Understanding the character of your collection should furnish the basis for choosing the most appropriate archive for its disposition. Three general kinds of materials are to be found in collections such as yours.
· Imprints of the Manufacturers. These are publications issued to promote the sale of vehicles, such as brochures, posters and advertisements, and publications to provide guidance for their maintenance, such as shop manuals, parts books and factory service letters. The first are addressed to the public at large; the second to dealers and independent repairmen. There are also factory magazines for owners, dealers and the industry at large that may contain significant historic data not available elsewhere. Finally there are annual reports sent to stockholders with financial information frequently of great interest to historians.
These publications, in particular sales brochures, have been issued in very large numbers in recent times but the American industry followed this policy even in early days when cars were sold across the country at remote distances and owners were obliged to perform their own maintenance. Such older material is much sought after.
· The Motor Press. Starting in 1895 and continuing to the present day the automotive press supported a series of monthly and bi-weekly trade journals with business and technical news that are a principal source of facts for automotive historians. Surprisingly, early issues of these magazines are often quite difficult to find and therefore valuable. After 1950, with the rise of popular interest in the motor hobby, a large number of enthusiast and club magazines, some of indifferent quality, have been published in enormous numbers. Archives typically may not accept this material since space requirements can be prohibitive.
· Original Documents. Factory records, letters, production logs, technical drawings, vintage photographs and personal items like travel diaries, etc., are the true gold standard of automotive history. Dealer correspondence can also be classified with this group. Of prime rarity because they may exist only in a single copy, they deserve to be preserved with special care. Even a single document may provide a researcher with the key link to understanding the motivation and achievement of those who were the creative force at an important juncture.
In general materials are valuable in relation to their age, scarcity, and condition. Information on foreign manufactured cars and trucks is not common in American archives but will no doubt become more so in the future. Many could improve their collections with additional accessions of these items and may welcome them.
Automotive History Archives
Like their users, automotive archives come in many varieties and choosing the right one will be important to ensuring that your collection will be accessible to those you wish to benefit. Virtually all are closed-stack non-circulating requiring trained staff and therefore dependable financial resources. Many are also certified non-profit institutions so that donations are eligible for Federal tax deduction, but such deductions require valuation by an approved appraiser. The cost for appraisal may be considerable and is always born by the donor.
Outstanding among the general archives are the National Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library and the Automotive Research Collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia. To these must be added the Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan, which although nominally specialized comprises an impressive archive of many aspects of automotive history. These major collections will be interested only in acquisitions of high value or rarity.
Many automotive museums maintain libraries relating to their subject make or historical period but these archives are sometimes either closed to the general public or open only to qualified researchers on a pre-approval basis and with limited hours. They may, however, contain original documents which would make them a good fit for items of related significance. Potential donors should verify that the policies of the institution conform to the goals for their collections. Additionally, many of the one-make car clubs have built up archives of sales and technical literature to provide documentation for authentic restorations but these also may be accessible only to club members. Finally there are university libraries and historical societies holding original company documents and the personal papers of industry leaders.
If this summary seems daunting, it should weighed by the consideration that most archives will reproduce documents on request and at a cost basis. A new and growing trend is to digitize materials and make them available online, allowing the user to download or print copies directly. Among these are Buick Heritage Alliance and the Automotive Research Library of the Horseless Carriage Foundation.
Choosing the Right Partner
You are now faced with the task of identifying one or more institutions that would welcome your gift, whose policies are acceptable to you and whose collections are a good match to your own. Unless you have major and important collection, it is best to choose an archive whose holdings are strong in your area of interest and where staff will have an understanding of how to catalogue and manage your material.
In general, if your collection is primarily manufacturer imprints, you may assume that principal readership will consist of enthusiasts and restorers. For such groups, a library with convenient public access and liberal opening hours is best. Some libraries may ask for an inventory before agreeing to accept your gift. If not, they will insist on permission to dispose of duplicates at auction and use of the funds generated for other purposes. Since their subject matter is the industry as a whole, trade journals will find maximum use in an archive that is not dedicated to a specific make. Originals of contemporary original documents are welcome at most archives but here again you should try to select one that holds like items from the same source. For example, if you own a group of early letters of Ransom Olds, you might donate them to your town’s historical society and they would probably accept them but few researchers would find them there. A better choice would be the R.E. Olds Collection at Michigan State University in Lansing, a resource well known to Olds scholars.
We have not attempted to include a list of libraries and archives that hold automotive collections since there are several hundred and the roster is continually expanding. The Society of Automotive Historians whose mission is the preservation of automotive history recognizes that even those with long-term involvement may not have the specialized knowledge to make these decisions and therefore offers its assistance to potential donors, their families and heirs, or executors. Our members’ areas of expertise are broad and some also have connections within the library field. You may contact us at archives.autohistory.org and we will be pleased to respond.
SAH Archives Committee
Kit Foster, chair