Did you hear about the guy who found a copy of the Magna Carta folded inside his uncle’s high school yearbook and brought it to the Smithsonian’s Archives Fair last year?
No, of course you didn’t, for that did not happen. But that’s not to say there weren’t treasures all the same, beloved bits of personal history presented to Smithsonian archivists for comment and advice. For what would be more priceless to you: a moldy bit of parchment curtailing the powers of a 13th-century king or some irreplaceable photographs of your grandfather dressed in the uniform he wore on D-Day?
Preserving such artifacts is what the Archives Fair is all about. The second annual event runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday at the S. Dillon Ripley Center on the Mall. Smithsonian archivists will talk about some of the treasures from their stacks and answer questions from the public. And they will no doubt rail against the evils of the magnetic photo album.
You remember those, don’t you? I have a basement full of them: sturdy three-ring binders with adhesive pages covered in sheets of thin, clear plastic. Lift the plastic up, stick your picture on the page, smooth the plastic down and — voila! — you have just set in motion the eventual destruction of the photograph. If the acids from the glue don’t get it, your fingers will, when you try to pull the photo out of the binder’s sticky grasp. Rrrrrriiip!
“I haven’t seen a magnetic sticky album in a long time,” Nora Lockshin told me.
Nora’s a paper conservator at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and she said people are getting smarter about preserving family heirlooms. Most of us still have things to learn, though.
Tape is a no-no, for example. Nora has seen it on documents from as far back as 1890. “There’s not a lot of reason to use adhesive tape when you can put it in an envelope,” she said.
Just make sure you mark the envelope with a detailed description of its contents. And, please, don’t use a ballpoint to write on the photograph.
“We try to avoid that sort of thing,” Nora said. “Pen and ink can travel through the layers of a photograph, even if you’re marking on the back. That is something that would be very hard to remove. We prefer that people mark with a very soft No. 2 pencil on the back. Or mark the envelope.”
Nora was at the Archives Fair last year. It isn’t “Antiques Roadshow.” The Smithsonian archivists make no valuations, just offer tips based on the work they do every day preserving our nation’s history.
I would say that in our household, the Kelly years of 1987 to 1999 are pretty well documented. That stretches from when My Lovely Wife and I got married to when our youngest daughter entered kindergarten, and Ruth seemed to have time to create wonderfully detailed scrapbooks, full of photos and assorted paper ephemera (in magnetic albums, alas).
After that, the deluge: Our attic is filled with shoe boxes of unsorted photographs. (Why did I always opt for double prints when I went to Ritz?) I can only hope that some future descendant of mine won’t mind going through thousands of undifferentiated pictures of my kids getting their faces painted or the family sitting around a half-eaten Thanksgiving turkey.
Now, of course, everything is digital, which, oddly, means that I look at photographs — I mean really look at them — less often. Sure, they’re on Facebook, and yet . . .
The Smithsonian’s archivists are sure to have advice about that digital stuff, too. After all, it’s no use having something — a photograph, a family Bible — if you can’t enjoy it.
The Archives Fair is free, but if you’re interested in going, visit www.aaa.si.edu/archivesmonth to register.
Franklin Kameny died this week at the age of 86. He was remembered as a gay rights pioneer, and his Cathedral Avenue home is an official D.C. historic landmark. But he had other interests as well. I remember him as a local history buff who would occasionally call or e-mail me to discuss something he’d read in my column.
He was especially interested in old maps of Washington and in the creeks and rivers that crisscrossed the area before it became built up. He was someone who pondered the external topography of this city as much as he pondered the internal topography of people.