Gift Agreements

In an archival context, gift agreements are official forms, legally binding in most cases, that transfer the physical ownership of materials from groups or individuals to an institution. Gift agreements should clearly lay out what the donor can expect from the institution and vice versa. 

Anatomy of a Gift Agreement 

The Basics 

  1. A gift agreement clearly identifies the specific parties and the materials involved. Is the donor one individual, Mrs. Pinckney, the estate of Della Reese, or the board of a local historical society? Are we talking about three shoeboxes of letters or a suitcase full of photographs? Is there an inventory available? This part should reflect conversations that a potential donor has had with the institution about the size and scope of their collection. 
  1. A gift agreement certifies that the donor has the authority to give these materials to an archive and if that authority is ever challenged, it will not be arbitrated by the library. For example, if a third party finds out that their content is in a library’s archive without their permission, a gift agreement allows the injured party to talk to the donor about a solution instead of forcing the library to take a side.  

The Library’s Commitments 

  1. The archival institution agrees to keep material physically safe: an archive should have the storage capacity, temperature controls, and staff expertise to be the safest place to preserve historical materials. 
  1. The archival institution agrees to organize the donated material: archivists will arrange and create descriptions of the materials to make sure researchers can find them in the library’s catalog. 
  1. The archival institution agrees to manage access: Sometimes libraries restrict public access to fragile or morally questionable materials. Access is also determined by digitization capacity (meaning: if the institution will be able to scan the originals and manage the digital files) and the rules of the reading room (i.e. the place at the archive where researchers visit to review physical collections). 
  1.  The archival institution agrees to share the material: Libraries are eager to share new acquisitions, and collection items may be featured in exhibitions or promotional materials for the library, often without compensation to the donor. 

The Donor’s Decisions

  1. If the institution determines that some of your donated materials are out of scope for its collection (meaning: the library does not want them because they don’t fit with what it has decided to collect), gift agreements allow donors to decide if they want the library to reach out to them, automatically discard, or automatically return the items. 
  1. If there are pieces of the collection that you would prefer to keep private or restrict until a specific date, you can make that request in the gift agreement. 
  1. Donors can retain or transfer intellectual copyright of their materials. If they transfer their copyright to the library, donors can require in the gift agreement that researchers use content from the collection with the appropriate citation. If copyright is retained by the donor, researchers must contact you and negotiate the terms of use.  
  1. If the library has failed to carry out its obligations, gift agreements allow donors to request to have their collections withdrawn from the archive. 

Additional Perks 

  1. Libraries may agree to let you add to your collection over time, but that isn’t always the case. 
  1. Libraries may agree to provide you with copies or transcriptions of materials from your collection, but the amount and any relevant fees would need to be negotiated. 
  1. Most libraries let donors provide an addendum and are willing to negotiate other special requests related to your materials. 
  1. If you are planning to have a professional appraiser assign your collection a monetary value—and the library has available funds—you may be interested in negotiating a purchasing agreement with the library. Here are more resources for that scenario: 

Additional Resources

Below are two videos from the State Archives of North Carolina describing common policies for use with archival collections and suggestions for promoting your collections. These videos are conveniently segmented by key topics.  



Promoting Your Collections