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How to Donate Items to the Wisconsin Historical Society | Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Donating an Item or Collection

How to Donate Items to the Wisconsin Historical Society | Wisconsin Historical Society

The Society maintains one of the best collections in the United States of records documenting not only the history of Wisconsin, which is our primary mission, but also major national events and movements which have shaped the twentieth century.

The Archives of the Society is responsible for preserving letters, diaries, photographs and other records which reflect our heritage in all its variety. Our collections document all aspects of Wisconsin's past. We collect historical records of average families and famous people, of small social organizations and political parties, of labor unions and businesses. On a national level, the Wisconsin Historical Society collects historical records documenting labor organizations, mass communications and social action.

If you think that you have original records that fall into these categories you may want to contact the Archives about making a donation. To learn more, please select from the list below.

Accessing Donated Collections
Donating a Collection
Talking to an Archivist — What to Expect
Tax Information
What Happens to Collections After They Arrive at the Society?

Accessing Donated Collections

Researchers may use collections in our Archives Research Room, which is open Monday through Friday, 8 am - 5 pm and Saturday, 9 am - 4 pm. Telephone, letter, or email inquiries are also welcome.

All collections are kept in closed stacks, to which only staff have access. Restricted materials are well labeled and are only made available to those with proper permission. Archivists are always available to assist researchers. This system allows us to ensure the safety of the collections and still maintain our reputation as one of the friendliest archives in the country.


When a person writes a letter or diary, he or she possesses rights to those words and the ideas they reflect comparable to the rights of an author who has just written a book. An organization may possess similar rights. Those rights extend only to the material the donor actually created. For example, if you are contemplating donating a collection consisting of carbon copies of letters you wrote to a friend and letters that friend wrote to you, you have copyright interest in your letters but not those of your friend. You may donate the physical property represented by both sets of letters because they are in your possession. You may also donate or withhold the copyright interest you have in your own letters.

In most cases, the users of your letters will be scholars, and there will be little economic benefit to retaining copyright to a collection. Generally, the Wisconsin Historical Society asks a donor to donate both the physical property and any copyright interests the donor may have to the collection. Having clear title makes it easier for Society staff to provide access and for scholars to use a collection. Nonetheless, should you choose to retain copyright interest, you may do so by using a standard paragraph written for that purpose. That paragraph reads:

The donor retains copyright until _________________ (fill in with a specific day, month and year on which the restriction will terminate), at which time copyright and renewal rights to the donated materials are granted to the Society. The Society reserves the right at any time to microfilm or otherwise duplicate these materials as required for preservation or exhibition.

The information above is not provided as legal advice. Should you be concerned about your legal rights prior to donating a collection, please contact your attorney.

Donating a Collection

All donors are asked to sign a deed of gift. In most cases, the deed transfers to the Wisconsin Historical Society all rights the donor may possess to the collection. The deed provides space for a description of the donated material and space for a statement of restrictions on the collection.

The donor may restrict a collection. In some cases, a collection may contain historically important materials that are also sensitive. Although such situations are rare, the donor may wish to consider a restriction that temporarily limits access or closes the collection. Because our ultimate goal is to make information available for research use, restrictions require a specific sunset date when they will lapse.

The donor may retain copyright. On rare occasions the donor may possess copyright interests in a collection. This is best determined by consulting an attorney. If you do possess copyright interest, you may wish to retain such interest when you sign the deed of gift. Retention of copyright requires a specific sunset date when all retained rights will be transferred to the Society.

When you donate a collection an archivist will discuss the most appropriate method of transporting the collection to the Society. In many cases, the archivist will pack and transport the collection. When this is not possible, especially for collections donated from outside Wisconsin, the archivist may want to make arrangements for using UPS or a commercial shipper to transport the collection.


Many organizations and personal donors pack and prepare records for shipment. When an organization prepares a box-level inventory, it often weeds miscellaneous and routine financial records and clipping files prior to shipment. This allows the organization to perform this work according to their own schedule and storage needs, rather than being limited by the schedule of the Archives Division. If you have any questions about preparation of records for shipment, please contact the archivist with whom you are working.

  • Weeding: Remove newspaper clippings, magazine articles, and miscellaneous financial records. (You do not have to search for every clipping. Do not send any files or boxes composed entirely of clippings and articles). This is fairly easy to accomplish by looking at the tops of the files.
  • Packing order: The material in the boxes should be in sequential order. For example, if you have six file cabinets of materials: Box 1 should contain records from Cabinet 1, drawer 1; Box 2 should contain the remainder of drawer 1 and the beginning of drawer 2, and so on. The last drawer of Cabinet 6 should be in the last box in the numerical sequence.
  • Inventory: We would greatly appreciate a simple inventory. Without this inventory we (and researchers) will not know how your files were arranged and to what series a file or set of documents belong. The inventory can be as simple as:

Box 1: Director's files,1982-92
Box 2: Director's files,1982-92 (continued)
Box 3: Board of director's files, meeting minutes and agendas, 1972-86
Box 4: Development director campaign files, 1975-85


  • Company: Anything larger than a small box should be sent via UPS and UPS only.
  • Notification: Do not send anything larger than a small box without calling us first. This will ensure that we are prepared for its arrival. Please let us know at this time the general contents of the shipment.
  • Reimbursement: We generally ask donors to pay for shipping, which may be tax deductible. We will review all requests for reimbursement of shipping on a case by case basis. Reimbursement requires the donor to have signed a deed and to promptly provide us with the original shipping receipts. Payment usually occurs within 8 weeks of submission of receipts. (Unfortunately we cannot pay for shipping via UPS before it occurs, nor can we accept C.O.D. shipments).

Talking to an Archivist — What to Expect

Your first contact with an archivist may be the result of your desire to donate material, or because the archivist has identified you, your family, or your organization as having material of potential historical value. In either case, the archivist will begin by asking questions designed to gather information about you, your family, your organization or your business and about the records you may have. All of this information will help the archivist determine if the collection is appropriate for the Wisconsin Historical Society. Should you decide to donate a collection the information will also assist in organizing and cataloging the material.

When the archivist visits he/she will continue to gather information about the materials being considered for donation. We try to make on-site visits whenever possible so the archivist can inspect the collection. Any preparations you can make for the visit, such as preparing an inventory, will provide the archivist with valuable assistance. If the records are those of an organization, an inventory or filing guide is particularly useful to us.

The Society accepts donations as little as a single item and as large as dozens of boxes. Material need not be organized, old, nor related to a famous person or event. Generally, we are interested in a coherent body of material rather than individual items. Although the Society may not accept everything you offer we welcome the opportunity to review any relevant material.

Tax Information

We are a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. If you wish to take a tax deduction for the value of the donation and/or for paying for shipping to the Society, consult your accountant and/or tax attorney as soon as possible.

By federal law, the Society (like any archives) cannot give advice on these matters and cannot make appraisals. Archival appraisers are available in many major metropolitan areas.

The Society of American Archivists publishes a list of appraisers in its Directory of Consultants. It is available from them by writing to:

600 S. Federal Suite 504
Chicago, IL 60605.

The relevant IRS publications are: Publication 561, Determining the Value of Donated Property; Publication 526, Charitable Contributions; and Instructions for and Form 8283, Noncash Charitable Contributions. The telephone number to request these publications and forms is 1-800-TAX-FORM.

What Happens to Collections After They Arrive at the Society?

When a collection arrives, we do the initial work necessary to make the collection accessible and to identify major conservation problems. This is called accessioning. If the records come with an inventory and are in good order, this is a relatively swift process. If the collection is in disarray or requires an inventory, one is created at this stage, and we identify conservation problems. As the final step in the accessioning process, we catalog the collection. Most accessioning is performed within six to twelve weeks of arrival, dependent upon size, extant organization and collection complexity. As soon as accessioning is complete, researchers may use the records in accordance with the deed of gift.

If the collection is in good order and a high quality inventory exists, little further work may be done on the collection. If the collection would benefit from better organization or requires special care before it can be used, it will be placed into the processing queue.

Learn More

Have Questions?

Contact our Archives staff at 608-264-6460 or by email below: