Preserving History: Donating Family Photos and Documents

donating family photos and documents

Preserving History: Donating Family Photos and Documents

Our clients are proud of their family histories. They should be, based on the stories we’ve heard. Happy, sad, funny, and scary–we’ve enjoyed learning about their families and getting an exciting glimpse into history. That’s why it breaks our hearts to hear some clients tell us, “I’m the last one who cares. No one else is interested in this stuff.” They are convinced no relative will want their family photos and documents.

“No, that’s not true,” we say because we believe it. “Someone will want it. Keep asking. The interest in genealogy skips a generation.” (In our experience, this is 100% true.)

If they aren’t convinced or know their family isn’t interested, we suggest donating family photos and documents. Donations are a great way to preserve your family history for generations.

Interested? Let’s take a look. 

Where to Start?

First, it’s important to know that donating to an institution is not the same as donating a used chair to a thrift store. You can’t just drive up and drop off a blender without a lid. This process takes planning and coordination between you and the foundation. You need to find an organization that specializes in and collects the history you want to share.

“Never send items to an institution without first contacting their collections team,” says Maggi Marzolf, archives manager at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. “You lose all opportunity to tell your stories about an item and create additional relevant historical context to the item. We often receive envelopes of photos with no descriptions, no names, and no way to send the required paperwork that we need signed that says we have the right to hold those items in our collections.”

In fact, you’ll want to collaborate with the institution because they can help you with the most daunting part–organizing. The Society of American Archivists (SAA) advises you to wait to organize until after you contact an archivist “because the research value of records may be diminished if items are removed or if the records are rearranged.” It may seem helpful to jump right in and start throwing seemingly irrelevant items away or organizing pieces by date, but this can interfere with the integrity of your collection. The original filing system may be important to future researchers.

Even the smallest document may be a welcome addition to any collection. Letters, diaries, speeches, photos, brochures, meeting minutes, and more could be extremely useful for research. SAA includes a comprehensive list in their guide, “Donating Your Personal or Family Records to a Repository.” Let the archivist decide what is valuable to their collection.

What Can You Expect?

“You can expect to answer a lot of questions about your donation,” advises Marzolf. “Here at the BMI, we ask for donor information, the age of the offered materials, the sizes, names of an original owner, and most importantly, how you acquired the materials. Provenance is the history of an artifact, which includes a chain of ownership and the context in which it was created or used. Provenance contributes to the item’s relevancy and establishes a concrete link between the item and the historical record.”

This information goes into the archives and becomes a part of the collection. If accepted, your “your family history becomes a part of your community’s collective memory.” It will be available to interested researchers, students, community members, and more. It is all very exciting. However, before you donate family photos and documents, you’ll want to understand the institution’s policies.

Many archives will not accept items on loan. Once they are gifted, it becomes a part of the archives. You’ll have limited access to the records, and you may be asked to sign over all copyright to the institution. Talk to the archivist to learn about their policies before you complete your gift. Our clients bring in original photographs and documents to duplicate before they are donated. This way, they’ll have a copy for their records to enjoy or share.

Will My Item Be on Display?

Not always. Many organizations receive more pieces than they are able to display in person. This is why you hear about special displays and traveling exhibits. They are shown publicly for a limited period of time before heading back to the archives. However, they may be shown online. Archivists will digitize or photograph pieces for an online database where you can view the item along with the description.

“We cannot guarantee that the object will be on display. Our purpose is to preserve materials so that they contribute to the historical record as long as the items exist,” says Marzolf. “It takes years and significant funding to fully develop an exhibit, from brainstorming the idea to the grand opening. We also have to consider whether objects or materials require special treatment to be on display outside our secure and temperature controlled storage rooms.”

If you’re interested in seeing your object on display, talk to the archivist to find out how you can help build a display. You may be able to frame a piece yourself, restore an image, or raise funds for a new exhibit. Monetary donations can be just as important as a physical donation.

Donating Family Photos and Documents

There are many benefits in gifting your family history. Your donation will provide valuable historical references and insights. Your items will become part of a precious collection that will be cared for and live on for years to come. You also may be eligible for a tax deduction. The SAA advises you to consult your accountant and get an appraisal from a professional before completing your gift. It is usually your responsibility to gather all of that information on your own.

Your family history matters. Churches, historical societies, museums, schools–these institutions and more are growing their valuable collections thanks to generous donors. Most people know historical facts from textbooks, newspapers, and sites like Wikipedia. Donating family photos and documents provides intimate insights and stories that add a personal touch–the kind that can’t be found in an encyclopedia–to history. You won’t be the last person to care about your family history.

Interested in preserving and storing your photos and documents? Check out our article, Getting Started: Photo Storage.


Thank you, Maggi Marzolf, archives manager at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, for her helpful interview and insights. A special thanks to Ida E. Jones, PhD, associate director of special collections & university archivist at the Earl S. Richardson Library at Morgan State University for sending us the SAA guide, “Donating Your Personal or Family Records to a Repository.”