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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Trash or Treasure?

I'm sure you've heard the old adage, "One man's trash is another man's treasure." But by what criteria do you decide if your (or someone else's) hoard is trash or treasure?
Yesterday was my volunteer day at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. The first job of the day was to help sort a huge pile of "stuff" that had been donated to the society. A certain gentleman (whom I'll refrain from naming) died recently and in preparing for estate sale his family donated his collection to the historical society.
I helped prepare for my mother's estate sale and know how much work is involved in getting ready for sale in a short time. This family did not have time to go through everything but neither did they want to throw away something that might be valuable. They solved their problem by donating the entire collection to the society. They probably walked away feeling they had done a good deed and placed the collection in good hands. The feeling of the staff was a bit different. What they got was not a treasure chest of goodies but a pile of work.
To begin with, the collection had been stored in the attic of a building with holes in the roof. Enter heat, rain, bugs, dirt, and whatever comes through holes in a roof. The papers were wet, dirty, and infested with bugs. The archivist who received the materials surrounded them with plastic and let them set out in the cold a day or two in hopes the bugs would freeze to death. A pair of silverfish can multiply in a hurry and have no respect for ancient paper when they are hungry. Any kind of paper-eating bugs cannot be tolerated in a historical society. They turn treasures into trash in short order.
After a few daty in the "freezer" the deceased gentleman's collection was moved into isolation in the basement. Then the "fun" began. First, the archivist had to determine what kinds of materials were thrown into the boxes. Now they are slowly being cleaned and sorted. I spent all morning cleaning and sorting just one box of "stuff" and there is a stack of about twenty more boxes waiting their turn. Every piece of paper must be wiped and books shaken to dump out bugs and eggs. After a box is cleaned and sorted the archivist will decide what is worth keeping and file it in an acid-free box. THEN it will finally be ready to be preserved in the archives.
When I was about half done cleaning the box I was working on I asked the archivist, "If he thought this stuff was worth keeping, why didn't he take better care of it?" He had no answer. Can you think of one?
In all fairness, there are some little treasures in the pile, but it is a lot of WORK to sort through the trash to find them. What am I trying to say here? If you think your papers are valuable, organize them in some fashion and store them in a safe place. Otherwise they become a pile of trash. Your trash may not be the historical society's treasure.

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