A guest post from my colleague, Melissa Mannon, author of The Unofficial Family Archivist.
Some of what you keep has more significance to you than other items. You know the materials I mean — the lock of hair from baby`s first haircut, the photos of your first Christmas together, the love letters you sent your husband before you were married. People spread these keepsakes through the house in closets and bureaus or we try to store them together in a shoe box under the bed. The objects symbolize some of the things that are important to us and we keep them because we have a sentimental attachment to them. As an archivist, I help people explore the idea that it is worthwhile to give more thought to what we are keeping for the long term. I help people determine why they are keeping these items and how to keep them safe.
We intuitively know that our personal `archives` are different from our other possessions. The materials we create in the course of our day-to-day activities help mold our own personal story and highlight our place in the world. The information that we record about ourselves helps us wind our way through life and can be part of our personal legacy. Some of these materials are used over and over. For example, a favorite hand written recipe passed down from one generation to the next might be pulled out to help celebrate during the holidays. Other recorded information might serve to remind us of something that occurred in our lives that made us happy. The material might not be actively used, but is tucked away until you want to recall or share an event.
When viewed as lone items, these materials do not necessarily highlight what makes us unique. Many people have a passport, but when examined with vacation photos, and a travel diary, the passport gains a new dimension. Together, the objects tell about our own personal experiences and perhaps our own world view. Archives that relate to each other can be gathered into a collection that highlights your story, making them more meaningful to you and to those with whom you wish to share your memories. When we think about these possessions in terms of the stories that they tell, we can more easily organize them and our thoughts about them. Possessions are imbued with additional meaning when we step back and consider their role as symbols of activities.
You might keep materials related to events that were meaningful to you. Or, you might keep information that highlights specific times in your life. You might keep your school report cards with your student art work alongside your varsity letters. Understanding what you are keeping and what part of your life it highlights can help you give order to your belongings and to your life.
The materials that you identify as worth keeping should be kept as safe as possible. All organic items, such as those made from paper, will decompose over time, but one cannot easily predict the rate of deterioration of materials. Their deterioration relies on a combination of factors working together: heat, humidity, light, pollution, pests, natural chemical reactions and chemical reactions resulting from improper storage are prime culprits of damage. Different types of items may require different storage supplies for their safekeeping, but there are some general rules to follow. Store materials in a place where temperature and humidity remain as constant as possible and keep items away from the elements. Purchase boxes for storage from a reputable archives supplier such as Gaylord Brothers, Light Impressions, Metal Edge, and University Products. These companies conform to standards and test products to ensure that they are safe for your materials. People often purchase items in stores that claim they are `Preservation Safe` or `Archival,` but these terms are not necessarily to be trusted.
Giving a little thought to your significant papers, photos, and other family information sources will help keep your treasured family memories safe. Focus on what is most meaningful and get rid of the clutter. Carve out your legacy by making sure your family stories are documented and preserved.
For more on how to organize and preserve your family papers, take a look at Melissa’s new book, The Unofficial Family Archivist