Monday, January 7, 2008

Contribute to History, Honor Your Family, and Feel Good

air force photo

This is a guest post by Lynn Gordon, who I was delighted to meet just recently.

If you find yourself clearing out a parent's home or de-cluttering your own, spare a thought for the archivists and curators of the world. I had the job of cleaning out my mother's house, a task that seemed akin to what Hercules had to do with the Augean stables. Mom and Dad, both packrats, had lived in the house for over forty years, apparently without ever sorting through their jumbles of papers, photos, and other possessions. I was feeling resentful and wasteful as I struggled with the project, until it occurred to me that I might contribute some of the household's contents to libraries and museums.

Use the Internet

The Internet makes it easy to find homes even for the most obscure or useless-looking tidbits. I began with a 1941 breakfast menu from a ferry ride my mother had taken at age eighteen. In no time I had located a library at Bowling Green University in Ohio and written to the archivist, who turned out to be eager to receive the menu. After that, I placed a handbill for a 1952 Paul Robeson concert in a special exhibit at the Oakland Museum, a folding advertisement for a dental health campaign at the University of Chicago library, and some World War II photographs of my father and fellow GIs at the National Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

In all, I sent items to over a dozen different places. The process gave me so much satisfaction that I turned to my own more-modest stockpiles of gunk, and found that I could donate photos of my elementary school classes as well as school newspapers and memos from junior high and high school. The local historical association was happy to get them.

Of course, I could not go through my parents' home item by item and find special homes for everything, but it felt good just to pick out a finite number of items and send them where they belonged.

What to Do if You're the End of the Line

The most sensitive area for me was the family photos. Neither my sister nor I have children, and I dreaded the thought of our pictures ending up in a garbage heap. Luckily, I found that Berkeley is home to a museum devoted to people of my ethnic background. They were glad to take a large batch of our photographs for their archives. It comforts me to know that images of my parents and our ancestors will be residing in a museum, between sheets of acid-free paper, for years into the future.

[photo from the United States Air Force web site; not one of Lynn's photographs, as far as I know]


Blue Yonder said...

Thank you thank you thank you for this post! This very issue has been gnawing at the back of my mind for a while now, since I strongly relate to the author's situation - a need to declutter, no kids to pass heirlooms on to, and a strong aversion to waste (for both environmental and sentimental reasons).

Jeri Dansky said...

Blue Yonder, you are very welcome; thank you for letting me know this was meaningful to you.

I met Lynn at my borther Michael's recent birthday party - and as we got to talking about this subject, I knew I wanted her to write something. Fortunately, she agreed!