When it comes to history, everything is worth remembering, and everything is worth saving. Unfortunately, our brains are not capable of remembering everything, and there isn’t enough space in our world to save everything. So we have to make some judgments as to what is worth remembering and saving.
Technology has allowed us to keep nearly all things historical when it comes to pictures, words, and sounds. Computers can store vast amounts of data while libraries and the internet enable the average citizen to access it. Unfortunately, technology has yet to come up with a way to efficiently save and make accessible three-dimensional objects. Museums proliferate across the country but are still woefully inadequate when it comes to storing and displaying everything historical. And so we are faced with the problem of deciding which artifacts to save and which to let pass into oblivion
In general, there are three elements worth considering when assessing the historical value of an object. These are; age, quantity, and quality.
Age Although it may seem discriminatory, age does play a factor in determining the historical value of something. This is due in large part to the fact that the events and people of our current era may not yet be recognized, or have not yet fully realized their historical importance. An event or thing has to hold up over time, prove, through longevity, that it is significant either on its own or as a catalyst to something else.
Paul Revere’s racing through the streets of Boston proclaiming that the British were coming may not have seemed too historically significant to people roused out of bed by his cries. But to the people of twentieth century America it was an event of tremendous historical significance. The true significance of the event wasn’t clear until many years later.
Age is the easiest and most objective criteria to meet. No one will argue that a 100-year-old house is only 50 years old. The other two criteria, quantity and quality are highly subjective, and so can lead to disputes over the veracity of the data.
Quantity, The sheer number of remaining objects, plays an important role in determining historical significance and ultimately in determining if the object is worth saving. Old bullets or spent shell casings from the Gulf War would be deemed nearly worthless because there are so many of them, yet a lead shot from the American Revolution would be quite valuable by comparison because, but not limited to the fact, that there are so few of them.
When speaking of buildings there is only one, so it would seem that nearly all buildings, by the fact there is only one, are worth saving. We tend to group structures into categories, such as Victorian or Colonial or we may group them by architects such as Wright or Hobson. If there are few remaining examples of a particular style, those that do remain are more valuable.
Because individual buildings are so unique, despite our attempts to group them into categories or styles, a case can almost always be made for their being the last of a particular breed. The last lenticular bridge in the North East or the only surviving example of cross gabled mansard roofed pool house. Although truthful, some claims of uniqueness are certainly dubious.
Quality What role in history did the object play, or what events did the objecting witness? A house used as a stopping point on the Underground Railroad played an active role in one of this countries major historical events. Such a house has historical significance. Another house of the same age six blocks away has comparatively little going for it regarding a role in American history. As with quantity, some quality claims can stretch the imagination. The cash register which holds the money Paul Revere used to pay for the saddle he used on his famous ride.
Ultimately, the historical value of an object or building is a personal decision. If it is something you or your community believe is worth saving, then you will make an effort to keep it. Just as you’ve probably got a smattering of old movie tickets, worthless to someone else but invaluable to you, so too our built environment holds value to some and not to others. For this reason, it’s important to save those things you believe are valuable. If you don’t, it may turn out that no one else will.