A Question of Value

Preservation and archives personnel are periodically called upon to answer the general public’s questions about personal or family belongings.  Along with patrons’ regular concerns, I have lately noticed a new and perplexing question: 

“What is the historical value of my item?” 

This is a significant and complicated inquiry that deserves a good answer.  Two main issues puzzle me, and I’d like to consider them separately:

  1. What does this question actually mean?
  2. What useful answer can I provide?

1.      What does this question actually mean?

My hunch is that seeking “historical value” is to seek a connection between personal and canonical history.  Individuals usually have a strong sense of the sentimental and family value of their photos and newspaper clippings.  But does that emotional connection have meaning for other people, or within a broader historical context? 

The historical value question often has a companion, either explicit or implied: “Don’t you want my materials for your archives?”  I wonder if we might reinterpret that question as, “Doesn’t my specific experience somehow represent our collective experience?” or more generally, “How do individual stories compose the larger historical narrative?”

Further complicating things are differing definitions of “value.”  A conservator looks at a newspaper clipping and sees brittle newsprint and printer’s ink: not very valuable.  A patron instead sees a family experience: extremely valuable.  Where do we draw the line between the physical thing and the story it represents?

2.      What useful answer can I provide?

The critical thinking beneath the “historical value” question is deserving of encouragement.  But with patron inquiries, encouragement generally implies a specific, actionable answer.  Open-ended answers, like, “You’ll have to research that for yourself,” usually de-motivate busy people.  Herein lays the challenge of answering this question.

To my knowledge, there’s no such thing as a contract historian-for-hire who accepts referrals the way an appraiser would.  For family items, my best institutional referrals are our local city history center and the state archives where I work.  But these options may require substantial follow-through from the patron, and archives staff realistically have minimal time for questions about personal collections.

Perhaps a better strategy would be to assemble a reference list of books on regional history that might offer useful contexts in which to place personal belongings.  Handouts and brochures always seem to be well-received, and a reading list might make an encouraging take-away.

I welcome comments about this issue.  Questions about historical value, however that’s defined, seem to offer a golden opportunity to engage inquisitive members of the public in historical and archival research.