How to Weed Your Attic
Elizabeth H. Dow
At the closing dinner of the Manuscript Society’s most recent annual meeting, trustee Elizabeth H. Dow gave us a capsule version of her latest book, How to Weed Your Attic: Getting Rid of Junk without Destroying History, coauthored with Lucinda P. Cockrell. Dow graciously provided this summary of her talk.
Perhaps there has been a death in the family. Maybe it’s time to move. Or possibly the calendar has finally cleared enough to think about cleaning out the storage space. Whatever the impetus, the same questions spring up: What are you going to do with all this stuff? What should you save for history’s sake, and what can you safely toss?
Documents and Artifacts of History
To begin, a few documents and artifacts carry historical information: legal, financial, and infrastructure documents; documents and artifacts that illuminate the built, political, or social environment; those that shed light on our personal, work, and community lives. Without these pieces of history, we’re trapped in the limbo of the present—not understanding how things were and so not understanding how and why they got to be as they are.
When it comes to historical value, documents tell their own story. Letters and diaries may not explain all the references they contain, but the thoughts and perspectives written about stand on their own. Artifacts, on the other hand, do not tell their own story. Saving the provenance, or chain of custody, of an artifact can make all the difference in whether it has historical value. An old, cheap cornet has little historical value until we find out that Louis Armstrong used it when he learned to play the horn.
The Five Rules
With that as a general perspective, we can draw the basic rules for seeing the historical value of the stuff in the attic. A complete collection has more value than a spotty one. Emotive material is richer than strictly factual material. Unique is better than mass produced. Objects and documents carry more information than they mean to. Look at things from a viewpoint 25 years in the future.
Move forward with those rules in mind, but never discard anything until you’re really ready. Even if something has no historical value, it might have sentimental value to a person or family. And even if something does have historical value, you may not want to keep it. What then?
It’s important to understand the differences between museums (really picky about what they can accept) and archives (fairly omnivorous within their collecting focus). Both types of institutions have acquisitions committees that make the decision on what to accept within their scope of collection based on CAPCAS: condition, age, provenance, completeness, and available space.
Cleaning out an attic may bring up several issues. Among them are ownership (and sometimes replevin), as well as privacy or “dirty laundry.” Copyrights and patents may come to light. Archeological and anthropological concerns can arise, especially with Native American material. So can questions of wildlife protection and spoils of war. Finally, there is the concern of making material available for family members. All of these must be taken into consideration during the weeding process.
Giving and Keeping
For things you know have historical value but don’t want to keep, find an appropriate cultural heritage institution and make a donation. For historically valuable material you do want to keep, think about how best to preserve it. Safe handling and safe housing—in appropriate containers in a cool dark place—are essential. If you want to show a prized document, make a high-quality copy and frame that. Future generations will thank you for preserving the original.
Elizabeth H. Dow, PhD, created and directed the archives track at Louisiana State University. She retired as the Franklin Bayhi Professor Emeritus in its School of Library and Information Science. Her other publications include Archivists, Collectors, Dealers, and Replevin from Scarecrow Press.
As with family storage, we have more material than space here. To learn more about keeping and tossing, storing and donating, make room in your collection for How to Weed Your Attic from Rowman & Littlefield. The book was reviewed in Manuscripts, vol. 71, no. 3, pages 255–259.