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Confronting the Accidental Archive: Musings from a Family Attic

Confronting the Accidental Archive: Musings from a Family Attic

May 23, 2016 | by Anthony C. Wood, Founder & Chair
Article from the Spring 2016 Newsletter

Besides frequently being labeled dysfunctional, what do not-for-profits and families have in common? Both create, and at times are confronted by, accidental archives. Whether it is a preservation not-for-profit needing to free up the space occupied by that unaddressed pile of boxes in an office corner, or a family selling the house where the attic, closets, and garage have become de facto repositories for generations of unsorted papers, both share the behavior that produces these accidental archives and the reluctance to deal with them.

When I was recently confronted with 50 boxes of multi-generational Wood family papers stored in a family home in Vermont, the similarities between what I was facing and what preservation organizations often confront became painfully clear. I offer my musings on those parallels to further encourage preservation organizations to create intentional, not accidental, archives—and when confronted with accidental archives, to appreciate the desirability and do-ability of treating them with the care they deserve.

How did I end up facing a mountain of unsorted family papers and ephemera? For generations, when anyone in my family passed away, the contents of drawers, desks, and piles were indiscriminately boxed up. Everything was saved, from old dry cleaning receipts, unpublished scholarly manuscripts, store-bought Christmas cards, and lovingly hand-drawn notes, to generations of college notebooks in multiple languages and countless letters to and from known and unknown people. At best the boxes were labeled with a person’s name or the location whence the contents came. This random assortment of materials is the archival equivalent of the archeological site excavated by a bulldozer: Coca-Cola bottles next to Viking swords adjacent to broken china. In the 1960s these boxes were shipped from Connecticut to an attic in Illinois where they sat unopened for decades. In 2004, augmented by boxes contributed by subsequent generations, they were shipped back east to Vermont.

Not-for-profits often find themselves only slightly better off. When a staff member leaves, files are boxed up and stored in a closet or sent to an off-site storage unit. With any luck someone may have properly labeled the box and made a list of its contents. The same is often true when a file cabinet gets too full. Whether it’s copies of old newsletters, correspondence on old preservation issues, or ancient membership records, everything is saved. Do this for a few years and voilà, you have an accidental archive.

The moral of this story is not to throw everything out! Instead, the message is that a little bit of advance planning establishing what should be saved and how to save it can make a world of difference. Large, well-established organizations often have policies to address these issues; this is not often the case with the small, scrappy preservation not-for-profit. As the digital increasingly replaces the physical, the problem of endless boxes will decrease but the question “What should be saved?” will remain. Your organization will continue to generate materials in many forms, worthy and unworthy of saving. Investing the time now to determine how to select items that should be saved and how to organize them, will pay big dividends.

So what to do when faced with that accidental archive? Many well-meaning people will tell you to throw it all away. Don’t listen to them. Think back to all those family stories to which you never paid enough attention or those questions you never got around to asking your parents and grandparents. Many lost answers can be retrieved from your accidental archive. When my niece asked what ship my father sailed on in World War II, his discharge papers, unearthed from one of those 50 boxes, provided the answer. When National Trust Historic Site Drayton Hall asked what my late brother’s motivation was for becoming a preservation craftsman, his decades-old application letter to a National Trust for Historic Preservation program, found in another box, provided that information.

What might your organization lose if you indiscriminately discard your accidental archive? Like death and taxes, preservation issues always seem to be with us. Old files on issues can provide useful ammunition for the next battle. Wasn’t there a previous tower proposed for that landmark site? Didn’t we nominate that building for designation years ago? Because you don’t know what is in your accidental archive you won’t know what you might be throwing out. When that big anniversary rolls around and you want to showcase your own history, it will be hard to do so if it has been tossed out.

What moments of satisfaction will you find in your pile of preservation boxes? Pictures of that rally to save a cherished landmark? Copies of your first newsletter? Think of the items that amplified and animated the recent exhibition Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks at the Museum of the City of New York. What a loss if the materials featured had ended up in the landfill. Of course everything is not worth saving (I’ve taken many loads to the mixed-paper recycling dumpster) but as with my family archives, if you don’t open all of those boxes, you won’t know what you have and to whom it might be of interest.

I opened every box in my family accidental archive and I’m glad I did. It was truly daunting but also filled with moments of delight. One such instance was when odd pieces of family furniture and even stranger objets d’art were being loaded in the van to go to the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company’s prop shop in Vermont. I was opening yet another box of random family papers, and inside was a Weston playbill from 1946 listing my mother as a member of the season’s cast. What a sense of satisfaction to know that 70 years after she appeared at the Weston Playhouse, her furniture might be making its debut on the same stage!

There was also joy in sending three boxes of my grandparent’s papers to an archive collecting material on Cherry Lawn, the private school in Connecticut with which they had been associated for decades, and the happiness in sending a Swedish cousin a box lled with old photos of unidenti ed Swedes and numerous letters in Swedish, some dating back to the 1880s. Even if when translated those letters read, “Why haven’t you written?” or “The weather is bad,” they provide a tangible link to a shared family past and are of value to someone.

Daunting though it may seem, embrace the worthy challenge of properly treating your accidental preservation archive. You need not face this alone. The Archive Project can give you general advice and direct you to more specialized resources. If desired, we can help you find a professional archivist. Periodically we have been able to offer not-for-profits modest technical assistance grants through our Archival Assistance Fund. We have also been able to dispatch interns to make a preliminary assessment of materials. Additionally, if you are looking for a long-term home for your papers, we can assist you in finding one.

Your organization’s history is worth it. Make the future easier by putting procedures in place to ensure that your successors inherit a planned archive. If you are confronting an accidental archive, take the trouble to treat it with respect. And know the Archive Project is here to help! When faced with an accidental archive remember: “It’s your memory. It’s our history. It’s worth saving.”

Above: A Wood family photo discovered while cleaning out the attic; Courtesy of Anthony C. Wood