|photo courtesy Albert Ryan Collection|
Waltham Room, Waltham Public Library
Most people save sporadically and haphazardly. For example, they throw photographs in shoeboxes or leave them unlabeled in a jumble on their computers. They box some old school materials and save some kids' drawings. They save decades of receipts and financial records, afraid to throw anything away. Few recognize the correlation between their old letters on paper and the items that sit in their e-mail box. People lose control over the records they keep, leaving them disorganized and subject to degradation. They do not know what they should keep to pass on to family members, never-mind what may be important in a larger social context.
Personal papers are key to building strong collections in institutions. If our goal is to reflect society in all its diversity as best we can, cultural heritage professionals must do a better job of reaching out to families and individuals. Call this work "community documentation." Call it "outreach." Use "crowdsourcing" or "participatory" models, but just do it. Everyday we lose valuable information that gets thrown away because people do not know what to do with it. We lose our common heritage and families lose their cultural inheritance as it rots forgotten in an attic or gets damaged in a basement flood. The key to overcoming this is to make the public a prime part of what you do and certainly target them directly in your collecting efforts. Make families aware of the value of their personal papers.
I will discuss some ways to do this in my next post by encouraging professionals to share their expertise and to show individuals that their personal history matters.