine. The seller's listing noted that they were purchased from a historical society - curl your hair or what!

Janice said...

As an archivist who also does consulting work for small historical societies documents I have seen all kinds of storage and operating conditions. I recommend that you pay a visit to any repository you plan to donate to. Talk to the staff/volunteers and ask for a tour. Are collections stored in a clean, climate-controlled storage area that is off-limits to the public? Are the materials neatly stored in acid-free boxes on metal shelves as opposed to stacked up or even on the floor? How does the staff keep track of what's where? How is public access provided and how soon it will be provided after materials are donated? Do they have researcher policies to prevent theft or damage by researchers? Is a cataloging system used? What kind of finding aids are provided so that potential researchers know what the repository contains? What kind of ongoing support does the institution have? If it is staffed by a couple of aging volunteers, for example, what will happen to the collection when they eventually move on? Does the historical society have a website, and if so, is the information up to date, do all of the links work, and is contact information provided? It's a good sign if they provide searchable indexes and scanned examples on the website. University special collections departments are always a safe bet, because they have trained staff, good storage conditions, and collection processing, indexing, and cataloging procedures in place. Public library special collection departments may also be a good choice. Wherever you decide to donate, you'll be asked to sign over the collection (unless it's a loan, which most institutions don't accept) and the institution retains the rights to it. So be very careful about where you donate!

Diane Gould Hall said...

That's a pretty horrifying situation. It would never occur to me that I wouldn't have access to my own donation. I hope she gets her work back. Good lesson for all of us and thanks for posting.

Kathleen Scarlett O'Hara Naylor said...

It's absolutely smart to have a contract in place ahead of time, and there's certainly been some misunderstanding, but based on the linked article, the historical society is doing everything right. It said she was denied access when she showed up ready to remove the records from the building! Of course she was! The Sandyston Township website ( currently provides contact information for how to make an appointment to research in the collection, including "Provide the names in which you are researching and these files will be gathered. Patte will meet with you at the appointed time in the meeting hall of the Sandyston Township Municipal Building."

So it's not that there's no access to the collection, there's just no access to the physical space where the collection is held. If she's disappointed that the public can't browse the stacks, I doubt she'll be able to find what she's looking for by donating them to a different repository.

Caverly said...

I believe there are many similar situations when descendants inherit the genealogy collection of a recently deceased relative. The collection could be extensive, including many books, research files and contact info. The family may decide to donate all the material to a local genealogy organization or library. Depending on how much material there is some small organization may not be able to find space for all of it. Large organizations or archives would need to review all the material since files such as contact lists would be subject to privacy. Digitizing the material to save space and possibly make it available for others would take time. It could take several years before the donated material has been reviewed and made accessible to others.
P. Caverly

Anonymous said...

For her own reasons ( and never explained to me ), my mother kept all information about her family secret from the world, including me, her only child. In my early 50's, I discovered the Wonderful World of the Genealogical Internet, and discovered a treasure -- a living, breathing cousin who lived nearby. Her research gave me many answers to questions I had wondered about most of my life.

But as sometimes happens, my dear Sweet Cousin had severe medical challenges and she died after only a few short years. Her daughter took possession of her mother's extensive research -- and trashed it all. The partial copy I have is all that remains.

How I wish that my Sweet Cousin had passed her research on to a safe place. Her daughter has refused any communication with me, saying that since I was not a part of her life while she was growing up, she was not interested in knowing me now. This same daughter repeatedly told her mother that she could not understand the fascination for "dead people".

I treasure the short time that we knew each other. Looking at her was like looking I'm a mirror. We had the same interests, same tastes, same kelpie eyes.

Point being -- unfortunately, not everyone values the work involved in family research. Please make sure that YOUR family data is preserved appropriately for the time when you are no longer able to protect them.

As for this lady and her extensive data -- I must concur with previous comments. Once you donate something it belongs to them, and they have ultimate control. A contract specifying terms for availability would be smart.

I am heartsick each time I consider the magnitude of data this selfish girl tossed away. It is not possible for me to reconstruct it. I simply do not have the background nornthe skills required to do so.

Unknown said...

Thanks to all who've expanded on this initial report, I'm learning a lot. Many generations of my Oregon ancestors lived in one county and I've recently offered my own records to the genealogy section of that county's historical society. But I've done the digitizing for them, so what I'm offering them is one copy of each page printed out in a notebook with each page keyed to a numbered series of flashdrives. I bought a bunch of flashdrives and transferred my own work to them. Anyone interested in my family lines could easily access my information to use at home, provided they know how to use a flashdrive/USB stick and print what they need from it. They could also bring their own flashdrives to the room and transfer the material. And staff fulfilling research requests could copy the already-digitized material into emails, thus sending it out faster than by snail mail. Which is something I wish more would do.

I believe that space limitations are something digitization can help solve, and anyone capable of donating materials with a companion set in digitized form should just do so. The archive you select should be able to handle those, if not now then in the near future. That seems inevitable to me. Even materials preservation won't make everything last forever, while digitized copies can be easily recopied before CDs and DVDs degrade.

carl.h.bloss said...

Most bonafide historical or archives organizations use a "Deed of Gift" protocol for accepting contributions. This should have specified a course of action for the group to manage such accounts/ and/ or their rights to dispose of as the organization sees fit. Without knowing what the orginal arrangements were, one can only speculate.

Unknown said...

So sorry that you had this experience. It's not always relatives who do this either - a friend had a cousin who hoarded family history, keepsakes, Bibles, etc. In the last ten years of this woman's life, when my friend became an active family history researcher, this cousin wouldn't even let anyone in her house except her housekeeper. After 6 yrs. of research and expense my friend bundled a copy of all her work plus some beautiful reproductions of family photos and literally tossed them over the fence and the big barking dog onto her hermit cousin's porch, so that this cousin would at least have what my friend was gifting to other members of the family.

When the cousin died, you guessed it, she left the house and everything she owned to the housekeeper. My friend sent a letter politely requesting the opportunity to collect what was useful for genealogy and get it copied locally, the originals to be returned to the housekeeper-now-homeowner. She never heard back and assumes the housekeeper pitched it all along with whatever else she didn't want or couldn't use when she took possession of the place.

This is only slightly worse than the mysterious "box of stuff" some distant cousins in Troy, KS have in a closet. A cousin in MO made a special trip to connect with them and view the material but only because she promised not to remove or copy any of it except to make notes by hand. The person who collected all that family history on the local area had extensive materials including handwritten letters and maps from the late 1800s, and none of it is available online. The descendants told my cousin that in the 1950s their dad/granddad was on a committee to organize the county's first historical and genealogical societies, but had a falling out and swore the committee members would never lay eyes on any of it, hence the decades in a closet. Out of loyalty to his memory the present holders of all that material aren't sharing it either, except for a small portion of it on one afternoon with my very polite and persuasive MO cousin.

Apparently it will all sit in that closet until the next generation gets a chance to do something with it. Fingers crossed that will prove to be a smart donation of some kind.

Anonymous said...

There is no lack of communication.

Go to and read the minutes on the "Township Committee" page from March until present. The Township Committee has been working with the historical society to get the room where the archives are stored accessible to the public. Seems that what started out as a problem with accessiblity has turned into regret on the part of the donator.

There is an agreement as noted in a previous NJ Herald article about the same matter and this lady was responded to by the Township Attorney who stated this was an irrevocable gift.

Both articles seem to be one sided, seems like poor reporting on the part of the newspaper in that area.

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Thank you to whoever sent the link to the Town Minutes. As I'm sure we all know, there are always two sides to every story. Without actually being privy to all the story and background, we really don't know if there is a right and wrong (or wh's in the wrong!)

Very true Carl - we can only make guesses or react emotionally but we don't have all the facts.

P. Caverly, good points, thank you for sharing them

Kathleen, thanks for the link giving the Society's method of accessing records. Another piece of this puzzle comes together

Pam, I don't know how Historical Societies work but that is scary!!

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Gail, it all seems to be very vague re contracts if we can believe the newspaper story.

Janice what great tips you've shared! Thank you for your input!

J W Walter said...

The newspaper article seems to be very one sided. Having worked with historical societies and also a genealogy instructor for the past 40 years this is very common. When an individual makes a "Gift of Deed" the items become the property of the society. The articles and minutes seem to point that the society and the township are doing everything to properly house this collection. The newspaper never mentions any conversation with the historical society. Many organizations and libraries do not allow access to the storage areas. This is common practice and my own experience has been that when the public has access items tend to disappear. I have been to archives in this and other countries where you sit across from the person in charge and they look through the documents and you are not permitted. Television shows such as "Who Do You Think You Are" even film individuals looking at documents that the genealogist has brought to them and not rummaging through archives. Thankfully, Societies do restrict access as I have traveled great distances only to find that archival items have disappeared. We all have to remember that if the newspaper story was not dramatic no one would read it.