When former congressman Dan Rostenkowski announced recently that he was giving 800 boxes of his personal papers to Loyola University, two questions remained unanswered for the average Chicagoan: “How can I get my personal papers into somebody’s archives?” and the more open-ended “Eight hundred boxes?”

First, the big, scary number.

“That frankly didn’t strike me,” says Alice Schreyer, curator of special collections at the University of Chicago’s Joseph Regenstein Library. “We have collections in the two- and three-hundred box range. That’s not the norm–I’d say the norm is more 50 to 100. I’m not downing [the size of Rosty’s collection]; it’s a long career.”

The Newberry Library’s curator of rare books Paul Saenger agrees: “I’m surprised it isn’t more than that. He must have terrific amounts of material on that committee.”

Apparently archivists are not easily impressed. Yet 400 of Rosty’s boxes were generated just in the last six years, according to Ellen Waite, Loyola’s vice-president for academic services. And the first 400 boxes have already been processed by an archivist hired when Rostenkowski briefly considered retiring in the late 80s, so anything unnecessary in those boxes has already been dumped. In other words, there was more.

Rosty’s 800 boxes are a valuable gift, but an expensive one for the receiver. “Ooooh, that’s a gift that’s gonna keep on taking,” says one university official who prefers to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. “I’m sure he didn’t give them any money to process that.”

He didn’t. “We hope to raise some funds externally,” says Waite. “But also we have a public history program [that] trains archivists, so we hope to offer some internships internally at Loyola to assist with the processing.”

How much will Rosty’s gift cost Loyola? “We’re talking serious money here,” says Northwestern University archivist Patrick M. Quinn. “The administration of archives is an extremely labor-intensive endeavor. The main expense is the salary of people organizing and describing [the papers]. So it could entail a hell of a lot of staff hours. It’s a relatively minor expense for acid-free folders and boxes.”

But then there’s the question of appropriate storage space. DePaul, for instance, stores its archives in a climate-controlled book-stack area, says Kathryn DeGraff, special collections librarian and archivist. “We don’t even turn the lights on unless we’re actually back there working with the collection,” she explains, because the lights generate heat that can cause paper fibers to deteriorate.

Archivists are leery of putting a price tag on processing a collection, citing variations like staff salary and how well the collection is already organized. Northwestern’s Quinn reluctantly estimated the cost of processing one theoretical box, warning that the figure is “very abstract.” Quinn assumed the box would take two days to process at ten dollars an hour for one staff person, costing $160. So 100 boxes would cost $16,000, and 800 would cost–yes, $128,000. Luckily, Loyola need process only 400 of Rosty’s boxes, costing a mere $64,000.

Now let’s say your highly prized personal papers do not add up to $64,000 worth of archival processing, yet you fervently desire to see them preserved for the future edification of humanity. Where can you take them? We asked various libraries and archives, “If someone came in and dumped a boxful of personal papers on your desk, would you accept them?”

“Maybe, if [the papers] went back to, say, the [great Chicago] fire.”

–Paul Saenger, curator of rare books, Newberry Library

Unless your personal papers cover a family history predating 1920, you can probably forget about finding them a home at the prestigious Newberry Library. According to Saenger, the library takes papers on Chicago family history, dance, book artists, business people, literary figures like Ernest Hemingway, journalists like Ben Hecht, social activists like Clarence Darrow, and socialites like Chauncey McCormick. Even Rostenkowski would have been turned away with his 800 boxes, says Saenger. “Those are the major categories. Rostenkowski would fit into none of them. And I don’t know if he would be able to fund the curating. Someone might come and take back the check.”

Saenger says Rostenkowski is “chronologically out of scope for us. Our collections tend to break off around 1920. We consider him too contemporary. . . . If someone were to offer us Adlai Stevenson’s letters, that would be much more tempting to us–on the grounds that Adlai was a better writer. I hope that’s not too naughty.”

That’s Adlai Stevenson II, says Saenger–the one who was Illinois governor and ran for president in 1952 and ’56. Adlai Stevenson III–the one who was U.S. senator from Illinois and lost the governor’s race in 1986 due to the LaRouchies–is in the same boat as Rostenkowski. “We probably wouldn’t take him,” says Saenger. As for Rosty: “Rostenkowski was a very important person but not known for his style.”

“No. We really have to apply a very stringent standard of what will support the work of students and scholars at the university, and for an international community of scholars as well. We collect things because it’s of enduring value for research.”

–Alice Schreyer, curator of special collections, University of Chicago

You can forget the University of Chicago, even if you’re a professor there. The U. of C. primarily collects papers of people and groups associated with the university and Hyde Park, such as faculty members like Saul Bellow, trustees, some alumni and administrators, and Hyde Park neighborhood groups. But because of the university’s preponderance of distinguished faculty members, even that distinction won’t guarantee your papers a place for eternity.

“We need to be selective,” says Schreyer. “It has to go to a certain point in a person’s career where you have some sense that their contribution to their professions or community is sufficiently distinguished or distinctive so keeping a record of that contribution will be of value for the future.”

“We have to see in what of our areas would those papers fit. Now certainly if it’s someone in Chicago theater, that fits. If we could be so fortunate to have someone in the family of Carl Sandburg or Ben Hecht or Gwendolyn Brooks, of course, because those are Chicago authors. It really depends.”

–J. Ingrid Lesley, chief of special collections and preservation, Chicago Public Library

The Chicago Public Library is more promising, though you may have to settle for donating artifacts rather than papers. Lesley says the library collects papers on the Civil War, book art, Chicago history, neighborhood history, Chicago authors and publishing, and the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. “We’d have to look at the papers and see wherein they dovetail to these things,” she explains.

But she notes that the library has over 10,000 artifacts in its Harold Washington collection alone. Civil War artifacts include a frock coat worn by William Tecumseh Sherman, a saddle and stirrups used by Ulysses S. Grant, and a nightgown and handkerchief from Mary Todd Lincoln.

Would the library accept artifacts from just anybody?

“I don’t like to say we wouldn’t accept just anybody’s artifact,” Lesley says. “We need to meet with the individual, see if it’s an unrestricted gift, see if it fits in with our collection plan. You don’t accept a gift if you can’t see to their long-term preservation.”

Would the library accept just anybody’s nightgown and handkerchief if they provided funding for preservation?

“I wonder who that would be, Sally Rand?” says Lesley. “I’m going to ask the curator. My impulse is to tell you no, because it seems like it’s trivializing the whole thought.”

John P. Chalmers, curator of special collections, was more open-minded about possible nightgown donations, but declined outside funding. “Up front, I’d like to say I’d always like the opportunity to say no. I just enjoy so much people offering things because I like the chance to assess and decide. So I don’t like to give a blanket no. On the other hand, we do have areas where we collect. . . . So when you come and offer me your nightgown, I would first think about how that fits in with our interests and then decide. And we would fund anything it took to do it. [Taking money to preserve somebody’s nightgown] would be kind of like setting up a collection with its own priorities and collecting code, separate from the library’s. There’s lots of people who are looking for a place to put their family papers. Some of them have a lot of money. Some would build a wing. Sure, they’d like a wing named after grandpa.”

“Anyone can [dump a box of papers on the desk], but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll do something with it.”

–Ellen Waite, vice president for academic services, Loyola University Chicago

Waite’s attitude toward unsolicited collections is much friendlier than it may sound in print. She’s happy to look at any offering, but “a lot has to do with who the person is, and also what connection do they have to the institution, and how important do you think the papers are going to be.” Loyola collects papers related to the university, the Catholic church, Samuel Insull (considered by some to be a robber baron, but credited by others with bringing electricity to average Chicagoans), and women who fit into their new Ann Ida Gannon Archives on Women and Leadership.

But Waite adds that Loyola seldom has the type of hypothetical problem we posed. “Most of the time you’re going out looking for papers,” she says. “We have more of a problem with people wanting to give us their National Geographics than their papers.”

“We’d make a determination whether we’d take it.”

–Patrick M. Quinn, university archivist, Northwestern University

The determination would probably be no. “Our primary mission is to document the university,” says Quinn, so most papers are from NU faculty, with some prominent alumni and very few people not related to NU. The university’s special collections department, for instance, has the papers of Evanston banker and Nobel laureate Charles Dawes, vice president under Calvin Coolidge, and the archives themselves boast unusual items like Leopold and Loeb’s ransom note to the parents of Bobby Franks.

NU alumni would have better luck, so long as they confined their collection to Northwestern-related materials like a college diary, photos, and class notes. Even a prominent alum isn’t a shoo-in. “We’d think about it,” Quinn allows. “We have to be somewhat careful about distinguished alums. As you know NU has so many, and if we took all their papers we’d be inundated. As it is we have 25,000 cubic feet already of papers and records, and that’s a lot.”

“Pretty much so. We don’t anticipate that we’d get approached by someone who didn’t have some relation to the institution.”

–Kathryn DeGraff, special collections librarian and archivist, DePaul University

Attention Lincoln Parkers: DePaul may be your best hope. DeGraff said DePaul’s archives are relatively new and small, with about six personal collections, including the papers of Marty Russo, former U.S. congressman from the south side and a DePaul graduate. So far each person relates somehow to DePaul, but DeGraff is willing to take a broad view of those relations.

“If someone walked in off the street with a box of papers, ummm, it would depend,” she says. “If it were someone who lived in the Lincoln Park area, you can be certain that we’d add them to the collection. If it were someone who was associated with DePaul in any way–a neighborhood resident who had records of watching their children grow up in the DePaul area, that would be a wonderful documentation. If it were someone who brought in his records of his activities with nuclear physicists, I might recommend he go to another repository that had other resources that could support that research. We don’t want to build a collection that we can’t support from the academic programs.”

The Russo collection, incidentally, measures only 60 feet, about 25 or 30 boxes worth.

“It strictly depends on the contents.”

–Archie Motley, curator of archives and manuscripts, Chicago Historical Society

Non-Lincoln Parkers may have their best shot at the Chicago Historical Society, which considers itself the only repository “fundamentally devoted” to collecting the city’s history. As such, it doesn’t concentrate on a specific area, says Motley. “We’ve got a mixture of things, political, social, religious, business. We’ve got 15,000 feet of materials, if you can visualize it. You can call that 15 or 20 million items.”

The successful candidate will have papers that are “reflective of life in the city,” says Motley. “They obviously don’t have to be papers of high-ranking officials, great athletes, or whatever. We certainly like those things, but [we want] things that reflect on how people live their everyday lives. So if the letters are good, if the diaries are pretty good, they have substance, that’s the criteria. . . . [The Rostenkowski collection] shows something a lot of people don’t realize, which is that much of collecting is very contemporary. We would take good letters written yesterday if people would give ’em to us.”

Motley offers this advice to anyone shopping their papers around: “If I had my own personal papers, I’d drop in on an archive unexpected and see how they treat their patrons. I’d make my decision along those lines. And if they turned it down, I’d go someplace else.”

“If it’s relevant to what we’re about, sure. And we have that happen all the time.”

–Gretchen Lagana, head of special collections, University of Illinois at Chicago, and curator of the Jane Addams’ Hull-House

UIC specializes in social welfare, Jane Addams and Hull-House, urban history, and the histories of UIC and Chicago, says Lagana. “Our collecting supports the research and instruction programs at the university, so if the material does that and we can justify it, sure,” she says.

The most emphatic answer comes from National Archives spokesperson Jean Fedlock: “No! No! We wouldn’t take anyone’s personal papers, unless they were the president or vice president. Well, they take some congressional papers, papers from White- water, that type of thing. But not just anyone’s papers. They wouldn’t take mine, or anybody’s.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.