During my kids' pre-Easter spring break, I spent the better part of a couple of days placing the contents of my mom's attic in a 15 cubic yard dumpster (11 x 8 x 6). I came to a number of conclusions sweating up their in the attic going through boxes of mildewy, insect-ridden junk. To wit:
1) Do not put books in the attic. Either leave them on shelves or give them away to someone who will appreciate them. It is not pretty what happens to books after decades in an attic.
2) Don't save bunches of copies of things when a single copy will do. I could have done without throwing away an entire box of pamphlets promoting my dad's failed real estate venture (good plan, bad economic timing). A couple make a nice souvenir, a thousand make a pain in the ass (actually, the back).
3) Do not save children's clothes in the attic for some indefinite future. Short-term this works fine, as we have done it with out own kids clothes, but long-term, bad idea. Even if they are put away properly and preserved (unlike the clothes that had clearly been home to a family of mice), they will likely be hopelessly out of style.
4) Save things with a genuine personal relevance. The aerospace memos that my dad wrote in the 1960's about how to program a satellite to orbit earth– very cool. Aerospace memos by people not my dad– heavy.
5) If you think you might want to see it again some day and it exists in libraries, don't put it in the attic. I'm sure the old editions of Sky & Telescope magazines and Aerospace journals that my dad kept can still be found archived in places other than my mom's attic, with the added advantage of not being literally rotting away.
6) Save letters. Most all the coolest finds were letters (even cooler than the $2000 in cash, but that wasn't in the attic anyway). Especially as more and more of our correspondence disappears forever into the on-line aether, letters take on added importance. Finding the box of love letters my mom wrote to my dad was pretty amazing.
7) Not all letters are created equal. Letters tell you all about the writer, little about the recipient. The letters from my mom to my dad gave me a wonderful portrait of the 22-year old Hilde Kopf. The letters from my dad's girlfriends before my mom told me a lot about a sweet 18-year girl from Lynchburg named Gayle. Not much better than reading anybody's random letters from the 1950's, though. Into the dumpster. Likewise, cards– into the dumpster. What Hallmark had to say about a baby being born in 1961 was just not that interesting.
8) Don't save the college notebooks. You'll never use them again and they really aren't that interesting. Basically, the transcription of what some long-gone professor said. Papers– maybe. I ended up tossing all my own notebooks into the dumpster, but a number of those papers said pretty interesting things about who I was from the ages of 18-22.
9) Which leads me to my final conclusion on the matter. I emptied out the attic before going through all my own old personal belongings in my bedroom. Definitely the right order. I simply asked myself, "would the boys think it was pretty cool finding this 40 years from now or be cursing me for making them carry it out of an attic?" That proved to be a good decision rule and helped me get rid of a lot of stuff.
10) And lastly, get your parents to clean out their attic while they are still alive!