My Stuff, My Life: Archives – What should I keep?
Greetings from the Northeastern United States where in January 2010 it is now – 9 °C. It is an honor to write for my Australian friends. In fact, the archives management graduate school basic text from which I studied 18 years-ago was written by Australian archivists, so I feel in a way that I am coming full circle. I’d like to thank Greg for the opportunity to introduce myself to a new audience. He has asked me to write about how to decide which personal papers to keep. So I will attempt to give you some helpful hints for getting started.
Within every household is a treasure trove of information that tells the stories of individuals and families. Everything we have accumulated over the course of our lives is a symbol for who we are. Our personal papers are the most telling of our items, but can cause us the most confusion. We are all attached to our “stuff,” but few of us see beyond a sentimental care. Yearbooks thrown in cardboard boxes, clippings kept in deteriorating folders, and old utility bills from our first apartment litter filing cabinets and closet floors. How do we determine what we should save?
- The most important step is to try to think of your things as a collection that tells the story of your life. What items form the core of your story? Which fill in the details and which are not very important to the story at all?
- Try to detach yourself from your items. You want to try to get over your sentimentality. (i.e. “I NEED THAT! My second grade teacher gave me that popsicle when I won the spelling bee and the popsicle stick reminds me of that day!”) Try to look at your items as a researcher would. What materials tell your personal story and what things really are not important to it at all. This is not to say that sentimentality should never play a part in decisions, but an awareness of personal biases will help you be more logical. In the archives world, “appraisal” means determining what to keep. Once you find a way to detach yourself, you can perform appraisal.
- Aim to keep things that add to your story by telling it in chunks. Archivists prefer groupings of papers to individual items. A folder of back and forth correspondence between friends tells us much more than one letter.
- Set up a plan to get rid of administrative items such as bills when they are no longer needed. In the U.S., we must retain such materials for seven years for tax purposes. After that, we should get rid of them. Talk to your accountant and lawyer about how long you need to keep these evidential records and then clear them from your clutter when the time comes.
- Review the condition of materials and remove what isn’t salvageable.
- Keep your vital records and keep them in a safe place. Birth certificates, mortgage papers, and other such records should be kept in a fire proof box with copies placed off-site.
- Remove unlabeled or unidentifiable materials. There is little use in keeping photos of people you and your family members do not recognize.
- Remove duplicates of materials.
- As you go through your items, you may begin to notice patterns in your collecting. For example, you may have a lot of your college papers, but little from earlier years. Make an effort to locate missing materials to fill out your story. Retrieve items from your mother’s attic or talk to family members about their memories of your childhood.
When you think of your materials as the key to your biography, deciding what to keep becomes a little easier.
I wish you well in your archiving endeavors.
Melissa Mannon is owner of ArchivesInfo and is a professional archivist with almost 20 years experience helping individuals, cultural heritage institutions, and businesses with the management of their records and personal papers. She is the author of numerous articles and her first book about assembling archives is due out with AltaMira Press, a division of Rowman and Littlefield, in mid 2010.