For me, the best archival gifts are documents which serve as reminders that you are dealing with real, complex people who are more than a public persona. Take Nathaniel Emerson (1839-1915), for example, born in Hawai‘i to American parents, and best remembered as a man of science, having published significant ethnological accounts of the Native Hawaiian people. Perusing his personal papers at the Huntington Library in California, however, we find him drafting overblown romantic short stories and poetry, thematising lost love, alienation, and his island upbringing. Emerson attempted, unsuccessfully, to have some of this work published, and it appears he suffered on occasion from writer’s block, as evidenced by an attempt at a limerick abandoned after just two lines.
I found a sadder example of such archival richness among the personal papers of Charles Brent (1862-1929) at the Library of Congress. Brent was the first American Episcopal missionary bishop to the Philippines from 1902, and well-known as a leading figure in the ecumenical movement and the global anti-opium campaign. Before his work in the Philippines began, Brent and his sweetheart Mary had to decide whether to marry and travel together, or to break off their relationship. Choosing the latter option, Brent returned to his diaries and crossed out every single reference to Mary and his life with her. Such unwitting testimony allows the historian to get to know their historical actors, and to build up a much richer picture than from published works alone.
Image: Nathaniel Bright Emerson. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nathaniel_Bright_Emerson.jpg.