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Appraising legislator’s papers

Periodically I’ll receive a call from a legislator’s office to begin the conversation of what of their legislative records might be appropriate for an archives to take in. I often try to dodge providing lists, because any list I might provide should be regarded not as prescriptive (i.e. throw everything else out) but as a starting point. Any given legislator is going to have a variety of records in his or her office and I’d hate to have us lose something for future researchers just because I haven’t thought of it yet.

To give you a little context, we’re here to provide unique, one-of-a-kind materials to researchers who need them. And archival records tend to be best understood when kept in their original context: knowing something about who created them and why can often provide significant illumination to any single document. This is especially important with legislators: who were they? What were their interests? Who are the people they represented? Often legislators represent–either themselves or in their position as a legislator–groups that are underdocumented elsewhere in society. Their files may contain documentation of societal issues that simply aren’t in the record elsewhere.

Having said that, there are a few things we generally won’t take in. And those mainly fall within the definition of materials that can be found elsewhere. I don’t necessarily suggest staffers spend the time to weed individual documents or reports out from other, larger files, but if they’re in a giant run somewhere, generally such non-unique items would not be a high priority for us. Published statutes. Copies of finalized bills. Clippings files from local newspapers who have their archives online or available through databases—at least for the time frame of the clippings. We also can’t really take in things that can’t be made public to researchers. If they need to remain confidential, it’s difficult for us (sometimes legally difficult) to act as a gatekeeper for sensitive records so it’s simpler if those just do not come to us.

But more importantly, what do we want? To a great extent, that’s defined by what our researchers want. We’re in a research institution, so we’re looking for unique materials with potential for research use. In the case of legislative offices, that usually includes bill files, including the background research materials that go with them. Even of bills that weren’t passed. Speeches, whether as written, recordings of, or as transcribed. Correspondence files, including constituent correspondence, if that can be made public. Subject files. Campaign records, perhaps not copies of the individual donor checks, but certainly reports, campaign memorabilia, and so forth–these are often our most used sections of legislative collections. Photographs.

All of the above, whether in paper or in electronic. Yes, we’ll take in email, word documents. Yes, we’ll take in video, audio.

Plaques and awards are a common question. They’re a bit problematic because they tend to take up a large amount of space and are heavy yet have very limited research utility. What we’ve often done of late is to get good digital photographs of the object and keep those in lieu of the original. Unless it’s particularly unusual or different.

But many of our legislator’s collections also go beyond their legislative collections. The collections may include materials relating to organizations to which they belong, their personal papers and photographs, and so forth. These materials can also help develop that bigger picture and context researchers need as they’re working with legislative papers. But as for the legislative materials themselves? I hope this gives you a good start. If you’d like to see what we have in other legislator’s collections, we have a guide to legislative and legislator’s collections that we hold.

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