Shades Of The Departed

April 18

A Monthly - Weekend With Shades - Column

Last month I received so many excellent questions about various aspects of archives and how we can apply them to our family history questions that I felt terrible that I couldn’t answer them all right away.
Hopefully you’ll be patient with me if it takes some time to get to the topic nearest and dearest to your heart!

Since t
here were multiple questions about the topic of appraisal and the ins and outs of throwing items away, and because in my opinion this is the trickiest thing of all when it comes to our (or at least my) own family collections, it seemed like a good place to start.

When I am working with a collection of business records or scholarly papers in my professional archivist capacity at work, it is usually not very tricky to make the cut of what material to keep and what material, if any, to discard. This past week at work, telling my graduate student worker to throw out individual RSVP cards for an academic conference but to keep any final response lists was a no-brainer, because the value of the information on these cards was minimal compared to the space they would take up in a box, especially considering that the final list provided nearly the same information in a better format.

Similarly, it is usually easy to mark deposit slips or canceled checks as trash, especially when there are monthly or yearly bank statements to summarize this information. Other things, like boxes of extra letterhead or business cards are garbage as long as you fish out 2 or 3 examples of each before relegating the bulk to the dumpster (you don’t need 500 copies of one card when 2 will do the trick just as well!).

Of course, these guidelines don’t always hold true (though the save-two rule usually does), because it is important to remember that not all collections are created equally and they do not all have the same exact evidentiary purpose and value. For example, the records of a business investigated for financial fraud should probably include any and all financial records, and the papers of a famed hostess who invited famous and notable folks to her parties could include every single RSVP card, while the records of a small academic organization would include conference papers and committee minutes, but not necessarily day-to-day financials or response cards.

Working with my own collections of family papers is a completely different story, though. I might consider myself pretty good as an appraiser and weeder of papers at work, but I will candidly admit that I totally stink when it comes to weeding my own family papers. Yes, I know that I don’t really need to keep all of the drafts of my grandfather’s application for a post-WWII Austrian pension (especially when I have the final application), nor do I really need to keep every single one of the greeting cards my grandmother liked to save, but I have a really really hard time throwing these things away.

I am not sure if it’s because the family connection makes each scrap feel like some kind of important artifact, or if I am just crazy, but I do know in my heart of hearts that the overall story my family archives tell about my family would probably be exactly the same without these items.
I can rationalize keeping them, because the space they take up is minimal and because my family archive is not voluminous in the first place (because of the immigrant nature of my family and because other members of my family are thrower-outers, I don’t have things like family bibles or trunks full of letters like others might), but what if I did have overflowing boxes of papers? Then would I feel differently?

Weeding, when it comes to personal collections, is a much more intimate decision process than it is in the archive at work. You may feel that every piece of paper you’ve inherited is worth keeping, whereas but your brother and sister might have completely different views from you and from each other. There are no real rights and wrongs, but just as in a collection of papers or records in any archive, it is important to sit down and think about what the priorities are for your family archive, what the point of it is and what story it is there to tell. Being resolved (unlike me!) in your vision of what you would like your archive to look like and in the decision to pare away the unnecessary things (if they are present) like old junk mail, drafts of forms, or whatever else will help when it comes time to try and throw things out, though it will still not be easy to try and make the cut.

Are those blurry, crummy pictures your parents took of the Eiffel Tower in 1972 worth keeping? How about the postcards they sent to you from that trip? What about the blank postcards they bought but never sent? What about your great-grandmother’s letters home from Paris during her Grand Tour in the 19th century? What about the blank postcards she bought but never sent? What about her programs from going to the theater there? And then how about your great-uncle’s programs from community theater shows he attended in small town Indiana? What about his shoebox of news clippings about trains? What about his war ration book? What about his kids’ report cards?

I can tell you what I, professionally, would think to cut from this collection (those bad photographs, the unused 1972 postcards, the community theater programs, the news clippings), but that doesn’t mean this is the only answer to what is correct here. If your great-uncle was a train engineer his whole life, then maybe a box of news clippings unrelated to family matters are important to include. If your dad owned a postcard company, maybe his collection of unused Paris postcards is important to keep within the family collection as evidence of his research process. Or maybe you think all of these items have an important artifactual value of their own and don’t want to get rid of anything – that’s okay too.

Another thing to consider is that while perhaps there are items you don’t necessarily want in your family archive, that doesn’t mean they have to be thrown out. I have a drawer of unused postcards removed (or de-accessioned, in archives-speak) from archival collections at work that I keep to send to people.

There are organizations that might like boxes of news clippings about trains, or the community theater might love a collection of programs from their old productions. There are also fine libraries like the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, where papers from Apple’s family have been housed, which is always an option if you are concerned about being able to store and preserve your family’s papers on your own. Though they may make some cuts about what items they throw out (if any), a place like the Bentley with a reputation as an excellent historical library would probably make these decisions sparingly if at all, keeping everything of value to future family and social historians and throwing out only that which seems irremediably like junk.

Though terms of gifts differ, the usual procedure with de-accessioning from donated collections includes offering those de-accessioned items back to the donor, which means that there is probably a way to reclaim things you believe in but which the library doesn’t want.
I suspect that Apple’s question about the seeming completeness of her family’s finding aid has more to do with decisions about description at the Bentley than it does with decisions about de-accessioning (phew!), but we will have to explore that concept in a later column.

To sum up, appraisal decisions are generally pretty common-sense ones when you get down to basics (unused post-its and blank check registers in the garbage!), though learning how to appraise records can take some time. I learned how to do this aspect of my job by working right next to a former boss several days a week over a period of months, popping tops on boxes (as she would say) and making decisions about their contents.

It was a slow process, me asking lots of questions about what should be thrown out and her telling me what to do and why, but over time, I learned why she was making the decisions she was, and how to make them myself.
The learning curve here is even greater when dealing with family papers because of our own connectedness to the items in our care, but with a lot of thought and a lot of questions, I feel certain that this is a surmountable obstacle. Though we can’t all have the benefit of physically working right next to a trained archivist as an appraisal apprentice, it seems to me that it shouldn’t be impossible to learn this skill by simply asking questions from afar. So please feel free to email me with any appraisal questions, or to share your quandaries with us all in the comments below.


Blogger Rich Kleylein said...

Thank you for your very insightful comments. I count them as insightful because I agree with most of them. :-> However, regarding canceled checks, we disagree. Sure, I have a lot of business related checks that the register could easily replace. But I also have the signatures of my relatives and friends over the years (as well as my own). It's interesting to see how signatures change over the years.

Your perspective is very valuable, thank you for writing all this down.

April 18, 2009 at 11:43 AM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

That's a very valid point, Rich, and exactly what I mean when I say there are no real rights or wrongs when talking about how to curate our personal collections. If I had cancelled checks in my family archive, I would probably keep at least samples of everyone's handwriting too. But at work, when confronted with 5 linear feet of boxes of canceled checks, there's gotta be a really good reason (like: it's a collection about the history of banking, or I work somewhere with an interest in handwriting, or the guy who collected them was arrested many times for bad checks) why I need to keep them to keep me from consigning them to the trash (or in the case of checks, the shredding bin).

April 18, 2009 at 1:17 PM  
Blogger DianaR said...

I am such a hoarder when it comes to anything that is even remotely related to my family! Just recently I threw out some old funeral books. My reasoning was that (a) they only had the deceased's name in the front and (b) they were for several great-grand uncles and aunts who had no children of their own who might value them. I have others of similar vintage that I kept when they were my direct ancestors and/or had more information included.

It seems logical when I write it out - but it was very, VERY hard. I'm not sure I've recovered yet ;-)

April 19, 2009 at 5:59 AM  

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