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How to Recognize the Historical Importance of Your Stuff

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Elizabeth Dow (left) and Lucinda Cockrell - SUSAN LARSON
  • Susan Larson
  • Elizabeth Dow (left) and Lucinda Cockrell

The current trend for downsizing and decluttering is missing a vital element, according to Vermont authors Elizabeth Dow and Lucinda Cockrell.

"Yes, we all have too much stuff, and yes, we need to get rid of it, but not at the expense of our heritage and personal history," Cockrell said in an interview.

She and Dow are the authors of How to Weed Your Attic: Getting Rid of Junk Without Destroying History. They appeared at the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh earlier this month to discuss their book during the reception for the current exhibition "Amassed and Up-Ended: Decoding the Legacy of Stuff."

"Our book and the Rokeby exhibit complement each other," Dow said.

The two women met in 2002 during a live video conference class at Louisiana State University that Dow was teaching and Cockrell was taking. Cockrell, who has degrees in historic preservation and museum education and is a certified archivist, was then working as an archivist at the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, from which she took Dow's course. Dow, another archivist with a PhD in library and information science, was teaching in the archives track she'd created at LSU.

Dow and her husband grew up in Pennsylvania, met in Maryland and moved to Vermont after getting their degrees in other states. She began her career as an elementary school librarian in Morrisville, but after 12 years there, she wanted a change. Dow landed at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History in Middlebury. While there, she and colleague Polly Darnell developed a presentation on how to distinguish family papers that have historical value from those that don't.

As she moved to other jobs, and from Vermont to Louisiana, Dow kept giving the presentation and decided to turn it into a book. Then life got in the way. "I was retiring, which took a lot, and my husband got sick and eventually died, and I put it aside," she said. "A couple of years ago, it started calling me back, saying, It's a really good book idea."

To make the book truly useful, Dow decided, she needed input from someone with museum experience. She and Cockrell had kept in touch over the years. Cockrell's husband had taught at Middlebury College before the couple met, and they planned to retire to their beloved Vermont, as did Dow.

Dow asked Cockrell to collaborate. "I said, 'Wiz [Dow's nickname], I can't write!'" Cockrell remembered, laughing. "I'd written programs, interpretive plans and exhibit labels, but I'd never written a book.

"'Yes, you can!' Wiz said to me. We've had fun together, and it's been very rewarding."

"The voice in the book is mine, but a lot of the information comes from Lucinda," Dow said. "It's a very happy collaboration."

The Rokeby exhibition where the pair spoke covers four generations of the Robinson family — farmers, abolitionists, artists, writers and homemakers — who lived on the property from 1793 to 1961. Running through October 27, "Amassed and Up-Ended" presents artifacts, writings and photographs exploring "the ways in which what we save over a lifetime gives voice to some of our stories and silences others," according to exhibition text.

Dow said she hopes their book, like the exhibition, communicates that family history matters. "No one is raising that issue," she said. "It's a good auxiliary book to all those books about downsizing and decluttering, because none of them discusses looking at the historical value of the stuff that you don't want to keep."

In the book, Dow writes:

All family histories include stories, and often families have tools, clothing, souvenirs, photographs, letters and so on that provide tangible evidence of both oft-told stories and other, perhaps untold, stories. The surviving materials can bring family stories alive for generations that didn't yet exist when the stories happened.

The authors explain why people's possessions matter to history and provide general rules for making decisions about what to do with them. They discuss the historical value of mass-produced, individualized, corporate and commemorative materials. The last two chapters cover preserving and donating family objects and papers.

"We don't mean to complicate people's lives," Cockrell said. "We want to make it easier for them to say, 'Yeah, I can get rid of this' and 'Well, maybe I should donate this somewhere so it will stay around and be accessible to people for research and learning.' Of course, not everything belongs in a museum or archive, but so much stuff is just thrown out."

"Without these things, we're trapped in the limbo of the present with no understanding of how things were or how they got to be as they are," Dow said.

"Obviously, Wiz and I are all about public history as it happens around us," Cockrell said. "I was there at the very beginning, when nobody knew what it was and [people] thought we were nuts. We were just coming out of the 1960s and all the social movements. History was supposed to be all this writing about the great white fathers. It wasn't supposed to be about the common people, and heaven forbid you talk about women."

"History can be really dry, with names and dates and actions," Dow said. "But history is really about humans and how they react to stuff. The more you understand that humans have not changed that much in the last roughly 10,000 years, and you can catch them being very human, the more I think history becomes relevant and knowable."

Dow shared the example of a couple in the 1830s who lost a child at birth. The husband wrote in a journal that he went looking for a puppy his wife could nurse. There were no medications to dry up her milk. "It's stunning in its simplicity, but it lights up the way life was," she said.

What about the digital age? "A great deal of the human story is going to be lost," Dow said. "If you've got stuff online that you want to keep for posterity, print it out," she went on. "Facebook is not thinking about 100 years from now. None of them are, even if they claim to be archiving sites. They have a business model that may not survive, and once their business goes down, so do all their servers."

"Most people are like, 'Oh yeah, I can just digitize this, and it will be just fine,'" Cockrell said. "Well, honey, I'm here to tell you it may not. And if it is, how do you know you're going to have that whatchamadigit to be able to see it on, hear it on, play it on?

"It makes you stop and think: In 100 years, what's history going to look like?" she continued. "We're losing that real social, right-there-of-the-moment stuff." Text messages, Instagram posts, Snapchat — all are ethereal forms of communication. "We've lost that culture already, because it's a medium that's not conducive to saving," Cockrell concluded.

"The people whose stuff survives are the people who influence the way history is written," Dow said. "It's important that the documentation of the lives of people at all levels of society be maintained, if we're really going to understand what life was like."

How to Weed Your Attic: Getting Rid of Junk Without Destroying History by Elizabeth H. Dow and Lucinda P. Cockrell, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 152 pages. $32.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Vermonters' Book Shows How to Recognize the Historical Importance of Your Stuff"