Archivists, Donors, and the Grieving Process

MLIS student, Harrington, studies connections between archivists and secondhand stores


As an undergraduate student at LSU, Sara Harrington worked in special collections at Hill Memorial Library. She reveled in items she dubbed amazing, appreciating their rich histories. After graduation, she began working at the Honeymoon Bungalow, a now-closed vintage shop in Mid City Baton Rouge.

The items there, though not as old as those at Hill Memorial, spoke to Harrington of lives lived.

“To me, antiquities are embodiments of memories,” she said. “There is a sense of personal history imbued in these items as artifacts of everyday living.”

That sense of history is deepened when the stories behind the items is known—often intense, interesting, and emotional—but Harrington says it was the items themselves that spurred her graduate research.

Harrington, now pursuing her MLIS at the School of Library & Information Science (SLIS), completed the study as a guided research seminar in archives. The topic was originally suggested to Harrington by Professor Ed Benoit as a way to mesh her background in psychology with an archival theme.

After presenting at a research seminar over the summer, Harrington’s work was featured by the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the largest and oldest archivist association in North America.

In a blog post, Harrington wrote about her research experience, “It allowed me to explore the future through the lens of the past—I could use my experiences with grieving clients and my education in psychology to examine an interesting topic that could prove to be highly significant.”

Though working with bereaved donors is a common experience for many archivists, Harrington’s research shows that many archivists are not trained or prepared to deal with such circumstances. Her study included surveying archivists about what methods they employ to aid grieving donors, some of which are empathetic listening and follow-ups about the collection with handwritten notes or other tokens of appreciation.

Of the 48 archivists surveyed for the study, only three (approximately six percent) had never worked with a bereaved donor before.  Despite the frequency of interactions with grieving donors, Harrington said it is clearly not prioritized in the training and education of archivists. She reported findings such as 32 percent of surveyed archivists said they had no training or education to prepare them for relations with bereaved donors.

“Because of my previous experiences with grieving donors, I had some idea of what kinds of results I would see,” Harrington said. “My biggest takeaway from the results is how unpredictable grief can be.  From both my background research into grief, and the results of the survey itself, it became clear that grief is not the linear, predictable process that it is sometimes depicted to be.”

Instead, Harrington found that grief is an iterative, fluctuating process with no patterns or time limits. A grieving person may experience joy, fear, anger, and other emotions all in the course of a month, week, or even a day.

Harrington hopes to continue her research about the relationship between archivists and grieving donors if presented the opportunity, because it is a highly under-examined topic in the field of library and information science. Continued research on the topic would raise awareness of this aspect of archival work, as well as help lay the foundation for the addition of donor relations as an integral part of an education in archives.

“Although perfection of this approach will only come with experience, I think it is important that those training to be archivists should be aware and prepared for the unpredictable and challenging work of communicating with people experiencing grief,” she said.

Read the full Issues and Advocacy blog post on Harrington’s research. 

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The College of Human Sciences & Education (CHSE) is a nationally accredited division of Louisiana State University. The College is comprised of the School of Education, the School of Leadership and Human Resource Development, the School of Kinesiology, the School of Library and Information Science, the School of Social Work, and the University Laboratory School. These combined schools offer 8 undergraduate degree programs and 18 graduate programs, enrolling more than 1,900 undergraduate and 977 graduate students. The College is committed to achieving the highest standards in teaching, research, and service and is continually working to improve its programs.

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