Written by: Margot Note
Immortalize your family’s cherished photos, documents, and memorabilia for generations to come.
As the new year starts, we reflect upon the last twelve months—the soirees, the sorrows, and the surprises of our lives. Celebrations during the winter holidays have reconnected us with our families. Together, you may have reminisced about past gatherings, heard family lore, or created new traditions. The importance of documenting memories of a passing era becomes even more evident as our loved ones grow older. We imagine we will always remember the moments that now seem most important to us, but memories are fleeting. Lifelong remembrances are one of our most priceless possessions. Preserving our papers and photographs—the physical manifestations of our family’s story—fulfills a need for our sense of identity and permanence. Your photos and letters have fascinating histories, including how and why they survived generations. Will you give these artifacts the care they require? As a new year’s resolution, commit yourself to saving your legacy.
I’m an archivist, a professional who preserves historical papers, photographs, and other materials. My job is to harness history and protect the primary sources that historians use to decipher the past. Often, people think of archives as only concerning the materials of generals and kings. Not so. One of the most important developments in history in the last few decades is the recognition of social history and the lives of everyday people.
This connection to the past is why shows like PBS’s Finding Your Roots are so popular. People love to learn about those who went before us. It’s our need to understand ourselves and how we fit into the world that intrigues us. Archivists teach people to immortalize their families’ cherished photos, documents, and memorabilia for generations to come. The caretakers of these precious holdings inherit boxes overflowing with memories but are puzzled on how to start preserving their heritage. Archivists can help you showcase the special stories, traditions, and keepsakes of your ancestry. Creating an archives is a priceless family resource and one of the most rewarding projects you’ll ever undertake.
Start with three easy steps.
1. The first, and most important, step is to take your family history items out of harm’s way. Remove your family materials from the basement, shed, garage, or attic as soon as possible. The solitary act of moving them out of these locations will prolong your documents for decades.
These areas are terrible for the preservation of your papers and photographs for many reasons. Basements are too humid and can flood. Attics and sheds experience extreme temperature and relative humidity fluctuations. Garages expose your archives to humidity, heat oscillations, and toxic fumes. All of the locations harbor pests like insects, mice, and other animals that can damage or destroy your collections. Other poor storage areas are rooms with washers, dryers, or machinery that gives off heat, and areas near air conditioning units, heat vents, or pipes. If you’re unable to start organizing your archives right away, a more suitable storage area would be an internal closet in your home. Closets protect against heat, light, and moisture.
2. The second step is to survey your family history materials, which allows you to assess the entirety of your collections. When you take stock of everything you have, you can see the natural groupings of similar items, as well as to start to prioritize the parts of the collections you would most like to protect. Gather them all in one place and see what you have. A dining room table is a perfect place to inventory your materials. How many boxes of papers do you have? Boxes of photos? Photo albums and scrapbooks? Diaries, deeds, diplomas? What are their conditions?
Record what you have. Archives, museums, and libraries use a box- or folder-level scheme for their collections.
They do this because the grouping of materials provides more context than individual items; the value of a record lies in it being part of a larger body of materials. An inventory will provide a box-by-box list and the structure for more details in the future.
Note an important item—such as a photograph of your father receiving a Bronze Star Medal—but concentrate on the group level in most cases. Also note items in poor shape. Summarize as much as you can, and look for groups of materials and their unifying theme.
Having a sense of how much materials you have will help you determine a number of archival folders, enclosures, and boxes you will need to rehouse them so they are protected from the environment. Companies such as Gaylord Archival, Hollinger Metal Edge, or University Products sell archival products online and through catalogs; you can browse also archival storage solutions at your local Container Store.
3. The third step is to seek guidance. Historical societies, libraries, archives, and museums in your area occasionally offer free or low-cost family history workshops to discuss preservation techniques. Some archives provide tours of their storage areas so you can see how historical materials are housed and accessed for generations.
You can find resources for family historians at the National Archives (www.archives.gov) or the Society of American Archivists (www.archivists.org). YouTube videos offering preservation basics, books at your local library, and blog posts abound with helpful advice for family archivists.
My book, Creating Family Archives: How to Preserve Your Papers and Photographs, simplifies the principles and practices of professional archivists so that anyone with a passion for their history can apply these techniques to their family treasures. Based on archival practice, the book offers step-by-step advice that is easy, efficient, and economical. I wrote the book (and my online content at margotnote. com/blog) because I wanted to help everyone protect their treasures using techniques that professionals in the finest museums around the world employ.
If you require more assistance, consultants can create a preservation plan for your collections, after an on-site visit or phone consultation. The plan will guide you in caring for your collections in the safest way possible. For my clients, I outline what to preserve, the archival supplies needed, the most reliable parts of your home to store your archives, and other specific recommendations for care and handling of your collections. Organizations such as the New England Historic Genealogical Society offer Family Archive Packages, where professional archivists process and describe your family materials for you.
A family archives will become a source of historical reference for current and future generations. You and your family will soon enjoy the strengthened relationships, richer communication, and feelings of belonging that preserving memories has brought to thousands of lives. You will come to understand history as you never did before. You will discover the traits, temperaments, and talents that connect your family through generations. You will realize that you are a member of a much larger group than your immediate family. You are part of history.
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