I have a messy car. In addition to the usual collection of papers, empty water bottles, various coats and random books that comprise its usual clutter I’ve had a vacation riding around in it with me for the past year. This vacation has not been fun, and I still don’t know what to do about it. I should also mention that this vacation was not mine. Unlike typical vacations, I found this one boxed up in a pile of free items outside a local antique store (I have been told that this is not where most people find vacations). Within this free box were scenes of faraway Europe forever preserved in the vibrant hues of Kodachrome slide film. It was jarring to find someone’s once-treasured memories wantonly cast out on the sidewalk to be disposed of at the mercy of a stranger’s curiosity. Needless to say I scooped them up; my decision fueled in part by the intrinsic beauty of Kodachrome (just ask Paul Simon if you don’t believe me) and on the other hand spurred on by my profession as an archivist.
Archives are a strange institution, and really I’d say their closest companion is not the library but the graveyard. Archival collections, like gravestones, are manifestations of the individual’s effort to endure beyond their time. This comparison is probably best illustrated by the prevalence of “Memorial Collections” in archives like the Vedder Research Library. These memorial collections, often donated by family and descendants of those so honored, serve to enshrine vestiges of who that person was and allow something of their character to endure. Whether the donor’s objective was to enshrine themselves, an ancestor, or to preserve something they deemed important to the community (or more commonly a holistic mixture of those goals) the end result always happily benefits researchers and the public. Sometimes that benefit is immediately apparent, and sometimes it takes fifty years for that collection to finally be examined. Archives and graveyards play the long game in that way.
The process by which a person’s collection ends up in the archive is imperfect at best, and really what ends up boxed on a shelf is the product of a filtering process fraught with obstacles. The vacation in my car is just one example of the variety of items that slip through the cracks between someone’s passing and the arrival of their collection at a research facility. Sentimental value, more than anything else, seems to be the primary factor in this filtering process. What may have been exceedingly important to one generation may be of mild interest to their children, and sometimes if those materials don’t meet the fluctuating criteria by which something is deemed “historic” it is just as likely to get tossed as it is to be saved by those who inherit items. The box of color slides of Europe apparently never passed muster as “historic” and got filtered out when it came time to clean, and the only thing that intervened in their destruction was the evaluation of a shop owner who saw these as too worthless to sell but too priceless to chuck.
Divested of their context and with no owner to lay claim they now languish in limbo. I know these slides are the last trace of something that was once dear to the person who took them, but their subject matter and lack of provenance make them nearly worthless to any local repository. For now it seems I’m stuck with this vacation.
Questions and observations are welcome as always, reach Jon via email@example.com.