- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2009

It’s one thing for college students to glean information online or from a textbook. It’s quite another to read or even hold actual material that played a part in history. Students at the University of Denver soon will be able to check out actual documents linked to the assassination plot against Adolf Hitler as well as papers associated with the Nuremberg trials, thanks to a just-donated trove of materials from California resident Andrea Sears-Van Nest.

D.C.-area universities have long benefited from similar gifts. Donating material to respected universities to enhance their educational mission is another way people can give back and protect priceless possessions at the same time.

Melissa McAfee, head of the Special Collections & Archives at George Mason University Libraries, says one of the most treasured collections at the Fairfax-based university is the Breen collection.

Robert Breen, executive director of the American National Theatre and Academy, gave George Mason 70 open-reel tapes, including songs from famed composer Harold Arlen (“Over the Rainbow,” “That Old Black Magic”).

Ms. McAfee says the reels include rehearsals that could be of vital interest to more than just music researchers.

“We want our collection to be not only used by scholars and faculty but students,” Ms. McAfee says.

GMU, which also houses the Roy Rosenzweig papers, which feature a rare photograph of President Franklin D. Roosevelt using his cane and leg braces, is trying to expand the Breen collection’s capabilities. The university has committed $10,000 toward digitizing the collection into MP3 files.

American University librarian Bill Mayer says universities often are the beneficiaries of these donations for personal and practical reasons.

“So much of this work is based in trust and relationships, and reputation,” Mr. Mayer says. “Some donors might have an existing connection to the university; either they went there or had some affinity for the institution.”

Also, while museums offer a viable option for those desiring to donate historical materials, universities give donors the sense that their material will be actively engaged by new students every four years.

Meredith Radford, director of the Special Collections Research Center at George Washington University’s Gelman Library, says it’s common for universities to become the caretakers of such document collections.

The donors often value both culture and education, Mrs. Radford says, adding that GWU recently received the National Education Association’s records.

Such collections enable professors to offer unique lecture opportunities, beef up research papers and give students valuable primary source material to study.

“You’re seeing the original documents,” Mrs. Radford says.

Another possible donation for GWU involves a current student whose father served as a photographer during the Vietnam War. Some of his photographs, which include landscapes of the war-torn country and soldiers in action, could be added soon to the university’s collection.

Material occasionally arrives with some knotty strings attached.

“Sometimes we don’t have enough funding to make [the collections] available quickly,” Mrs. Radford says. In other situations, the donors will leave out bits of information that could help broaden the context of the material.

Thomas Minar, vice president of development and alumni relations for American University, adds it isn’t cheap for a university to analyze and validate some of the donated goods. And that doesn’t take into account fees for storage and protection.

“It’s a burden placed on the institution,” Mr. Minar says, adding that occasionally a university might not be able to accept a gift for those reasons.

Some donated collections can be tightly focused, leaving university professors to flesh out the big picture for fellow scholars and students, he says.

Mrs. Sears-Van Nest didn’t want her family’s collection to be forgotten.

“I pictured Indiana Jones and the box getting lost in that warehouse,” she says, recalling the final scene of the 1981 film “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Her family already had strong ties to the University of Denver — her father studied there, and her mother taught dance there. Plus, she figured the material might be too overwhelming for her family.

“It’s quite a responsibility to pass on to your children. I knew I didn’t want to put the whole burden on my kids,” Mrs. Sears-Van Nest says.

Her advice to anyone looking to donate material to a university or other source is simple.

“Find an organization that brings true meaning to your heart, or your parents’ heart, whatever speaks to you emotionally,” she says.

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