Do you have a few (or many) boxes of:
old family photographs,
old home movie film,
some or all of the above?
If your answer is yes, then you are a family archivist. Keep reading and you’ll learn how your family archive is a living bridge from your ancestors to the next generation.
I recently attended the Georgia Archives Institute. Although I was learning about what professional archivists do, I learned some tips anyone can use easily. Everyday folks who have boxes of old family photos and inherited papers can apply techniques professional archivists use for preserving and protecting collections in institutional archives. What you have is a “collection” or several collections, just like the big repositories. You have a family archive.
Preserve, Assess, Access.
Three words archivists use a lot are: preserve, assess, and access. I’ll explain what they mean for you, the everyday family archivist.
Translation: Treat Old Photos Like Family (at least the family that you like).
Would you make family members live in a wet basement, an ovenlike attic, or an unheated garage? No! So don’t treat your precious family records like smelly gym shoes or garden tools. An easy first easy step to take is just to move the stuff. Get the boxes out of the attic, basement, garage, or heaven-forbid, the backyard garden shed. Find a corner of a room or an interior closet in a climate controlled part of your house.
I won’t get into using archival storage containers in this post, but the sooner you get photos and papers out of regular cardboard boxes, the better. Here are links to an archival photo storage kit and archival document storage cases from my favorite archival supplier.
Translation: Look through what is in the boxes. Make quick notes.
If there are moldy or bug infested items, DO separate them from the main part of your collection. You may have to discard some items if there is considerable damage. If it’s a one-of-a-kind photo of an ancestor, photograph it with what you have – a smartphone or digital camera. The important thing is to prevent the icky mold from spreading to other items in your family archive. And you should get the moldy, buggy stuff out of your house.
Before you start “reorganizing,” STOP! Provenance is good! Provenance means the relationship of the record (the photo or document) to the person who created them. By keeping the items together as you found them, you may discover the context in which they were created. Context helps tell the story. The sedimentary layers of photos may indicate time periods in your family history.
As you glance through the boxes, you don’t have to make a list every individual photo or paper, at least not right now. Just get an idea of what the photographs and documents are about in general, and make notes.
- Photographs of Edna Rutledge as a college student (about 1920)
- Edna Rutledge school records (about 1915-1920)
- Edna Rutledge Jones and Herman Jones early marriage photos (about 1925)
You know that quick list you created? Make a digital copy and share it with cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, kids, and grandkids. Scan a photo or take a photo with your smartphone to give them a taste of what’s in the boxes, or rather, collection. See, we’re thinking like archivists now!
Do you know a story behind one of the photographs? Tell it. Or maybe there’s a “mystery” person in a photo. Ask family members if they know who it might be. Or better yet, if you know who the person is in a photograph, (such as Grandma Edna as a child), ask the family to guess who it is and offer a prize!
One thing an archivist does is write a short biographical note about the “creator” of a collection. If it was stuff your Grandma Edna tucked away into a shoebox, then your grandma, Edna Rutledge Jones, is the creator. And the stuff in the shoebox is the Edna Rutledge Jones collection. Keep the biographical note brief. Use birth and date dates if you know them, and a brief overview of what you know. You can add to it later. You can include the biographical note when you share the pictures or have it handy when your relatives start asking about Grandma Edna’s childhood photograph.
Caring for your family archive is like the old adage of eating an elephant. You do it one bite at a time. Or one box at a time. Just start. One box today. Another box tomorrow.
Archives are not places for old, dusty records to be hidden away. You and other members of your family are keeping the memories of your ancestors alive by preserving and sharing the stories embedded in your family’s photographs and papers. Your family archive can be the living bridge between past and future generations of your family.
One way to share your archival treasures is with a short video. I’ll take you step-by-step through the process in the Ancestors Alive on Video course. I invite you to learn more by clicking here or on the image of the bridge below. Span the generations with an Ancestor Story Video.
Thanks to Kathleen D. Roe, an instructor at the Georgia Archives Institute and author of Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts. Also, thanks to Christine Wiseman and Tina Seetoo for teaching the preservation portion of the GAI. They all helped me to better understand and apply the concepts of assessment, access, content, context, and preservation in archives.