Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Dumpster Diving: Saving History One Collection at a Time

  • Official Department of Health medical ledgers recording 1918 flu quarantines - discarded for no known reason
  • Trophies showing the achievements of former students - discarded when the school wanted to celebrate new beginnings and make a clean sweep of the old
  • Vital records - discarded after they were digitized

These are some of the collections that I have found in archives in my career. They were saved from the trash by well-meaning persons -- citizen archivists, if you will -- who had the sense to question the decision of another well-meaning person. Records (and artifacts) may be tossed for nefarious reasons such as the desire to get rid of evidence, but more often than not materials are thrown away due to lack of understanding about the documentation of history.
  • Medical records - useful for broadening our understanding of epidemics and communities. Required by law to be maintained.
  • Vital records - required by law to be maintained even after digitization. Digitization of original records is not an accepted permanent preservation measure for state recorded data.
  • Trophies - useful for increasing our understanding of our history, showing that our history has long roots, and for boosting civic pride. (Though not quite on par with the materials above, and focused on what are usually considered museum collections and not archival, I threw this one in here because I'm betting that some people can relate to this scenario. Don't live in the moment when evaluating artifacts. Consider the future.)

    There are many reasons to consider taking items out of your collection. Those maintaining collections are encouraged to familiarize themselves with acceptable procedures for disposition. Gain an understanding of archival appraisal.   Contact appropriate authorities if you are not certain of disposal practice. For government records, contact your State Record Manager or archivist. They are usually found through your secretary of state's office. CoSA (Council of State Archivists) can refer you to the proper place. Consider hiring an archivist familiar with procedures if you are an independent facility, such as a historical society, before making decisions.

    I hate seeing collections saved by dumpster divers because I know for every collection that they saved, it is more than likely that others were lost on another day. Our history is precious. Records and artifacts lost cannot be regained. Be sure of what you are doing when you get rid of something. If you are not sure, please don't do it! And spread the word!

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