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.

 

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