Georgia (of the Local Ecology blog) left a comment a while ago on the Boston Tea Party post, saying "I would be interested in an entry about how you acquire(d) and organize(d) your collection of historical documents."
Over the years I've built up a small collection of Boston related materials. My first purchases were books I acquired while writing a thesis on Boston's West End. Depending on your needs and interests, books are the cornerstone of any collection of historical materials about Boston. You can see my collection of Boston related books here, or look at a brief list of recommended books about Boston. I've had some fortunate finds: I purchased the New England Begins: The Seventeenth Century 3 volume exhibition catalog for $9 at the Bryn Mawr Bookshop about eight years ago. If you can find it now it sells for upwards of $500. In general, the Brattle Book Shop on West Street is a good place to start hunting for books. How do I organize my books? LibraryThing, which makes inventorying one's books a breeze.
Maps and Prints
Maps and prints are problematic, because so many of them have been removed from their original context, the book or pamphlet or newspaper into which they were initially bound. This presents a dilemma for people (okay, some people) who buy them, especially on Ebay. One never knows the true source of the map--was it taken from a book in a library somewhere? Did the seller acquire the book with the map in it, remove the map, and discard the book? Questions like these have made me hesitant to purchase from an unknown seller unless I can be certain of the source. Likewise, I don't buy altered maps and prints. I see so many black and white illustrations (usually from places like Gleason's Pictorial) which have been hand colored in an effort to make them more appealing to purchasers--I like my maps and prints in their original form.
I generally remove maps from the books I own, primarily for conservation reasons but also because I actually use the maps. Maps, especially maps which fold into books, are very susceptible to damage. I clean the maps, mend small tears with archival materials, and try to store the maps flat (does anyone know where I can find a cheap flat file cabinet?). For example, about a year ago I purchased an 1896 book listing all of the streets in Boston. Included in the book were twelve or so maps of new street layouts, all of which were showing use damage. Taking the maps out of the book and repairing them halted any further damage to the maps but sacrificed the integrity of the book. Professional conservators will cringe, I'm sure. But this brings up another issue with collecting historical materials: how do you plan to conserve and keep them?
I don't actively collect Boston photographs, as places like the Bostonian Society and Historic New England already have most of what I could possibly want. I do have some however that I have purchased because of their apparent rarity or subject matter--this photograph of a building on Lincoln Street is an example of a photograph which likely doesn't exist elsewhere. If one is interested in collecting photographs, stereocards are often cheap but require a viewer for full effect. For those unfamiliar with stereocard viewers, think of them as the Victorian equivalent of the Viewmaster.
The most valuable item in my collection, to my knowledge, is an engraved copper plate used to print a map showing an aqueduct route to Boston in 1838. I purchased it on Ebay several years ago. In general I don't buy Boston related objects. This is partly because of space constraints but also for financial reasons. I'm not an antique collector per se, so as much as I might like to own a side table made in late 18th century Boston, I don't feel compelled to buy one--if I really need to examine one up close I can find a place to do so, saving me thousands of dollars. On the other hand,I do have quite a few Boston postcards. These are an easy and fun way to start building up a collection of Boston materials--you will often see lots of 50 or 100 Boston postcards being auctioned on Ebay. I also have a number of albums by Boston bands but this is because I like the music, not because of the Boston connection.
As to where to find all of this stuff, Ebay has made it easier, but I would rather be poking around a flea market or garage sale. Half the fun is the discovery. I'd be interested in knowing more about what Boston related things other people collect or interesting objects they might have. If you'd like to write about them for the City Record, email me or leave a comment.