25 Sep

One of my downsizing friends alerted me to this 128 page book by Elizabeth Dow and Lucinda Cockrell (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018). After completing our major round of downsizing and selling our house, I finally had time to read it. Did I miss the boat?

The authors, both archivists, wanted to “help readers see the historical significance in the belongings handed down in their families. (p. xii).” As history enthusiasts with a specialized expertise, they take both a broader and more nuanced view of the things we keep (especially those things that have been handed down to us). I daresay most downsizers are more concerned with the personal and family meaning of their papers and possessions rather than the place of these items in the culture at large. The authors encourage us investigate the importance of what we own to others, not just to ourselves. 

In chapter one, the authors explain how historical research has evolved from a focus on large events and important people to “the lives of ordinary people” (p. 1) and how museums and other repositories have responded to this shift. The collected ephemera, documents, and objects contribute, they argue, to “our understanding of a time or place or group” (p.3) and also inform our future. 

In chapter two, they lay out and explain the five rules for deciding whether something is of historical value: 1) the completeness or length of a collection; 2) the extent to which it provides “emotive” rather than factual content (emotive, as might be found in personal journals or letters, for example); 3) its uniqueness or rarity (hand-made vs mass-produced, unless rare); 4) the extent to which the object carries information beyond what was intended (e.g., an account book provides information about spending habits and tastes); and 5) the age of the item (i.e., is it at least 25 years old, or a generation old?) 

The next four chapters consider four categories of items: 1) mass-produced, 2) handmade or custom-made, 3) business-related (including non-profits), and 4) commemorative materials. They point out that they are not concerned with collectible or monetary value, but rather historical value. In each of these chapters, they specify types of items and label the likelihood of these items being of historical value. 

The final three chapters take up specialized concerns (such as privacy issues), how to take care of items that you want to keep, and what do to with items you want to donate to a repository of some sort. 

Would I have made different decisions about my own archives had I had read this book earlier? As a great saver myself of ephemera (maps, old greeting cards and postcards, correspondence, family archives), I was appreciative or the practical information and thoughtful approach the authors provided. 

As it happens, I knew enough beforehand to make an effort to find homes for those items I thought might be of interest to others from an historical perspective. In a few cases, I was successful, such as with my Brownie and Girl Scout items, my collection of extra-curricular materials from my college years, my curricular materials from my secondary school years, and my data from my dissertation. These successes were possible because I was able to return the items to their original homes (my college, my school, my graduate school) or the region where I had those experiences (as with the Girl Scouts). This issue of appealing to appropriate geography is something the authors emphasize. 

However, as a downsizer and someone who offers advice to other downsizers, the book left me uneasy in two ways. The first I call the “Antiques Roadhow” syndrome in which one’s expectations for the value (in this case, historical) of one’s possessions is unrealistic. Or that even if it seems like one’s items meet the value test, finding the right repository can be challenging. For example, I was thrilled when someone from the company that had taken over the one where my father spent his working life expressed an interest in his papers that I had carefully curated. But I sent the packet just at the start of the pandemic, and it was returned to me as undeliverable. Despite several efforts, I was not able to reconnect with the original comtact nor to find someone new. And, I was unable to spark any interest in my mother’s 100 year plus school notebooks with her beautiful handwriting and exquisite illustrations, nor my own 50 year-old archives from my brief teaching career during the era of “open education.” The former are now in my storage unit, while the latter were relegated to the recycle bin after I photographed or scanned the contents. 

My second point of unease comes from the implicit notion that if you can’t or don’t wish to find homes for these potentially valuable historical items that you should take great pains to preserve them. The authors even suggest that all digital items should be printed out and saved in open source file formats.  While one needs to be aware of the potential fragility of digital material and exercise some caution, such as backing up what one doesn’t want to lose, creating more paper goes against the grain. Our goal is to find relief from the burden of the physical objects not to add to that burden. 

Nevertheless, I do believe this book offers a helpful exploration from two experts of a particular kind of possession and does give some starting points for evaluating what one has that might be of historical interest. If your own stuff contains a number of items of potential historical value and you have the motivation and time to follow through, I recommend checking out this book.

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