Special Collections Collecting Policy

Statement of Purpose

Special Collections supports the College's teaching and research mission by collecting and preserving original manuscripts, books, and other items relating to American history and culture, with an emphasis on Virginia and the South. Our collections also focus on the College and Williamsburg, the Peninsula/Tidewater area, and the Southside. We promote the use of our collections through outreach to faculty and students across campus, through exhibits, and through a variety of other means. Special Collections makes its collections accessible to a broad spectrum of users, including the William and Mary community (faculty, students, and staff), scholarly researchers from other institutions, K-12 teachers and students, and the general public. The collections are intended primarily for research and teaching, but may also be used for exhibit, publication, and other appropriate purposes.

Additions to the Collections

Special Collections acquires materials through

  • donations, solicited and unsolicited
  • transfer from other College departments and offices
  • purchase
  • exchange with other repositories or collectors

Material accepted into the collection should supplement existing collecting areas or strengthen weak areas that have been identified as areas of interest by this policy.

Responsible Collecting

A responsible level of collecting should be maintained by staying within the constraints of available storage space, ability to process material within a reasonable amount of time, and ability to provide for the care and preservation of, and access to, the material. In addition, consideration must be given to the best placement of materials. Dispersal or fragmentation of a research collection is inconvenient to researchers and does nothing to enhance the reputation of the institution. Special Collections will try to avoid acquiring material known to be primarily collected by another institution, unless there is a strong connection with an existing Special Collections collection or some other compelling reason to accept the material. Donors will be directed to appropriate repositories if their material is not deemed relevant to our collections.

Nature of Ownership

Material will be accepted into the collection by deed of gift, bequest, or other forms of documentation by which full and absolute title is transferred to Swem Library. We reserve the right to determine retention, location, cataloging treatment, and other considerations relating to the use or disposition of the material. Any limitation on use must be approved by the Director of Special Collections at the time of accession into the collection. To the best of our ability, material accepted into the collection will be housed in appropriate containers and stored in secure, climate-controlled areas.
Special Collections will not accept items and collections on “deposit” or “loan” or by any other means whereby Swem Library does not become the owner of the items. Rare exceptions may be made for items placed on permanent deposit or loan. Such deposits or loans must further the mission of Swem Library in a considerable fashion and must be approved by the Dean of University Libraries. Special Collections will not knowingly acquire items that have been stolen or illegally exported.

Subject Areas We Collect

Overall,our collections are much stronger for the Williamsburg area, the Peninsula/Tidewater area, and the Shenandoah Valley than for other parts of the state. Our collections also are stronger for the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than for the twentieth century, although the twentieth-century collections have grown considerably in recent years.

The following ratings have been used below to describe collecting levels:

  • Minimal: no or very few collections
  • Good: some collections, but scattered chronologically, geographically, or thematically
  • Selective: substantial collections, providing relatively comprehensive coverage of one or more sub-sections
  • Representative: substantial collections, providing a representative cross-section from multiple sub-sections of this topic
  • Comprehensive: thorough coverage of most aspects of this topic

1. University Archives

The University Archives is the memory of the College of William and Mary, documenting its history from before the founding in 1693 to the present. The wide variety of materials relating to the College and its people through the years includes official records created in the College's daily operations, personal papers, organizational records, photographs, publications, video and audio recordings, books and articles written by or about past or current William and Mary people, scrapbooks, and artifacts.Current collections: Good through the mid-19th century; selective for the late 19th century and early 20th century; representative to comprehensive from the mid-20th century to the present.

Desired collecting level: Continue to be comprehensive when it comes to College records and representative for student life, faculty, and alumni.

2. United States History and Culture

These collections are intended to support the teaching of classes at William and Mary and the writing of seminar papers or theses.
Current collections: Special Collections has representative collections of periodicals for the U.S. as a whole from the 19th and early 20th centuries, but rare books have focused more on the South. Our manuscript collections traditionally have had minimal material outside of Southern history or wars, one notable exception to this being the papers of Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. In 2008, Special Collections selectively began to acquire manuscripts, ephemera, and other materials for the 19th and 20th century documenting other regions of the country and a wide variety of occupations, religious/ethnic backgrounds, and events, including 20th-century wars and social movements.

Desired collecting level: Representative, to provide support to faculty teaching non-Southern U.S. topics and to support student research projects.

3. Virginia History and Culture

These collections, while used for teaching, are extensive enough to support substantial scholarly research, such as dissertations or monographs.
Current collections: Special Collections has representative collections for Virginia. Particularly strong are the collections of papers of families and individuals in the 19th century from Tidewater to the Shenandoah Valley; business-related papers for the 19th century; the papers of politicians, especially for the 20th century; Williamsburg-related collections; the Civil War; and World War II.

Desired collecting level: Continue to be representative, making a special effort to collect materials related to northern Virginia, African-Americans, women, and labor.

4. Williamsburg and Its Surrounding Area

These collections are intended to comprehensively document the Williamsburg area and its history and culture.
Current collections: Our collections are representative to comprehensive for 19th- and 20th-century Williamsburg, with special strengths in individuals and families, particularly of wealthy whites; businesses; performing arts; religion; social and philanthropic organizations, including women’s organizations; politics; the Civil War; World War II; and Colonial Williamsburg. We have excellent collections of oral histories and photographs.
Desired collecting level: Increase to comprehensive, making a special effort to collect materials in areas where our collections are weaker, such as materials relating to people of color, immigrants, poorer and middle-class whites, visual and graphic arts, manufacturing and industry, labor, recreation and leisure, tourism, transportation and communication, 20th-century wars other than World War II, and politicians of the mid-to-late-20th century.

5. Environment

There is no historical repository in the Chesapeake region that is actively collecting records relating to the use of natural resources, their conservation and related
environmental issues, and the development of public policy in this area. Given the College’s Keck Environmental Lab and Virginia Institute for Marine Science, this is a natural collecting area for Special Collections.
Current collections: Minimal. The majority of environmental material we have is found in the papers of 20th-century politicians, such as A. Willis Robertson, Mills E. Godwin, Jr., and Herbert H. Bateman.

Desired collecting level: Increase to selective, focusing on individuals and private organizations, including businesses.

6. Rare Books

The rare book collections are used for teaching, research, and illustrations and are a vital, growing part of Special Collections.
Current collections: The collection is selective. The general rare book collection focuses mainly on Virginiana but contains books on historic gardening, military history, early American culture, travel accounts, science and medicine. There are five family libraries dating from the 18th and19th centuries. Special Collections owns about two-thirds of the titles in the Francis Nicholson Library, the original library of the College of William and Mary that was destroyed by fire in 1705. Several collections relate to printing and papermaking, and Special Collections also possesses a fine collection of 20th-century private press books. Special Collections also has three collections that are among the largest of their types in the nation: the Ralph H. Wark Collection of books with fore-edge paintings, the Nancy H. Marshall A Visit from St. Nicholas Collection, and the Chapin-Horowitz collection of dog books. The last-named contains scholarly work that dates back to the 16th century as well as current titles.

Desired collecting level: Continue to be selective. In addition to acquiring books relating to subject areas 1-5 outlined above, Special Collections seeks to complete the Francis Nicholson Library and actively collects editions of A Visit from St. Nicholas, dog books, and private press books.

Formats We Collect

Printed or Published Material

  • Atlases (selected and limited)
  • Biographies and autobiographies
  • Books and pamphlets
  • Broadsides
  • College publications
  • Directories
  • Ephemera
  • Maps
  • Memoirs and other primary sources
  • Moving images
  • Newspapers
  • Periodicals
  • Sheet music
  • Sound recordings
  • Student publications

Manuscript and Archival Material

  • Audio recordings
  • Business records
  • College records
  • Correspondence
  • Diaries and similar first-person accounts
  • Maps, surveys, and similar items
  • Organizational records
  • Professional, personal, and family papers

 Audiovisual Material

  • Photographs of all varieties
  • Engravings
  • Lithographs
  • Moving images
  • Music
  • Oral histories
  • Postcards
  • Posters
  • Videos and similar materials

Electronic or Digital Material

Where items originally existed in a non-digital format, we prefer to acquire items in the non-digital format, accepting the digital format as a supplement or, if the original no longer exists, as a substitute. Material that is “born digital” will be considered if it is accessible for research, can be migrated and preserved relatively easily using accepted industry standards and common technologies, and includes appropriate metadata. Materials that are born digital will be added to the College’s institutional repository when appropriate. In addition, Special Collections will accept electronic records from the College for the University Archives.

Materials and Subject Areas We Do Not Collect

  • Large collections unrelated to the College’s academic mission or Swem’s existing holdings
  • Photocopies of materials held in other repositories
  • Photocopies or other reproductions of original material, unless the originals are no longer in existence or are unavailable to the public
  • Images of museum objects
  • Duplicates of material already in Special Collections collections, unless the duplicate is in better condition than Special Collections copy
  • Research notes, unless included as a sub-unit of a collection of related primary material or largely focused on local genealogy
  • Current local, state, and federal government records
  • Autographs (signatures with no historically significant information), in most cases
  • Collections that are primarily in foreign languages

Accession Procedures

All items permanently added to Special Collections will be assigned an accession number, and all paperwork related to the acquisition of the items will be maintained permanently in Special Collections’s files.


The Director of Special Collections and designated Special Collections staff may accept donations of individual manuscripts, photographs, maps, small collections, or other items with an estimated value of $5,000 or less for immediate accession into the collections if they are within our collecting areas. The Director of Special Collections and designated Special Collections staff may reject without consultation with the Dean of University Libraries any items that are not within Special Collections collecting areas, duplicate items already in the collections, are in poor condition, or have little historic interest. The Director of Special Collections and designated Special Collections staff may provisionally accept donations of individual items with an estimated value of more than $5,000 or substantial collections of more than 10 cubic feet of papers, 5 cubic feet of photographs, or equivalent quantities for other formats. The Dean of University Libraries will review on a monthly basis all provisional donations and, after consulting with the director of Special Collections, will decide to accept or reject each donation. The Dean of University Libraries has final authority to accept or reject these donations.

All gifts are tax deductible to the extent allowed by law. Donors must obtain their own tax valuations by qualified appraisers. Special Collections staff may not participate in the appraisal but may provide donors with lists of qualified appraisers. Inclusion on such a list should not be construed as a recommendation by Special Collections staff of a particular appraiser. Donors wishing to have a signed IRS gift documentation form must provide Swem Library with a signed copy of the appraisal as well as the appropriate IRS forms. The Dean of University Libraries will sign on behalf of the College.


The Director of Special Collections also may acquire items valued at up to $10,000 per item or collection, providing that acquisition funds are available. The Dean of University Libraries must approve in advance any purchases costing more than $10,000 as well as any exchanges with other institutions.


Special Collections will consider exchanging items with other historical repositories. Items from Special Collections collections to be exchanged must be de-accessioned according to the procedures outlined in this document. Items accepted from other repositories must fit into Special Collections collecting areas. All exchanges should be equitable. Special Collections will assume all costs for incoming items, while the exchange partner will assume all costs for outgoing items.


The Director of Special Collections and designated Special Collections staff may accept transfers from College departments and offices with no further authorization required.

De-accession Procedures

De-accession is the official removal of items from our collections. Unless deaccession is due to the deterioration or loss of items by theft or other means, deaccessioned items should be disposed of through transfer to or exchange with other historical repositories or by sale at public auction. De-accession does not apply to items removed or discarded in the course of regular archival appraisal and processing of incoming collections, nor does it apply to records transferred to Special Collections for temporary storage until they are scheduled for destruction according to the College’s records
retention schedule.

Criteria for De-accessioning Items from Special Collections

Items may be de-accessioned when

  • they duplicate other material in the collections which are in equally good or better condition
  • they are of marginal use to Special Collections, are outside the scope of our collection policy, or would be more appropriately housed at another institution
  • they are in such poor condition as to be virtually unusable or threaten other collections or staff
  • they are missing, and there is little hope of their being found or recovered


The Director of Special Collections will recommend items for de-accessioning to the Dean of University Libraries. The Dean of University Libraries has final authority over deaccessioning decisions. No item may be de-accessioned without the approval of the Dean of University Libraries, unless its condition poses a threat to other collections or staff. Before proposing items for de-accessioning, the Director of Special Collections will make every effort to resolve issues of uncertain ownership and comply with the intentions of donors and restrictions on collections. No donated item will be de-accessioned within five years of its acquisition, unless its condition poses a threat to other collections or staff.
All sales of de-accessioned items will be by a public and competitive method such as public auction. Alternatively, Special Collections may exchange or transfer items to other historical repositories. Swem Library staff and members of the Swem Board of Directors may not acquire de-accessioned items directly from Special Collections. All profits from the sale of de-accessioned Special Collections items will be used for the benefit of Swem Library.

Adopted February 24, 2009