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Summer School: How to keep a history

Two museum cases display artifacts
Anna Van Dine
/
Vermont Public
The museum at the Hardwick Historical Society has artifacts from generations of life in the town.

Elizabeth Dow turns over a framed map of what is now the town of Hardwick.

“Oh, God,” she says. “I hadn't looked at this.”

Find our full Summer School series here.

The map is the oldest document the town has. It was drawn in 1788, before Vermont was even a state. But it won’t last much longer if it’s kept in the frame. She tears brown paper off the back and eyes a piece of cardboard.

“I mean, this is really badly done,” she says.

Hands gesture at a framed hand-drawn map
Anna Van Dine
/
VPR
Elizabeth Dow places a map of the then-township of Hardwick, drawn in 1788, on the counter in the historical society archive.

Elizabeth Dow – known to most people as Wiz – is an archivist. She has cropped gray hair, keen eyes and capable hands. A former professor of archive science, the 79-year-old now volunteers her time at the Hardwick Historical Society.

She’s spent the past several years managing and growing an archive and small museum, housed in what used to be the town’s train depot. It’s got everything from an antique firehose to 130 years of local newspapers.

“Historical societies basically collect two types of stuff. Flat stuff — papers, pictures, that sort of thing — and three dimensional stuff. Artifacts.”

Once that map is removed from the frame, it will be kept in a folder in a drawer in a climate-controlled room, and survive for generations to come.

Wiz says the job of an archivist is to collect and take care of the materials that document our lives and the lives of the people before us. So that we know where we’ve come from, and why we are the way we are.

In a place like Hardwick, knowing this history can make you feel like you belong. Wiz can look at the laundromat and know that there was once a three-story building there. She can see the ghost of a dam that was in the river for 200 years.

“One of the reasons that old friends are so comfortable is because you have a history together. The same thing with a community," Wiz says.

Stacks of books and boxes line metal shelves.
Anna Van Dine
/
VPR
At the Hardwick Historical Society, 130 years of local newspapers are kept in a climate-controlled room. It's 64 degrees Fahrenheit and 60% humidity, always.

But it’s not just towns that have histories. We all have histories of our own, made up of stories that live in photographs and notebooks and cards and keepsakes.

For the most part, Wiz is sparing with what she keeps. She has a box at home that holds letters, and documents that mark milestones in her life. For instance: years ago, she printed out a series of emails between herself and a man she would later marry. Because over the course of that correspondence, they fell in love.

Then, in 2014, he was diagnosed with cancer. Six months later, he died. 

After such a difficult period, Wiz wasn’t sure what was real anymore. So she turned to that stack of printed emails.

“And it was very, very healing. It restored what I — it confirmed what I thought I had known was true. That in fact, it was true," she says.

So if you’re cleaning out your attic, or moving and going through papers, you might find yourself wanting to try your hand at keeping a history. For amateur archivists of all kinds, Wiz has a few tips.

Step one: decide what to keep. This is the hardest part — Wiz has written a whole book about it.

  • Don’t throw away anything until you're emotionally ready to do it.
  • Duplicates are probably unnecessary.
  • Keep the stubs, toss the checks. 
  • Keep the stuff that has a history, that has a story. But keep the story with it. 
  • There's no point in keeping pictures if you don't know who the people are.
  • It’s important to keep the bad as well as the good. (In fact, Wiz says there is no good and bad. It’s all stuff that happened, and it’s all part of the story.)
A woman stands at a table, holding papers
Anna Van Dine
/
VPR
Elizabeth Dow says walking into a room full of artifacts where she knows the stories is like walking into a family. "Like, 'I know you guys,'" she said.

Once you’ve decided what to keep, step two is finding a safe place to put it. Wiz says don’t keep it in the attic, and don’t put it in the cellar. Keep it somewhere dark, with a relatively stable temperature and humidity level. Closets are pretty good.

“You of the digital generation,” she adds. “If you really want to keep [something], make an analog version of it, print it out and put it in a box in the dark. And it will be here 300 years from now.”

Once you know what you’re keeping and where you’re going to put it, step three is to take inventory. Make a list that anyone can understand.

“It all comes down to knowing what you have, and where you have it,” Wiz says.

Because if you do, stories can stay alive.

After Wiz reread those emails between her and her husband, she sent them to the University of South Carolina, where he used to teach. So if you want to read their love story, it’s there, in the archives. And if you want to keep your own history, now you know how.

A square illustrated logo with an apple of a school chair in some grass with headphones and a curled cord leading from them, with the words "summer school" below
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public

All summer long, Vermont Public reporters are learning how to do something. Have an idea? Send it to us here.

Anna is a reporter and co-hosts Vermont Public's daily news podcast, The Frequency, with Henry Epp.