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How best to preserve histoic items that are in private homes
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Author:  p51 [ Fri Sep 15, 2017 12:47 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How best to preserve histoic items that are in private h

The one thing people never think of is what happens when no museum wants your stuff?
How many people think their stuff is priceless, only to have their heirs find that they can't give the stuff away?
I knew a guy at a USAF-aligned aviation museum and he once told me there was a list of items they would not take from anyone as a donation, as they had countless examples that they couldn't dispose of due to their rules for handling items.
There should always be a Plan B for that.
Someone's will should always read, "these items should go to [insert museum here] or if they are denied as donations, then to [insert who/where, here]."
And try to think of the burden you're putting on your heirs. There's a reason why stuff we consider to be valuable gets dumped into a landfill. One of the following usually happens:
The heirs either didn't want to hassle with finding a buyer
They tried, but nobody wanted to buy it as nobody they talked with thought it had value
Everyone they talked with insulted the heirs by seriously low-balling them. Never underestimate the draw of spite
The stuff really didn't have any value to anyone else (like old magazines)

Author:  WVNorthern [ Fri Sep 15, 2017 4:31 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How best to preserve histoic items that are in private h

The latest issue of NRHS News has an appeal to anyone who has historic rail-related film. I'm sure lots of really great footage has been discarded by survivors of railfans. My wife rescued a giant pile of slides taken by her great uncle that were on their way to the trash can at the curb after he passed. There were several great shots of her and her family that would have have been gone forever if she hadn't stepped in. Anyway, here's the request for anyone who might be interested in having their footage preserved.

Attachments:
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Author:  psa188 [ Fri Sep 15, 2017 5:18 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How best to preserve histoic items that are in private h

[color=#FF0000][/color]
p51 wrote:
The one thing people never think of is what happens when no museum wants your stuff?
How many people think their stuff is priceless, only to have their heirs find that they can't give the stuff away?


I think that's another drawback with Margaret's New Fed Agency approach. There is a potential to waste time and effort determining value and also the prospect of a overworked civil servant making a determination of no value for something good. Pity the poor employee of said agency who has to tell a widow that her husband's issues of Trains do not have much value. The "old magazine" discussion is interesting. "Trains" is very common and hard to give away, but less-well-known publications like Railpace sometimes find a home.

Most organizations have a list of items that they won't take. The Computer History Museum has a fairly amusing one, no doubt they got sick of everybody in Silicon Valley offering their obsolete PC hardware.

If the stuff has no value to anyone, we cannot get too upset if it ends up in a dumpster.

Author:  MargaretSPfan [ Fri Sep 15, 2017 7:21 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How best to preserve histoic items that are in private h

Thank you, gentleman, for the kind and very interesting replies.

I only thought of the federal government because :
1. It ain't every going away,
and
2. It as a whole has power, and makes rules that often stay put.

JRMay --
Thank you very, very much for the reminder that the federal government is just a large group of thousands of much smaller groups, each competing against the others for money. I had not remembered that. Just was thinking only about the big picture, when I really knew better.

I agree that the best idea is to have some kind of web-based site whee people can go to find reliable and up-to-date info listing info about groups all over the country that preserve history of all sorts that will actually be willing to accept donations. This is essential to do if any of the really important info that is in private hands is ever to be able to be preserved. Once this site exists, it needs very wide ongoing publicity, so the general public knows what groups are willing to accept donations.

But IMO the biggest problem is one that has been spoken about here a number of times is that the heirs are in a big hurry to clean out the home, because they have to pay the rent or the mortgage and property taxes, and they want to sell or rent the home as soon as they can, so they will have money coming in or be able to get the property off their hands as soon as possible. THIS is the main reason heirs dump collections so fast. IMO, of course.

I just do not want priceless photos being thrown away --- before someone has had a chance to even look at them. That happened with a friend's photo collection. Sigh.....

Again, thank you gentlemen, for this very interesting discussion, and for the kind and informative replies.

Author:  RDGRAILFAN [ Fri Sep 15, 2017 8:49 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How best to preserve histoic items that are in private h

I may be off base but I thought the Federal Govt did Historic documentation and artifact acquisition during the WPA era. The Smithsonian received quite a few "artifacts" regarding American life. Not far off base to the suggested program.

Author:  psa188 [ Sat Sep 16, 2017 4:12 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How best to preserve histoic items that are in private h

RDGRAILFAN wrote:
I may be off base but I thought the Federal Govt did Historic documentation and artifact acquisition during the WPA era. The Smithsonian received quite a few "artifacts" regarding American life. Not far off base to the suggested program.


Yeah, maybe a more nuanced explanation is necessary. I don't think that an entirely new federal agency is necessary or appropriate in this case, but there are currently Federal agencies that are involved in historic preservation. The Smithsonian museums come to mind, as does Steamtown (do they have a library?) It seems to me that Steamtown would be the logical repository for DL&W material.)

Author:  Alexander D. Mitchell IV [ Sat Sep 16, 2017 9:07 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How best to preserve histoic items that are in private h

There are a great many issues involved, and almost none of them relate specifically to rail preservation.

The first has already been covered by a great many here: Everybody who thinks their collection means only something to them doesn't act; and everyone who thinks their collection is worth its weight in refined platinum may well be seriously deluded.

Any such "Federal agency" would be QUICKLY completely overrun with well-meaning but now worthless donations. And this problem similarly affects EVERY local library, EVERY city/county/state historical society, and pretty much every museum worthy of the name out there. I would hazard a guess that fewer than one in a thousand individuals actually has any reasonable working grasp of how museum curation, archival collecting, and library operation actually work. Maybe one in ten thousand.

Every library gets well-meant donations of books for their limited space. It doesn't matter how good the book is or how authoritative it may be, if the local audience doesn't come in to circulate or use it, it WILL get "weeded." And few libraries or archives have the space or controls for even a limited collection of local-history out-of-print books (the county history from 1920, the city bicentennial book, or that spiral-bound book on the local trolley line published 40 years ago). The local history society or railroad museum is typically in the same boat, or even worse, with only a volunteer staff once a week or the like at best.

What about the truly historic collections--the ones that become known by name, such as the Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Barnes Collection (now the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia), or, in railroad history, the collections of John W. Barringer, Otto Perry, George Hart, Tom Taber, JJJ, the "Lost Engines of Roanoke," a mysterious shed in northern Michigan, etc.?

This is a free country. Those who collect these things, no matter how much you may like it, are under NO obligation whatsoever to share it with anyone or let anyone else benefit from them. They have an absolute right to lock up things in a storage unit, or will them to their children or dog, or have them burned in a weenie roast at their funeral reception, or donate them to a charity auction, or whatever. And no Federal agency has the right to say otherwise.

Our obligations, as archivists/curators, is twofold:
1) To do our utmost to impress upon the custodians of such collections the proper value--historical, not monetary--of their holdings; that no matter how much they may not like it they are only the temporary custodians more than the owners unless the elixir of the Fountain of Youth is in their collection; and as much as they may try to avoid it estate planning has to happen if they really ascribe value to the stuff; and
2) To make our projects (museums, libraries, societies, etc.) a SECURE, RESPECTFUL, and WORTHY destination for whatever they may have to offer.

One perilous issue that often arises is that there can be substantial financial value to a collection, and "tax write-offs" do no good to a destitute 80-year-old hoarder. An actual real-life example of which I am aware but I will describe in vague details to protect privacy is of a photographer who had a large collection of rail photographs he took in the 1940s and 1950s throughout a geographical region, in a methodological and painstaking fashion that rivalled the efforts of O. Winston Link in quality for capturing not just the rail subject, but the surroundings and environment. They were the caliber of photographs historians kill for. Certain historians knew he had the negatives and prints, but he was too humble to give them appropriate attention--he gave away prints to authors for books and the like. He was quietly stalked for some time, and by one point he was living alone in a place some called a "shack" with a leaky roof. One rail museum sent a crew of volunteers just to fix his roof and windows. After that, several museums put their heads together and decided the best approach was for one museum to make an offer to acquire the collection complete along with the rights. Through some amazingly quiet and discrete back-channel solicitation among several donors, a substantial five-figure sum was pledged, and then offered by the main museum to the photographer. (If those negatives were auctioned one by one by an enterprising online marketer, they would no doubt fetch ten to twenty times what was offered.) By that time, he was both amazed and flattered--and was really in no position to say no, either, as I understood it. The one museum acquired the complete collection and then undertook to "share" the photos with other museums to which they were relevant--the images are scanned and available, but the first museum retains publication rights. The photographer passed away about a year later.

Between the mindset propagated by programs like American Pickers and Antiques Roadshow, along with at-times-preposterous prices for online auctions for individual railroad slides and builder's plates, too many people have inflated ideas of what items are worth. These things are only worth money if a buyer exists--and with JJJ now deceased, there's one less well-heeled collector out there. And if one floods the market with 500 lanterns or PRR number plates at once, not enough people can afford to pay what these things are worth--and go away so I can finally grab PRR 4472 for a song!

Too often, boxloads of stuff show up at the local rail museum because heirs have no better clue what to do. We need to give them that clue, or more importantly give the collector the duty to TELL them what to do in advance. After thirty years of this stuff behind the scenes, I know damned well to contact the museum/library first, tell them what I have, and let them pick and choose if they want anything. I spend a lot of time shuffling things between places around here--books or manuals, parts for a car, etc.--to find the best homes, and it's more work than most people appreciate.

Now as my own personal example:
I have three different stock certificate issues from my hometown railroad, a little local podunk line that got gobbled up by the PRR through a 99-year lease in post-1873 Panic collapse. The earliest is an uncancelled share issued to the VP of the PRR as a trustee for the PRR, for half the railroad, issued eight days before the railroad opened. That first one attracts scripophily collectors--a VERY rare thing to find, and may be worth hundreds. The other two I could replace on eBay--eventually, if I wait long enough--for under $100 each.
Now, who gets it? The county historical society at the eastern end? The one at the western end? The PRR Technical & Historical Society, which has a connection to one of the end junctions? The RR Museum of Pa.? The nearest NRHS Chapter museum to the line, which has a nice museum but not quite the long-term sustainability I would wish for? Or auction the set as a nice collection and get my heirs another thousand or so dollars?

That's just one set of three items. I'm not discussing what I have hidden over in that corner, or up on the bookshelves.
On the other hand, eyeballing my shelves, I see only four books I feel compelled to leave to my own expansively exhaustive local NRHS Chapter RR library, mostly because others have beaten me to donating the thousands of other tomes and periodicals. No, wait.......... nope, they got that one, too.......... wait, should they get the 2-volume set on the National Road? How about the Ottley set?

Multiply this problem by thousands.

We can't save everything. All we can do is make people WANT us to save their stuff.

Are we doing it? Well enough?

Author:  MargaretSPfan [ Sun Sep 17, 2017 2:27 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How best to preserve histoic items that are in private h

Thanks, Alex, for your excellent and very well-thought-out post. I really appreciate all the info you shared here.

No, we cannot save everything, and yes, all museums of any kind or interest area are already almost or entirely full already.

And cataloging every single item is far, far too time-consuming for any historical organization or individuals.

Thanks to everyone who has shared info in this thread. I really appreciate that.

Author:  psa188 [ Mon Sep 18, 2017 4:36 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How best to preserve histoic items that are in private h

Alexander D. Mitchell IV wrote:
Any such "Federal agency" would be QUICKLY completely overrun with well-meaning but now worthless donations. And this problem similarly affects EVERY local library, EVERY city/county/state historical society, and pretty much every museum worthy of the name out there.


Wow. It's a good thing that I didn't read this before donating material or I would have given up before trying.

BH

Author:  Alexander D. Mitchell IV [ Mon Sep 18, 2017 8:34 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How best to preserve histoic items that are in private h

psa188 wrote:
Wow. It's a good thing that I didn't read this before donating material or I would have given up before trying.


No.

Most readers here have acute historical awareness, plus some vague idea of what's involved in running a historical collection--such as understanding "we can't save them all."

This, however, is the more typical syndrome. For every smart and savvy donor, there are ten or more of these:
http://www.unshelved.com/2011-11-14

Image

What people (TYPICALLY) donate and what libraries want/need tend to be two different things. The "market" is quite fickle. Library systems were ordering 100 copies each of the Harry Potter books as the series wound down, secure in knowing that hundreds or thousands of kids who couldn't afford the book wanted to read the latest volume ASAP. Those libraries later shredded 95% of what they bought after six months to a year, but those books were assuredly read more than many of the books elsewhere on the shelves. But that library no longer needs your kid's surplus copy, or has the shelf room for all 50-some Garfield the Cat books or whatever they're up to by now.

Just as a piece of rolling stock showing up at a museum/rail line eats up resources (track space, paint, roofing, etc.), any book in a library consumes money/time/space being cataloged and put on the shelf. They don't have room for 150 books on trolleys, maybe not even one book, unless they're a trolley museum archive.

I would write more, but I just now received this through our website contact form:

Quote:
As executor of [a certain rail author's] estate, I am trying to locate a historical society that would be interested in receiving a donation of some railroad items in his collections. This includes silverware, table cloths, napkins, china, dining car menus, timetables, consist photos (8 x 10), official guides, etc. If you are interested in receiving any of these items as donations, please contact me. Sincerely, [name withheld].


Wish me luck.

Author:  John T [ Mon Sep 18, 2017 9:04 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How best to preserve histoic items that are in private h

A good friend passed on last year. I was left all of his railroad books, photos, etc. with the understanding that I would pass on anything I didn't want to an interested museum. I sold off some of the books to cover my expenses and found that after inflation most were selling for not much over first cost. In short this is a dieing hobby. Most of your collection isn't worth what you think it is. One museum informed me that they no longer take research collections. They wanted the original material but noting else. A local railroad museum took almost everything (no magazines) else with the understanding that they were not obligated to keep any of it.

Author:  MargaretSPfan [ Mon Sep 18, 2017 10:04 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How best to preserve histoic items that are in private h

Thanks, Alex. I do wish you a lot of luck in finding good homes for that wonderful collection of RR dining car items.

The hobby is not really dying, just probably the interest in old stuff the younger generation has no personal connections to. Which is quite understandable, but is


Looks as though all libraries and museums and historical society archives are full already. That is good in one way, as they have great collections, instead of just a few items, but it is bad for those of us who want to see things that cannot be digitized -- such as china and silverware and glassware and linens. I really, really hate for those kinds of things to be thrown away. But because almost no one has any room at all to either store or display those kinds of things, they will probably meet a sad demise they do not deserve, and we are all the poorer for that. What a shame.......

What a shame......

Author:  p51 [ Tue Sep 19, 2017 2:01 am ]
Post subject:  Re: How best to preserve histoic items that are in private h

Another thing nobody is taking into account here, is that some railroad items are huge and heavy. Think of locomotive Bells, headlights, and the like. Who has room for that kind of stuff? It wouldn't surprise me of several locomotive headlights have gone to the scrap dealers or the local dumps in the last few years from train fans dying off, and the family can't find anyone who could even pick up a locomotive headlight, much less find a place to store the thing.
One thing I've noticed is that a lot of books are dropping in value over the last few years. There was a really rare book on the Milwaukee Road, which in these parts was selling for at least a couple of hundred dollars up until a few years ago. Now, I see them regularly for about 40 to $50 a copy.
As train fans have died off, the items that only older train fans have will probably be dropping in value. I wonder if museums will be taking that into account?

Author:  Alexander D. Mitchell IV [ Tue Sep 19, 2017 7:19 am ]
Post subject:  Re: How best to preserve histoic items that are in private h

Absolutely.

The old standard used to be amazement that someone would have a collection of, say, 200 railroad china place settings or 300 lanterns. Now, perhaps with the perspective of thirty years later, my own reaction is "Who in %#*&!@# had ROOM for all that crap?!?!?"

At least two other railroad archives I deal with are undertaking serious pruning of books. Both used to keep duplicate copies of certain books on a "just in case" basis, or because one could be kept in good condition while the other could be flipped on the copier with no worries about potential damage, and/or because previous collection policy was based on keeping collections intact ("It was the PRR's own office library copy!" or the like). Now, simply to make room, they're being forced to rationalize, and dupes are being made available to other archives on a case-by-case basis or even as surplus sales. At the Maryland Rail Heritage Library, I'm fighting like a salmon swimming upstream through bears to retain the somewhat large selection we have on foreign railways because "nobody uses them". I've also surplused hundreds of duplicates that were retained just in case there was ever a split between the two organizations involved with the Library (The Baltimore Streetcar Museum and the Baltimore Chapter NRHS)--the BSM finally acknowledged they wouldn't need books on logging railroads in Michigan or Shay locos, or Link photo books or diesel locomotive manuals, if that happened.

I've followed auction prices of books and railroadiana for thirty-some years. The reality is that, in many cases, books that used to go for hundreds are now bringing lukewarm interest at best, many common books now go for the value of the paper for recycling, and don't even ask about back issues of Trains, Model Railroader, etc. Getting a complete set of a magazine was a fun challenge when publication spanned twenty or forty years; it's a freakin' albatross when it's 70+ years and Kalmbach has digitized its main magazines for easier searching (at a price). The reality is that museums and clubs would do just as well to GIVE away lesser surplus, with "FREE Magazines to those under 18, limit of 12 per visit!" to entice our future volunteers into the hobby and avocation.

We're hardly the only hobby with this problem, mind you. I hear similar laments and situations in pastimes such as folk dancing, historical re-enactors, vintage cars/tractors, ham radio, maritime history, and even hands-on stuff like zoos, geology, etc. Many historical costumers I have as friends have a ritual of a "flea market" estate sale for a deceased fellow costumer's typically-expansive horde of fabric, notions, sewing machines, vintage buttons, etc. At some point the one's house is going to be nothing but bolts of fabric......

Somehow, I've ended up with five RR kero lanterns so far--ALL gifts or freebies. The rule around here is that it only stays if it is usable for blackout duty.

Author:  psa188 [ Tue Sep 19, 2017 2:39 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: How best to preserve histoic items that are in private h

Alexander D. Mitchell IV wrote:
At the Maryland Rail Heritage Library, I'm fighting like a salmon swimming upstream through bears to retain the somewhat large selection we have on foreign railways because "nobody uses them".


If you lose that fight, contact me before that unused foreign stuff goes into the dumpster.

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