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Deaccessioning Materials: Methods for Managing Archival Collections

March 5, 2020

The Drexel University Archives regularly reports on newly acquired—as well as existing—collections. But what happens when an organization gets rid of a collection? Why would an archive want to dispose of some of its precious materials?

Matthew Lyons, Drexel University Archivist, explained that all archives accumulate unwanted materials over time. It is routine for archivists to weed collections for duplicates and objects without significant value. But there are a number of other reasons why an organization might look to remove an object that does have value from its collection.

The practice is called deaccessioning—the permanent removal of an object from a collection—and most archives have dedicated deaccessioning and disposal policies to help guide their decisions.

“One of the first things I did when I came to Drexel was to draft a set of deaccessioning guidelines,” Lyons explained. “It is important to have a clear process and standards you can apply consistently to answer the question, ‘why did we (or should we) get rid of an object?’”

One reason to remove an object from a collection, Lyons explained, is that the object is no longer consistent with the organization’s mission or collecting scope. In such cases, the archivist will identify an organization better suited to store and preserve and provide access to the object and will donate (or sometimes sell) the object to them.

In other cases, an archivist may discover that an object in the collection belongs to a government agency.

“It’s called replevin,” Lyons said. “I was in a situation at a past organization where a local government archivist realized we had some of the government record books. The archivist contacted us, and we arranged to deaccession the items back to the original owner.”

Other criteria for deaccessioning includes:

  • Physical condition—Was the object damaged by fire or water? Has it deteriorated beyond repair?

  • Authenticity—Is the object a fake or fraudulent and therefore lacking in historical importance?

  • Ownership—Does the object belong to another organization or person? Was it illegally imported into the collection or is it subject to other legal claims?

Financial reasons may also play a role in the decision to deaccession objects. For example, in 1944, the then-Drexel Institute of Technology leveraged several objects from a collection donated to the University by George C. Childs to raise funds and support the war effort. 

However, it is important to note that some institutions (museums in particular) typically use funds from the sale of an object to cover the expense of preserving existing materials or to purchase new items for a collection, as per the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) code of ethics. 

Regardless of the situation, archivists do not take the decision to deaccession an object or a complete collection lightly and go through painstaking care to ensure the best possible fate for all materials in their care.

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