Monday, July 26, 2010

Encouraging the Preservation of Personal Papers

One of my favorite things about my work is explaining archives concepts to non-archivists. I regularly run a program on preserving personal papers. The workshop invites individuals to bring in personal archives that they want to discuss and learn how to preserve. I keep the group small, so that everyone has a chance to show the group what they've brought, offer a little background about the material, and ask questions about how to care for it.

I have identified a lot of great items and have learned about documentation processes and media that I have not come across working in diverse archives and possibly never would have come across in my own research. I hear great stories and gain a better understanding of the documents that are available within communities. I get ideas for new programs and get support for what I do.

Invariably, people tell me that they never realized the knowledge required to properly maintain their materials. They throw items in a box in the attic or basement, or shove them in a drawer and forget about them. When they go to look at the materials a few years later, the documents have developed a smell, are starting to turn colors, or are literally disintegrating. Many, many people tell me that they have always vowed that one day they would "take care" of their personal collection, but they did not know what to do and were daunted by the task until I came along.

The basic knowledge one needs to maintain straightforward items such as papers or black and white photographs is simple. It is really just a matter of giving people a few basic tips for the bulk of what they own. But most people do not think to ask archivists about how to care for their personal items. Most people do not know that archivists exist. Archivists need to find ways to better advertise who we are and we need to encourage "ordinary" people to ask questions about the items in their possession and seek out those who can answer those questions.

Workshops are one way to reach out to people to let them know that people like me exist. I encourage people to contact me if they have questions about their materials. As a traveling consultant, I also encourage people to locate and get in touch with their local archivists. I tell them that we are all very nice and want to help. We can offer some preservation or organization advice, tell them if their materials have any value to a community history beyond their family, we can even refer them to others if we can not help them directly with their archives related issues. (Please, oh please don't turn people flat away from your repository!)

The work of an archivist is about preserving memories. Whether we are preserving the memories of the famous, the not-so-famous, an institution, or a larger community, our work boils down to ensuring that documentation is identified, retained, preserved and made accessible. Reaching out to the public helps with all of these elements of what we do. When archivists take the time to reach out and help non-archivists, both parties have lots to gain. Working together, we can ensure valuable historical items are kept safe for posterity.
(In general, I get a quizzical stare when someone asks me what I do and I say "I'm an archivist." In fact, I am actually trying to devise a way to ease people into that word based on a suggestion by a friend / colleague. I am creating my three line introduction... "Well, you know how you have that old shoebox of photos and family papers in a cabinet? You know that museums and libraries treasure similar objects in their collections? I am the person who helps organize those materials and make sure they last a long time....I am an ARCHIVIST!")

The Albert Ryan Collection found a home at the Waltham Public Library when a local citizen with some remarkable ancestors talked to me (the library's archivist at the time) about his family papers.

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