By Steven and Jill Decker
Generally defined, an heirloom is an object of worth passed from one generation to the next. Dolls, dresses, photographs, personal journals, even recipes can be heirlooms. The object is given value by the receiver—the caretaker—of the object. Caretaking, then, becomes vital; heirloom recipients become archivists. The question quickly turns to what heirlooms to keep and how to preserve and share them.
In speaking of preserving heirlooms, or any objects, Randy Silverman, head of the Preservation and Binding Department at the University of Utah, said “It’s an uphill battle,” and told FamilySearch, “The first question to be asked is not how, but why?”
He offers two cardinal rules. First, don’t sort while you’re grieving. During the grieving process, family members may often attempt to cope with their loss by ridding themselves of clutter. “Once it’s in the dumpster, it’s a moot point,” Silverman explains. An alternative coping method is often simply to “keep it all."
Second, after the grieving process has passed and you begin the sorting process, be sure to identify a caretaker who will understand her or his role and ask the vital questions: To whom is this important? To whom do I leave this? Silverman stresses the importance of remaining optimistic and realizing that the next keeper may not yet be born. These heirlooms may have different meanings to various people in the family. Do not throw anything away until all pieces have been identified and shown to all interested parties.
Silverman, winner of the 2013 Paul Banks and Carolyn Harris Preservation Award from the Association of Library Collections and Technology Services (a division of the American Library Association) and Fulbright Specialist Award winner (improving preservation standards at the National Library of Uzbekistan), explains that heirlooms preserve not only individual history, but cultural history. The Christmas card, the wedding dress, the handwritten letter “represent times and eras—bygone times and bygone people. It is the living who define merit.”