What Can One Do with Archival Material when Downsizing?

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Photo copyright Janet Hulstrand

One of the experts I interviewed in the process of researching our book was Mona Nelson, who was at the time the executive director of the Kandiyohi County Historical Society in Willmar, Minnesota. When I asked her in the course of our conversation what kinds of things she wished people wouldn’t throw away when they were in the process of clearing out a home, she picked up a greeting card from her desk and said, “This kind of thing.” She explained that these kinds of things–old cards, letters, brochures, tickets, maps, etc., which she called “ephemera”–could be of interest to historians and that they welcomed the chance to review these things for possible inclusion in their collections.

I must admit that this knowledge was a bit problematic for someone like me, who already has a pretty acute sense of the potential historical value of things that everyone else tends to throw away. On the one hand, it puts one in something of a bind. What do you do with things that are not yet of historical interest? Do you keep saving them until they are? Or do you realize that you simply cannot save everything, and that if you do, that way lies madness?

In the years since, I have managed to adopt a middle-of-the-road approach for myself. On the one hand I no longer keep items that are of potential interest to either collectors or future historians, no matter how interesting and/or beautiful they are (stamps, for example). On the other hand, I do not throw away things that are already pretty old (let’s say 50 years or more). I don’t keep them either. I try, rather to get them to someone, or at least put them within reach of someone who might find value in them and help safeguard their future, as I wrote about in this post.

One special category of archival material is war letters, and in 2013 a special collection was established to collect American war letters. As Family History Month draws to a close and Veteran’s Day approaches,  one very meaningful way to contribute to our national history would be to consider donating old letters you have found in your home to the Center for American War Letters, which I wrote about here.

There are a number of other organizations that can help those who care about preserving historical documentation and archival materials. Here are a few of them:

The American Institute for Conservation of Historical and Artistic Works has helpful information about how to safeguard your own personal or family treasures.

Center for American War Letters

Ephemera Society

The Society of American Archivists has a helpful guide to how to go about donating personal papers or records to a repository.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of  Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

Family History Month: Spotlight on the Center for American War Letters

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“Tucked away in attics, closets, and basements throughout this country are millions of letters written by men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces….” says the opening line on the “Letters” page of the website for the Center for American War Letters.

A relatively new entity, the Center  for American War Letters was established in 2014,  when  Andrew Carroll  donated  the vast collection of war letters he had started in 1998 (known as The Legacy Project), to Chapman University in California. The Center is performing a valuable service to the nation by preserving letters from soldiers, and their loved ones, from the nation’s earliest days to the present.

It is also providing people who are downsizing their homes and don’t know what to do with the stashes of old letters they find in the process with a wonderful solution to the problem, by providing a home where they will safely preserved, and can contribute to a better understanding of our history, especially as seen from the point of view of the “ordinary” men and women who have served the nation in times of war.

If you think you might want to donate letters to the Center, you can find out more about how to do so here.

The Center also has a page with helpful tips about how to properly care for old letters, for those who wish to keep them.

October is Family History Month, and Veterans Day is coming up soon. Wouldn’t it be a nice way to honor the veterans in your family, or among your friends, to find  a way to honor and preserve their documentation of their wartime experiences, their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives–and to safeguard them for future generations?

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

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