All This Old Family History

For several days now, I’ve seen several families discussing what to do with their newly rediscovered collection of Boy Scout Handbooks. This speaks to a larger trend of discovery, reminiscence, and then wanting to move on. These families all experience great joy in revisiting these tangible links to the past but after paging through them . . . they were ready to move on and retire these pieces of history.

Purging and decluttering are complex procedures when one is a trained archivist. You find yourself balancing your need and desire to reduce the undesired excesses of your life with the professional urgency and constant advocacy to save history, not discard it.

Happily, it is possible to maintain that delicate balancing act, to rid your house and your life of these physical and metaphorical weights but also to help save history for the future.

For those families with old Scouts Handbooks, older relatives who served on local, regional, or state governments, or extensive photographic collections documenting their family’s history in a particular region . . . have you considered donating your materials to an archival repository?

It sounds stuffy, doesn’t it? Archival Repository.

An Archival Repository is merely a shorthand way of referring to a home for historic materials. Archives appear in many, many walks of life, and are therefore represented by the catch-all term “Archival Repository”. You will find Archives in:

  • All levels of government
  • Colleges & universities
  • Museums
  • Grade schools
  • History societies (regional and topical)
  • Public libraries
  • Private sector companies
  • Non-profits

If you  have all of your grandfather’s old uniforms, a stack of old scouting handbooks, or a mountain of photographs from the turn of the century, there’s probably an archive out there somewhere that would be very happy to accept these materials.

The Society of American Archivists, the oldest professional organization for archivists in North America, has several wonderful guides all about donating your personal or family collections, including what to donate, how to find an archives to donate to, and what the general procedure should be.

I would heartily encourage families to take a moment when tidying up to consider the historical value of your collection. Tangible links to our history exist only if we do the work now to save it.

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Archives: Where History Ends Up

Ah, Archives. It’s where history ends up. My profession is a misunderstood one. The very word, “Archives”, conjures up images of dusty boxes and books, bizarre organizational schemes created by strange looking people, and nasty, smelly basements.

Mr. Freeze costume from "Batman and Robin"
Mr. Freeze costume from “Batman and Robin”

The truth, happily, is far from that stereotype, and any resemblance to it is usually the result of misplaced administrative priorities on the part of the non-archivists. Modern archives follow standards for cleanliness and environmental control. And the rulers of these domains are Archivists such as myself.

We are the guardians of history. We seek out history as it’s happening and lovingly store it away for use in the future. We take the steps now to ensure that the world we live in is saved for future generations — we preserve the cultural heritage of our society.

The modern Archivist has a Masters degree in Library and/or Information Science (there’s a terminology switch in the works). We’ve studied more than just the Dewey Decimal system — we’ve explored the Information Seeking behaviors of Mankind so we can better help users locate information. We learn how to guide researchers to the answers they truly seek — which can be quite different than the one they think they seek. We learn methods of acquisition and appraisal, how to process rooms full of papers, bills, photographs, clothing, trophies, scrapbooks, and more. We learn about advocacy, fundraising, writing grant proposals, publicity, and ethical behaviors.

And we are vastly outnumbered by the Accidental Archivists — those persons who end up the guardians of their family’s history without really meaning to.

And it’s to these Accidental Archivists that I write. Your missions may be smaller in scope than mine but it is no less meaningful. You can take control of those boxes of history filling up your closets. The ultimate goal of any professional Archivist is to preserve history by all means possible. We are here to help you — however you need us.

photo credit: so that’s where stuff like that ends up via photopin (license)