Why We Preserve


Our desire to preserve memories and memorabilia of the past is anything but logical. How can having our great-grandfather’s shaving kit help us in the era of monthly shave club subscriptions? What can a candid photo of our grandmother, or an audio recording that captures the lilt of her voice when she teases our grandpa do in a world of Snapchats and tweets? In short, how can a tangible yet essentially useless artifact benefit us in an increasingly virtual world?

While the desire to preserve isn’t logical by nature, the logical reason for preserving history is that history promotes nostalgia, and nostalgia is good for us, our families, and our communities. Nostalgia is important and strengthening—an antidote to the stresses of today that is, as it turns out, easy to bottle.

preserving family memories

Nostalgia was coined in 1688 to describe a medical condition. The root meaning of the word is “an aching for home” or “homesickness.” When soldiers exhibited symptoms of what we today would call anxiety, doctors would diagnose their illness as nostalgia. The only known cure was to return the soldier to his home. The results of this treatment were surprisingly beneficial and soldiers would begin recovering as soon as they started their journey home.

As the world has become more mobile and we’ve become more accustomed to being away from home, severe symptoms of nostalgia have become less common. Today nostalgia is most commonly used to describe pleasant feelings stemming from pondering the past. Nonetheless, nostalgia remains a topic of scientific study, and researchers are finding that it has positive effects. While we may not have a need to physically return home, revisiting our past can be good for us and our communities. Nostalgizing, as some researchers call it, reduces feeling of loneliness and anxiety. It also increases generosity and tolerance towards others. It is an elevating, motivating, and unifying force that helps us feel grounded and connected to those around us.

preserving family photos

There are close ties between nostalgia and the preservation of cultural heritage. Cultural heritage is made up of the stories, artifacts, and places that define a culture. Nostalgia prompts us to preserve our cultural heritage and our cultural heritage promotes a sense of nostalgia. Even the most hardened military strategists understand the power of that connection. Throughout history, when killing their enemies wasn’t enough, destruction of enemies’ cultural institutions such as libraries, museums, landmarks, and historic sites has been used to demoralize people and eradicate cultures. Conversely, governments who want to promote a sense of community, unity, and patriotism strive to preserve their cultural heritage. If the documents, photographs, and other artifacts that make up our histories have such power, then preserving them becomes important.

Consider what happens when you experience the power of memoirs or memorabilia. Over the years, I’ve noticed that certain items bring me feelings of joy, belonging, and connectedness. When I ponder my past by looking through old photographs, yearbooks, or letters, I feel connected to humanity. When I visit Ohio, the place where I was born, and my Aunt Sharon drives me to all the places my family members have lived, died, and are buried, I feel connected to my family. I’ve seen this power work on others as they’ve been moved to tears or action when interacting with artifacts. People may have heard the stories of their ancestors, their community, or their nations, but seeing the respective artifacts moves them.

preserve family artifacts and documents

It was a sense of nostalgia brought on by artifacts that motivated me to become a conservator and preservation specialist. In 1994, a slow leak from a water heater created a minor disaster in an adjacent closet. That closet is where I stored three cardboard boxes filled with 28 years of my personal memoirs. Those boxes absorbed the water and all my memoirs were severely damaged. As I sat there on the floor staring at wet documents, bleeding ink, mold, and disfigured photographs, my heart ached for what I had lost. Once I got myself through the five stages of grief, I asked two questions. “How can I repair these things?” and “How can I prevent this from happening again?” Then I asked a third question. “How can I help others prevent this from happening?”

Since that time, I’ve been conserving and preserving books, documents, photographs, and artifacts, and I’ve dedicated much of my time to sharing with others how to preserve their own memorabilia. Over that time, I’ve witnessed the power of artifacts to move people to a better sense of self, to feel connected to their community, and to serve people around the world. If artifacts can have that kind of positive power, then who needs logic?

Read more:

FamilySearch Newsroom: Lesson of the National Personnel Records Center Fire

“What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows,”The New York Times

“The Little-Known Medical History of Homesickness,” New York Magazine

“Look Back in Joy: The Power of Nostalgia,” The Guardian