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Photographs & Memories: A Case for Preserving Family Memorabilia

By Douglas Gunn author of article
Source: Interloc News, September 1997

I recently played a small role in bringing a set of letters relating to Ashland country history from Philadelphia to Ashland University. At that time, I was surprised to learn that there were some people in the area who didn't understand why anyone would want old letters that were not those of their own family. They didn't know about the brisk traffic in manuscript material of all kinds. Why would anyone want such things? To offer a few answers to that question, let me respond.

What ought to happen to our family letters and memorabilia? Every family eventually has to answer such a question. We all end up with scrapbooks (or shoe boxes) full of clippings, photographs, letters, diplomas and the other paper products that celebrate the "high spots" in our family history.

If it's just a matter of putting a shoe box of memorabilia in the attic, I suppose it's not much of a chore—out of sight, out of mind. But that's exactly how these things come on the market. The owner of the house dies; it has been sold and the heirs from far away must make quick arrangements to have that attic cleaned out to make way for the new owners.

There is no time to palpitate over what to do with memorabilia; rather it is a matter of how to dispose of the stuff quickly. And thus a box of photographs or a scrapbook of letters moves from private hands into the stream of goods for sale.

Some people wonder what motivates sales of these private papers and family heirlooms. The profit motive is there, of course, but the dealers in old photos and manuscripts do not create the market for this material—they simply respond to it. The market is created by people who want the material. And the reason that they want it is that they wish to participate in the study of history.

Diaries, photographs, letters and other manuscript material that is rich in content reflect the daily life of the times in which they were produced. Such material is eagerly sought after by collectors and students. It is from such materials that history is written, revised, and rewritten.

It is strange, but many people think of their family's papers as somehow different from those of anyone else. Their family's materials are heirlooms and treasures of interest only to the family itself. But we are all part of history's inexorable march to the future, and what we write or photograph may speak to any future inquirer whether they are related to us or not.

Increasingly, however, people are coming to realize that there is a price to pay for keeping mementos of a family's past. As generations come and go, the diaries, letters, photographs and memorabilia grow in quantity. What once fit in a small carton in granny's attic now barely fits in five or ten boxes. All that paper has to be kept from deteriorating. The photos need care or they will fade. Cinematic film can lose its color if subject to adverse temperatures. And nobody knows what our videotapes will be like for future generations. Someone needs to write down who all these people were—before there isn't anyone who remembers. Who wants to be responsible for keeping a family museum and archive to pass on generation after generation? Do our children want all of this stuff?

In many cases, the answer is, "no!" Often a generation arises where no one wants to care for family memorabilia. People are more mobile these days, and this kind of impedimenta hinders mobility. Thus, this kind of material is often either intentionally destroyed or enters the marketplace through auction or tag sale.

Perhaps those of us who value family and local history should be grateful to the dealers in this material who care for and preserve it until a buyer is found—someone who actually wants the stuff and who, for one reason or another, is willing to care for it. Because, let's face it, this impedimenta is a burden! (Along that line, it is my belief that museums and libraries which accept family memorabilia as archival material should actually be paid by the donors to help defray the expense of keeping it. After all, the archive is performing a service for the family that donated the material; the family can have access to the papers and photos without having to care for them!)

But there are others who will perhaps enjoy our family's mementos. The main reason behind such an interest is simple: a desire—from whatever motive—to come in contact with the very words and evidences of the past.

Perhaps there is a little revisionist in all of us. Many of us would like to know more about how things were, and it is the diaries, letters, photographs and ephemera which most directly give us this evidence.

There is also the distinct and real pleasure in owning something unique—something no one else has. Such ownership has its pragmatic values, such as a publishing venture where new historic material gives the writer new and marketable insights. But ownership also has an appeal in and of itself.

One of the universal games we all played as small children was to chant to our friends, "I know something you don't know!" whenever we came across a tidbit of news. Nothing has changed; we still like to be the first on the block with something new or hitherto unknown. Those voices from the past in our memorabilia—they can provide ammunition for our games, if we care for and study them. And, I think, if we own them.