It always interests me how people react when I tell them that I have a business that teaches people how to create a family archive. A while ago I was working in the stacks with an archivist who was visiting to look at some of the materials in our collection. When I told him about my business his immediate thought was that people would want to give their things away and donate them to an archive. He’s usually at the receiving end of that equation and I could see he was concerned that people would throw things away before they made it to an archive where the archivist could preen over it, and it could be preserved into perpetuity.
I explained that teaching people how to dispose of their materials wasn’t my main intention. My focus is to teach them how to keep and preserve their items.
But, when I thought about it, I saw he was right. Many people don’t want to keep everything, yet they don’t know what to do with it. You may also feel that your house is not the best place for some of the precious historical items that have been handed down to you. This is exactly the reason many people donate materials to a trusted archive that is better equipped to ensure the article’s long-term survival.
If you don’t want to keep everything, or
think you have something of significant historical value, the best thing to do is to contact your local historical society.
I suggest you call the place that you are most familiar with, or the one that is closest to you. If they don’t want your items, they may be able to tell you who will. Make sure the archive you contact is a bona fide repository with real archivists working there. In my area there are small town historical societies that are run by interested volunteers who might not know any more about what to do with the materials than you do. The Staff section of the archives’ website should let you know if there is a qualified person on staff.
Most archives also list on their websites a Mission Statement, and maybe even a Collection Policy. Look under the About section for this information.
The Mission Statement or the Collection Policy will give you an idea of whether or not that archive collects the type of materials you have.
If you own a 19th century doll collection, you might want to give it to an archive that specializes in 19th century dolls. It doesn’t have to go to a place that is that specific, but housing your materials in a place with other like materials will raise the chances that it will be seen by patrons. If you are unsure about where the best place for your materials would be, or don’t want to do the research, make the initial phone call to the archivist. They will set you on the right track. They may know off the top of their heads where they best place for your materials will be.
The next question is should you give it away or should you sell it to the archive?
You could give it away. Many people do. Matter-of-fact, most people do. It depends what it is. If you have an expensive silver tea set that was your great-grandmothers and you have no one to leave it to, and you think a local archive might be interested in it, by all means have it priced by a reputable dealer then approach the archive. Archives will absolutely pay for something if it is of value. But if it something of less value, or very little value on the open market, consider donating it. Archives tend to work on very limited budgets and often they won’t take something unless it’s donated.