Monday, May 25, 2015

Curating the past

This past fall, I framed a bunch of old family photos and heirlooms, and I gave them as gifts to my sisters, father, and other relatives.  It was pricey, but it was worth it to pull these treasures out of boxes and make them visible again.

Problem is, there are still more boxes. Still more treasures . . . a lot more treasures.  And maybe there are not enough people to treasure them.  What to do with all these leftovers?

I started inheriting the family memorabilia after I got interested in our history -- like many people, I was enthralled by the 1977 television series Roots, based on Alex Haley's novel.  After that, my grandfather sent me letters he'd written to distant relatives and their responses.  In my young adulthood, I travelled the country collecting stories and memorabilia from our elderly relatives.  Now I have a hand-drawn family tree dating back to the 1700's.  I have photos taken in the year 18-something.  I have giant, 80-year-old books of baby photos.  I have recipes.  I have diplomas and a few clothes and hand-tatted lace and a doctoral dissertation.

It's the kind of collection that everyone in my family thinks ought to be preserved.  As time goes by, though, it becomes clearer and clearer that, this collection, . . . well, . . . , um, everyone else is happy that they are not the ones preserving it.  Life is busy; there's not much time or inclination to sit and read those old, scrawly cursive handwritten letters.  And the photos of these people -- remembering how each of these unfamiliar faces fits into the family, it gets so complicated that looking at the pictures becomes another chore.  These relics reek more and more of ancient history; they feel less and less like the leaves and fruits of a living family tree.

So this collection has become my white elephant:  it's too precious and irreplaceable to toss in the trash, but it's also so unwieldy that nobody actually wants it in their own house.  We need a family library staffed by a family archivist; that's what we need.

Instead, we've got a corner of my sewing room and me.  I want my sewing room back, and I'm getting ready to resign from this job.

So, here's my plan.  Now that I'm on sabbatical, I'm really supposed to be doing my math (and, in fact, my math is what I want to do).  But I'm going to pick one morning each week, and during that morning I'll spend an hour digitizing and making sense of some part of the collection.  I'll transcribe relevant handwritten notes, so they're easier for us all to read.  I'll scan photos and diplomas so we have electronic versions.  I'll write up a family history, including photos and letters in appropriate chapters, so it's easier to tell who fits in where.  With any luck, by December, I'll have a "book" both in digital and in paper form, and that's what the family will be getting for Christmas.

And then, everyone will have one full year to claim anything they want from the collection.  Fair warning, full disclosure.  And if no-one else want this stuff, well, then neither do I.  The originals will all make their way into the recycling bins.

I'd be glad to take advice from other people who've tried similar things in the past.  Anyone?  Anyone?


  1. My cousin is a historian and curator in the historical department of our church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). She always recommends donating your family or personal papers, photos and memorabilia to a university library where they can be curated and then made available to anyone who is studying that period of history. David McCullough says the same thing. Don't just toss the original photos away. People who study historic clothing love pictures of real people, especially if there are dates and stories to go with the pictures. You are doing a true labor of love to put together a family history book. All the best to you in you efforts.

    1. Hmmm, interesting. We do have a local historical society, but none of my family grew up local. I suppose I could look into university libraries, though -- it's possible that the school where my grandfather and great-grandfather were both students might appreciate some of the stuff.

      Thanks for the advice! -MM