My father’s family seems to have the packrat gene. Maybe it’s a “we escaped the shtetl and feel safe enough to acquire stuff” mentality, or the Depression Era mentality, or truly a genetic thing, but they’re packrats. Wait! This is relevant!! My grandfather was a tax attorney who managed to acquire – as payment – goods from clients. When he died in the early 1970s, we had the Smithsonian and the George Eastman House asking about some of the old photographic equipment he’d stored in his garage for decades (it should be noted that the car didn’t fit into the garage). By the mid-70s, all the bits had been disbursed… or so I thought.
Early in his career, my grandfather clerked and later partnered with a lawyer whose father was a law partner of President Arthur (pre-Presidency). The father married a woman whose family had lived in Litchfield, Connecticut since the 1700s and somehow he ended up with a packet of legal documents: deeds, debts, wills, etc.. And that packet was left to his son, and eventually my grandfather got it when the partnership ended in the 1950s. After his death, it went to my aunt, then to my cousin and last month my father got it while helping my cousin do some work on her house. It’s not a large packet, about 6″ high, filled with old-fashioned, handwritten deeds and IOUs and so forth from the 1700s to the Civil War era. None of it has to do with my family, so I grabbed it and volunteered to take care of them. Take care how? By donating them to the Litchfield Historical Society.
Why this long digression? Because I’ve worked in four schools where the archives could have significant value to current and future researchers, if only… If only people were intelligent packrats, saving just what is relevant to the school and its history. If only they preserved those items and remembered to send them to the school, which had space in which to store them and staff to process them. If only they could be made available to the outside world.
Now, that’s not to imply that those schools aren’t doing what they can. Far from it! But it does take more than just collecting posters and programs and transcripts and yearbooks from inside the school, it takes alumni and others not throwing away the important things. Just this year I’ve acquired an old school ring, photos of a dorm room from the late 1890s, theatre programs from the 1960s and other items. There’s a ton of work still to be done in terms of organizing and indexing so we know what we have and what’s missing, but that’s part of the fun of archives. Then there’s the transcription and digitization of documents, or establishing connections with outside organizations (like the David Davis Mansion, as the daughter of Gov. Davis attended Porter’s in the 1800s; their archivist has been very generous sending us links to letters they’ve transcribed that mention the school and Sallie’s time here).
This may be too late for some, but if you’re going through your old stuff and come across anything from your high school or college days, don’t throw it away until you check with your school. They may just want what you’ve saved.