Imagine if you will, all of the documents and materials which have come into your life…..
Every birthday, anniversary and Christmas card; school report cards; certificates of achievement; passports; health cards; drivers’ licenses; letters to and from you; every ticket you purchased or used; every photograph you took, or was taken of you; all of the emails; your school notes, assignments; any reports you have written….
I could go on, but I think it is clear from this simple list, that in a lifetime every individual has the potential to collect an enormous amount of documentation. But do we keep it all? Simply stated, no. Very few people keep everything – it is a matter of space. Everyone then employs their own “Archival Retention Policy” – a informal system where we decide what to keep and what to throw out.
As a historian I rely on the material which has survived. And not much does. There are many different factors which effect the ultimate survival and preservation of historical documentation. Once we pass the issue of self-censoring, we have to ask what other things would prevent documents from individuals or organisations from being preserved for future generations. There are a number of other factors which further ‘edits’ collections.
Accidents are certainly an important risk for documents. This would include the issue of how the documents are stored, and where they are stored. There are risks of bugs eating the documents, mould, fire and flood. Sometimes a person moves and the boxes vanish. There is also the risk that the documents are lost after a person’s death. I may hold a lot of my personal documents in great value, and preserve them in an organised and wonderful manner, but when I die, the person who inherits all of it may not see it in such a kind light. They might pitch it all in a recycling bin, or edit the material further, removing things which they think to have no value, or which they find deal with or say uncomfortable things. And over the generations this process continues.
In the case of organisations, the process of survival is even more complex. The collection is made by a number of people, often stored in a number of locations, varying with purpose and position. Subsequent employees or volunteers may weed out the material they think is unimportant. Often times the individual creators of the materials may not turn the stuff over to the parent organisation, and keep it for their own archives, which then face the vagaries of generations, perhaps, of inheritors not knowing or understanding the value of the material. There is also the problem of storing organisational material together. Not everyone has access to places where they can store the documents from their past. While many groups are obliged by law to maintain some of their records, especially tax records, they are not obliged to keep it all, and storage can often dictate how much is actually kept. And then of course, storage can also lead to the problems of mould, water or fire, as with private archives.
As a person actually responsible for an archival collection, the St Andrew’s Society of Montreal, I am often asked for information about the organisation, members or specific issues or events in its history. People will ask for the “file” on their ancestor, and assume we have a complete collection. They are often left disappointed – “Why don’t you have this?” “Wasn’t this a part of your organisation?” etc. We have a great collection, one which I am actually very proud of. But over the society’s 180 odd years things have been thrown out, disappeared, or never even maintained. I am not responsible for most of those decisions. I can only impose a retention policy on the new material – keeping what is important, and create a collections policy which tries to fill in some of the gaps in the collection. I dream of moments when someone goes through the garage, files, attic or whatever of a family member and finds a piece of the society’s past and offers it to us. That happens rarely.
Any archival collection, large or small, is a miracle really. Survival of historical documents is a lot like buying a lottery ticket. The changes of winning are actually rather slim. The chances of a piece of paper, photograph, or certificate to last over a person’s lifetime, in their possession, and then in the family over several generations before landing in an archive is slim as well. Archives are miracles really. Considering the factors involved in the preservation of material, that we have what we have of our history in personal, private and public archives, is amazing.
That being said, on behalf of the Archives of the St Andrew’s Society of Montreal, if you actually have anything that you think would be of interest to the Society found in your basement, attic or garage, please contact us! firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have material that you think will be of interest to other archives, public or private which deals with their history please contact them before deciding to heave it in the trash. What you have could very well be important, and appreciated.