The Family Archive

By Elizabeth Stewart   |   November 21, 2023
When a family member passes, there are often a collection of personal books, notes, and papers that are left

A reader’s Great Uncle Len lived, for almost 95 years, in a large house close to the Mission in Santa Barbara. Our reader has inherited the contents of Len’s precious steamer trunk, and is asking “WHAT do I do with a trunkful of photos, clippings, photos, schoolbooks, school report cards, ledgers from the family business, programs of concerts heard in Santa Barbara; Len’s life objects and documents collected since 1934? There are far too many objects for me to store in my little condo on East Beach. Sad, but I don’t want these things; where do I sell them?”

What does my reader, who inherited Uncle Len’s collection, actually OWN? He has an archive,which is defined as a collection of documents created or gathered by one person or institution, selected for preservation (but my reader does not want to personally preserve this archive), as evidence of a life lived. I see these collections in cardboard boxes in homes. Families store these collections and forget about them. Executor or heirs sometimes separate the TYPES of objects into categories: they sell the books, donate the photos, dump the paper things, they give the journals to family, thus the archive is parceled out. But the STORY that an archive tells is, for example, an entire story, like the story of Len’s life here in Santa Barbara from 1934-2023. 

An archive tells a story of not just that person’s life, but also records how they view their identity within the time and place of their life

Dear reader, you may be able sell an entire archive, and sell it well, because the value of a complete and relevant archive has risen greatly in the last five years. Why? Rarity! We don’t collect like this in the information age. Folks today do not WRITE on paper, and they certainly don’t collect greeting cards and concert programs and ticket stubs, and photos. Those handwritten or printing press things are fast becoming obsolete. My favorite dealer for your sale of Len’s archive is Marco Panella of Marlboro, Vermont, at Auger Down Books: Graphic and Archival Americana. Check out the prices he asks for archives at; he regularly sells to institutions like the Bancroft. To sell to him, however, the archive has to tell a compelling story of a life (more about that following).

Some executors who are saddled with an archive do not want to negotiate a sale (perhaps because that may be perceived as disrespectful), and I am asked: to whom can I donate?? If you donate to a not-for-profit organization like a university or local library, you may apply for a Federal Income Tax deduction by submitting IRS form 8283 (found on the IRS website) with your income tax filing in the given year of that donation. However, millions of these archives end up in the landfill. They are just too much trouble.

An archive is a story that is told as an event is happening and is in fact evidence that that event happened and was perceived by ONE PERSON; a collection of documented events is an archive. And they are indeed collected: the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library contains 35,000 printed volumes, pamphlets, broadsides, and 2,000 linear feet of literary archives and manuscripts featuring the work of over 400 authors. 

These archives often equate to boxes upon boxes of documents

Reader, if you approach a library or museum with Uncle Len’s archive, try to keep it together. Resist the urge to sell or donate separate PARTS of the archive; consider how every item relates to the rest of the collection. Furthermore, it is of more value because it was collected by one source (provenance). An archive usually answers the question posed by that person compiling it: Who am I? Who do I think I am in my time? Thus, taken as a whole, it is all about identity, and how one person has documented identity. 

Here is a list of where you might donate: try to find the theme of the archive, based on the objects collected, and find a match below. Was Len a scholar? A police officer? A vet? A performer? A business leader? A churchgoer? An alum?

National Archives such as the Smithsonian, Veterans Archives, police departments, county archives, community archives, university archives (each university’s “Special Collection Department” has a mission statement regarding what they collect), schools, or church archives. Certain businesses have archives, for example, the company where Uncle Len worked for 40 years. An art gallery or a local theater – these sometimes collect archives of artists and performers associated.

Document the archive before you donate in photos because one day you will want to source that collection of Len’s life, I will wager.  


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