Family Archivist: Caring for an Heirloom Collection

By Sunny McClellan Morton Premium
If you’ve inherited not just one Hungarian ceramic bird but an entire flock of them, it’s time to call in the experts. Margaret Burzynski-Bays, curator of manuscripts at Cleveland’s Western Reserve Historical Society <> offers advice on taking care of collections.

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Q. How can my ancestor’s collectibles be a family history treasure?
A. A person’s collection tells us something about the owner and connects us to him or her, whether it was someone we loved or someone we never met. When a person really cared for a collection—kept things organized and in good condition—it tells us that this was a significant part of their lives, something that was important to them.

Q. Should I divvy up an heirloom collection or keep it intact?
A. My advice is to keep a collection together as much as possible. Here at the historical society, we don’t split things up. We keep items together so the collection is complete and cohesive. This is what my family has done, too; we make and distribute digital images so everyone has everything.

Q. Should I have my collection appraised?
A. If you’re going to keep it in your home, you might want to. An appraisal will help you if you decide to add it to your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy.

Q. How should I store or display my collection?
A. If it’s mainly paper, don’t put the originals on display. Instead, scan them at a high resolution (more than 300 dots per inch) and display printed copies. Keep the originals stored in acid-free boxes and folders in a closet away from any plumbing. Keep them at a constant temperature and humidity: no attics, no basements. For more information on caring for specific kinds of collections, consult a conservator or Saving Stuff: How To Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions by Don Williams and Louisa Jaggar (Fireside).

Q. What if I’d like to donate my collection?
A. When you find an appropriate museum, library or other institution, make an appointment; don’t make a drive-by donation. Be ready for them to say they don’t want your collection. But if they do want it, be prepared to tell its story the best you can. What do you know about the owners? What do you know about the collection itself? Caption any pictures—we need to know who the people are.

Q. Where do I find archival supplies to help preserve collectibles?

A. You can get these from any number of vendors. Invest in good-quality acid-free boxes and folders. We get ours from Hollinger Metal Edge; you can’t beat their prices.
Resource Roundup
Use these archival resources for completing the projects described here.

Shredded archival tissue, $14.70 for 1 lb.
University Products, <>, (800) 628-1912

Acid-free artifact tags (item AT13), $23.05 for 100
Gaylord, <>, (800) 962-9580

Portfolio photo box, $21.85
Hollinger Metal Edge, <>, (800) 862-2228

Zip-lock polyethylene bags, from $8.69 for 100

Gaylord, <>, (800) 962-9580
Archival Action: Catalog Your Collection
Time: 60 minutes +
Cost: Less than $25
Have a house full of heirlooms? Take an hour to tackle the task of cataloging your valuables.
1. Write what you know. Who started the collection and why? Who added to it or maintained it over the years? What personal connection do you have to it?
2. List each item in the collection and its provenance (ownership history), if known. To make it easy, download our free Heirloom Inventory Form at <>.
3. Give some background. Add other documents and items that tell the story of the collection: sales slips, inquiry letters, product advertisements or brochures, journal entries, inventory lists, photos or news clippings.
4. Label individual items with archival artifact tags (see Resource Roundup). Sample label: “Wooden mallet, circa 1865, Ashtabula, Ohio. Collected by Leonard Ridings, early 1900s.” Include whatever details you know. Tie the tags loosely; don’t staple or tape them to the artifacts.
5. Number the items. If your collection is large, consider numbering the lines on the Heirloom Inventory Form and writing corresponding numbers on artifact tags.
6. Pack it up. Cushion or wrap fragile and three-dimensional objects with acid-free tissue. Package flat objects (coins, papers, photos) in polyethylene sleeves or bags, acid-free folders or envelopes. Protect the entire collection in acid-free archival containers.
7. Record yourself. Add your name, the current date and your contact information to the Heirloom Inventory Form and other documents you created in steps 1 to 3.
8. Stay safe. Store these documents with the collection, and a second copy in a secure location. Label the containers and stow them safely as described in Ask the Archivist, above.
Heirloom ID: Slippery Slope
Inclinometer, circa 1866
An inclinometer measures a surface’s angle of slope. There are many types, but in this one, the center chamber is filled with liquid and the angle is read at the intersection of the liquid level and the chamber rim. The cover is held by a single screw, and pivots open and close from the center of the right side of the level.
The construction of the fluid chamber is somewhat mysterious. The type of fluid originally used in the chamber and how the seal was constructed are unknown. Many known examples have been damaged by efforts to get into the chamber or by drilling a hole at some point to attempt to fill the chamber without opening it.
Made by the Patent Level Company of Bridgeport, Conn., this level is marked “patent applied for”—similar models have patents dated 1866. This example, especially in excellent condition, is pretty rare.
Don Rosebrook » author of American Levels and Their Makers