After a snowstorm hit Washington, D.C., in 2002, the ensuing melt and rainfall sent 2 feet of water into Louisa Jaggar‘s basement, destroying her children’s memory boxes and countless other keepsakes. Her son’s waterlogged christening gown was the only salvageable item; other artwork disintegrated in her hands. “It’s freezing cold, there’s no light, we’re using flashlights, and I’m sobbing as I look down and the litter box goes floating by,” Jaggar recalls. “The only thing that survived was the crap.”

She can laugh about it now, but at the time, the irony of the situation was inescapable. She was living in the heart of the preservation world, working on an educational program with the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Materials Research and Education. Her colleagues there were the same people who keep the Declaration of Independence legible and Judy Garland’s ruby slippers sparkling.

Jaggar went to her friend Don Williams, the center’s senior conservator, for advice. The result of their conversations is Saving Stuff: How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms and Other Prized Possessions. Addressing everything from actual antiques to children’s drawings and esoteric valuables like wooden tools, Jaggar helps put Williams’ arcane knowledge in lay terms. Saving Stuff explains the dangers of mold, bugs and children while walking readers through the process of deciding what to preserve. “If you have infinite space, money and time, you can save everything you want, but none of us do,” the authors write. “Even museums don’t save everything.”

Whereas Williams is able to find beauty in an ancient Japanese pike or a stuffed bear head, Jaggar’s focus is on preserving the things that wouldn’t necessarily fetch a hefty sum at auction. “When the flood came, I would have dumped every valuable I had to keep those boxes of macaroni art and writing,” Jaggar explains. “There are some things you can never replace, and they tend to define who we are.”