Where Do You Want Your Surveying Records to Go When You Die?

The first response heard to this question might sound something like this, "When I die I want my surveying records to go … hmmm … well, I guess that I would want my family to somehow receive benefit from them … perhaps by having pre-arranged for their sale after my death."
After a personal reminder of our temporal nature, my wife and I recently prepared a will. One of our attorney's requests was to prepare a list of any items that we wanted distributed in a particular fashion. Immediately, my wife began to assign her favorite quilts to her sisters. I, on the other hand, began to consider how little attention, if any, has been given to the distribution of surveying records after the death of the surveyor.
For nearly two years I have had the rare privilege of working on the preservation of three surveyors' records, referred to as the Dodge Papers. The Dodge Papers are a collection of documents consisting of the maps, sketches, and what was referred to as "minutes" from three Maine surveyors whose work spanned much of the nineteenth century. The three surveyors contributing to this remarkable collection were Reuben Dodge (who lived 1770-1831), Addison Dodge, and R.G.W. Dodge, all of whom lived in the Blue Hill area and worked across much of Hancock County and occasionally in portions of Washington County. Unfortunately, the surveying community had to wait 170 years after Reuben's death before getting a glimpse of his incredible maps or field notes. I have been responsible for scanning these records after they have endured careful archival procedures. The resulting 1,300 high-resolution images are now available to the general public. Copies of the first CD have been sent to the Maine State Archives, the Special Collections of the Fogler Library at the University of Maine in Orono, the Ellsworth Public Library in my hometown, and many other interested individuals. These survey records date from the late 1790s through the 1880s. They had been stored in an old steamer chest that had been handed down to family members over the years. The maps and notes of the father and his two sons however, had never been available to the community until the present.

Acquisition of Surveying Records
At some point in a surveyor's career, he or she will be faced with the potential acquisition of the surveying records of another surveyor. That acquisition may be shrewdly evaluated as a business decision. Perhaps this potential acquisition is being offered by the surveyor who is wishing to retire, or by the deceased surveyor's spouse. In any event, a value will be assessed by both the seller and the buyer, a price offered, and eventually a sale made. What if those records were sold (or given) to the public? What if the records were available to the surveying community? This is exactly what has taken place with the Dodge Papers.
Many other questions begin to arise when considering the question, "Where do you want your surveying records to go when you die?" For example, regardless of whether the administrator of my estate conveys the records to a private surveying company or to a community archive, what are the legal and ethical issues awaiting both the buyer and the seller? One of the more spine-chilling tales on this subject is that of a widow's trip to the dump to dispose of her husband's surveying records. She was driven by the fear of endless lawsuits that she had inherited upon his passing. Would a simple waiver have saved that information from oblivion? Does the buyer of the records begin to act like the widow, fearful that by acquiring another's records they have somehow increased their risk of litigation? What efforts should be considered in order to eliminate that possible risk?
Legal issues aside, what about the ethical considerations? The question, "Where do you want your surveying records to go when you die?," at some point raises questions such as, "Even though that big firm up north offered the most money, shouldn't the records stay closer (geographically) to where the work was performed?" or "Do the long term interests of the community outweigh the business interests of one company?"
Then there are the fiscal type issues associated with the voluminous surveying records. What kind of maintenance issues are created if considering a community archive? How will the perpetual care of the surveying records be financed if contained in a community archive? Parsing through the many questions surrounding the conveyance of surveying records to a private entity or to a community archive, we are still left with the question, "Where do you want your surveying records to go when you die?" Each of us will arrive at our own conclusions according to our own unique set of circumstances, but hopefully only after this question has engendered discussion and exploration as toss the development of a community archive.

V. Kelly Bellis, president of Horizon Surveying Co., Inc. of Ellsworth, Maine and member of the Maine Society of Land Surveyors, has been working on the preservation of the Dodge Papers since June 1998.

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