Family history

Being the family archivist

If you successfully nominate yourself as the family’s archivist, a couple of things begin to happen within a short time.  Everyone in the family who has anything related to family history, especially those items that they don’t want to throw away, but don’t really want, will begin to send them your way.  Aunt Martha’s cup for crochet; your grandfather’s bowling trophy; that recording of your uncle on record singing champagne charlie on his honeymoon in 1933; all those historic and unidentified photographs… they all end up coming your way.

Of course, in with that white elephant memorabilia, is the good stuff, too.  Unidentified photographs, or even better, identified photographs, documents, certificates.  It’s amazing how things creep into the corners of the family and end up with a distant cousin who has no family to inherit it.

We’ve all got horror stories too – I had a great aunt who told me mournfully that she had had a vast number of family photographs, but she had left them in a hidden drawer and forgot them when she moved thirty years ago.  For all I know they may be there still, or floating around the antique stores of Hertfordshire.  I always search boxes of photographs in antique shops in the hope of stumbling across a cache of photographs from the family, but I haven’t so far found anything relevant.  And I’ll never forget the story that someone who helped me in the early days, Joan Scott, told me, about a fellow researcher who died intestate.  Her 50 years of research and all her documents went up in a bonfire as her nephews dealt with her estate.  Not everyone treats other people’s work with respect.

My feeling about the trophies of yesteryear is that you should photograph and record the item, then see if anyone in the family would welcome the trophy.  If you don’t want to retain it, don’t, I don’t think anyone is going to regret the losing of the shield Mrs Boggins received for her works’ five-a-side football tournament.  Give it to a charity, or sometimes small clubs will repurpose old trophies, by reusing them.  The same is true with other items you inherit.  Keep the ones you like and want to keep, but don’t feel obliged to have a repository in your house unless you want one.  But record any information which an object offers to you, including dates and people and locations.

Photographs are a different matter.  It’s very important to make sure that you retain any information included in the photographs.  You should never write on photographs with pen… what I tend to do is to scan them in on the computer, and then identify the scanned photograph.  Originals should be kept in the dark.  Any originals that are fading can be treated professionally to ensure that you don’t lose the image entirely.  The advice is to keep them in an acid free box in the dark, and away from anything that degrades over time, like plastic and printed material.  If, like me, you buy photographs in car boot sales, make sure you label those clearly to ensure that future generations don’t spend fruitless months trying to identify the person on the penny farthing, or the family on the beach in Edwardian bathing suits.

Most importantly, identify the people in the photographs you have taken in your life.  We need to be doing our best to maintain the family archives, and that means keeping up to date.  Add new marriages and births to the list.  Identify people in wedding and funeral photographs.  Being a good family archivist also means recording the current family for posterity.

Facebook now offers some interesting groups for genealogists.  If you have unidentified photographs you need to date, you might consider the Dating old photographs group.  If you have sepia or black and white photographs with damage, there is a free service on Facebook Restoring old photographs free, which will restore the image once scanned in.  I have seen some amazing restorations there.  This won’t repair the damage to the original, but may make a photograph which is not suitable for use in a family history transform into an image that you can use.

In my experience, documents often arrive folded from relatives.  You should be very careful with anything really old, as paper becomes brittle with age.  If you have something valuable and historically important, it may be best to seek help at your local museum, or from a professional conservator, but assuming it is neither of those things, I have generally opened out letters and documents like certificates, and put them in acid-free sleeves.  These will allow you to read both sides of the document without the need to touch it at all.  Either store these in a box, laid flat inside, or if they are things you will be referring to a lot, considering copying them before storing, so that you can refer to the copy.

When I first started my family history, many years ago, I was inclined to dismiss envelopes with no contents and boring documents like insurance papers.  As I have become more experienced, I have learned that any information on a document may be the one thing you need to confirm a fact – an address at a particular date, which is often included in insurance documents, can be the one thing you needed to confirm a particular fact.  The witness to a wedding or the sponsor at a baptism, may tie up a loose end you had no idea was there when you recorded the information.

To ensure that all your research doesn’t end up in a bonfire on your death, talk to your nearest and dearest about what should happen to it when you die.  Ideally, find someone in the younger generation who is interested enough in the research to continue it on, but at the very least find someone who is willing to store it until someone else shows an interest in it.  How interesting your family history is to others will very much depend upon its content, but you can explain that local museums or archives or the Society of Genealogists, may wish to have the research, if a time comes when no one in the family will give it a home.  If done well, they may wish to have it.




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