What is a Family Archive

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Everything we own or use does not belong in a family archive.

In the archives profession we try to identify items that have enduring value. A family archive should retain records that show documentary evidence of a person’s life.

Collectively this forms the family history.   I cannot say fully what would have enduring value in your family. To some extent the matter is very personal. But there are certain things that are typically more important than others and are worth saving.

Legal Documents – certificates of birth, death, marriage, passports, immigration papers, military records, lawsuits, divorce decrees, wills, etc. Legal documents reveal a great deal about people, sometimes in ways we don’t always think. Typically all legal documents should be retained.

Financial Value – stocks, bonds, deeds, purchase and sales agreements, loans, appraisals for jewelry, antiques or equipment, family heirlooms such as jewelry, silver, watches, artwork. Keep items that show evidence of value that are still active. Many people are very private about how much money they earn, but saving some of this information First Sales Agreement p1might be revealing to future generations.

Functional – documents used to accomplish a specific task. Blueprints, architectural drawings, maps, navigational records, scientific and observational documents, business plans, cookbooks, dress patterns, knitting patterns. If they were created by a family member or show evidence of something that was important in their lives, you may want to save it.

Show proof that an event occurred – legal documents will do this, but other events not legal in nature will be recorded through graduation diplomas, religious rites of passage such as first communion or bar mitzvah, greetings cards for birthdays, sympathy cards, thank-you notes, awards or certifications for hobbies or sports, course completions or professional training certificates. I’m an avid concert go-er and save tickets of the different concerts I’ve attended. Photographs are the most explicit way we document that an event occurred. Photographs of family reunions, travel abroad, annual holidays, or baby’s first tooth are all events we may find important to save and archive.

Some discrimination will be needed in this category of showing proof that an event occurred.

Ask yourself, does this item have enduring value? Does it show evidence of a person’s life? Is the event significant enough to keep evidence of it?

In other words, do we need to keep every photograph from every holiday? It’s probably not necessary to save every Christmas card you’ve ever received, but you might want to Mom,Dad,Marriage Certsave all the sympathy cards you received when your father died. Think of what would be of interest to your future forebear.

Sentimental – This is a tough category because, depending on how sentimental you are, everything could potentially be saved. Some things have higher sentimental value than others.

You probably don’t want to save the McDonald’s uniform you wore in high school, but you may want to save the baseball cap you wore if that was a big part of your high school experience.

If you played baseball one season and weren’t very good at it and didn’t like it, keeping the cap doesn’t really provide evidence of who you were and what was important to you. Many people save wedding dresses and christening gowns that are passed down to future generations. My family saved the fiddle my mother’s Uncle Freddy played to entertain the family. He died many years before I was born, but I will keep the fiddle and include the stories my mother shared about his wild life.

Recording the Inner Life – many people spend hours carefully creating records of their own thoughts, telling their own stories, or recording the lives of other family members. These documents include journals, scrapbooks, photograph albums, blogposts, videos, emails, letters, memoirs, oral histories, books, especially those that are signed by the Lillian Frenier 4-22-1907author or contain margin notes by the owner. We’ll want to save these documents since the owner took such care in creating them.

Social Interactions – most people have belonged to at least one social organization in their lifetime whether it’s the Boy Scouts as a child, or a quilt group as an adult. Some of these social institutions form a big part of our identity and our personal history. In many cases families participate in a social organization as a group. This is particularly true of many religious institutions. We may have in our possession minutes of meetings, programs of events, membership rosters. Sports organizations also fall into this category, as would recreational activities such as boating, hiking, skiing, golfing, or bicycling. Evidence of political activity such as pins, banners, financial contributions, speeches, campaign activities may have enduring value. It’s not necessary to save everything from every organization we ever attended. We may not want to save any of it. But, if we’ve received special recognition or if it formed a big part of our personality, we may want to save a few treasured items. My Stearns, Donna Quilt Competitionsister belonged to a quilt group for over twenty years. She received recognition for some of her quilts, gave presentations, and participated in the group’s annual events. Retaining some evidence of her participation in this group will show future generations what was important to her, provide evidence of her values, and document how others perceived her and her handicraft.

 

Donating to an Archive

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It always interests me how people react when I tell them that I have a business that teaches people how to create a family archive. A while ago I was working in the stacks with an archivist who was visiting to look at some of the materials in our collection. When I told him about my business his immediate thought was that people would want to give their things away and donate them to an archive. He’s usually at the receiving end of that equation and I could see he was concerned that people would throw things away before they made it to an archive where the archivist could preen over it, and it could be preserved into perpetuity.

I explained that teaching people how to dispose of their materials wasn’t my main intention. My focus is to teach them how to keep and preserve their items.

But, when I thought about it, I saw he was right. Many people don’t want to keep everything, yet they don’t know what to do with it. You may also feel that your house is not the best place for some of the precious historical items that have been handed down IMG_2020to you. This is exactly the reason many people donate materials to a trusted archive that is better equipped to ensure the article’s long-term survival.

If you don’t want to keep everything, or

think you have something of significant historical value, the best thing to do is to contact your local historical society.

I suggest you call the place that you are most familiar with, or the one that is closest to you. If they don’t want your items, they may be able to tell you who will. Make sure the archive you contact is a bona fide repository with real archivists working there. In my area there are small town historical societies that are run by interested volunteers who might not know any more about what to do with the materials than you do. The Staff section of the archives’ website should let you know if there is a qualified person on staff.

Most archives also list on their websites a Mission Statement, and maybe even a Collection Policy. Look under the About section for this information.

The Mission Statement or the Collection Policy will give you an idea of whether or not that archive collects the type of materials you have.

IMG_2014If you own a 19th century doll collection, you might want to give it to an archive that specializes in 19th century dolls. It doesn’t have to go to a place that is that specific, but housing your materials in a place with other like materials will raise the chances that it will be seen by patrons. If you are unsure about where the best place for your materials would be, or don’t want to do the research, make the initial phone call to the archivist. They will set you on the right track. They may know off the top of their heads where they best place for your materials will be.

The next question is should you give it away or should you sell it to the archive?

You could give it away. Many people do. Matter-of-fact, most people do. It depends what it is. If you have an expensive silver tea set that was your great-grandmothers and you have no one to leave it to, and you think a local archive might be interested in it, by all means have it priced by a reputable dealer then approach the archive. Archives will absolutely pay for something if it is of value. But if it something of less value, or very little value on the open market, consider donating it. Archives tend to work on very limited budgets and often they won’t take something unless it’s donated.

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Photo Credits:  All Photographs taken by author from the American Textile History Museum

Baby2135

People who have attended my Library Lectures are very familiar with Baby2135.  I teach it in every lecture.

IMG_2222 (1)Before starting to create a family archive consider who you are creating the archive for. If you are not one of those lucky people who have photographs and letters from a long, lost relative who lived during the Civil War or the American Revolution, it’s probably not on your radar to think very far ahead when considering who you are creating this archive for. You may think of creating it for yourself in the event of a disaster. You may think of creating it for your siblings and cousins who you will share with at the next family gathering. Most people think of their children and grandchildren when they think of preserving their documents. Typically this is as far ahead as most people think.

Instead think of the person in your family who will be born after the last person who Edmund Frenier Srhas known you directly has died. Think of your forebear who would think it was cool to have memorabilia from the 20th and 21st centuries. Why do I want you to expand your thinking about who you are leaving your archives to? Because you will tell your story in a very different way; you will describe a letter, a deed, a photograph, a quilt differently. Instead of indicating that a picture is of, “Aunt Mary and her friend, Lou,” you would write instead, “Mary Louise Smith and Lou Johnson. They were a couple for many years, but never married.” If you write for your children you will assume they know who “Aunt Mary” is and that they know that Lou was the boyfriend she never married. The person who is born after the last person who has known you has died, will not know that.

Here’s a formula to help you conceptualize this:

  • If you were born in 1945 and live to be 100, you will die in 2045.
  • If your great grandchild is ten years old when you died, they would be born in 2035.
  • If the great grandchild lives to be 100, they will die in 2135.
  • The person that is born in or after 2135 is the person I want you to think about when you preserve your family history. I call that person, Baby 2135.

I know that sounds crazy and an extremely long time into the future. When I think of Baby 2135, it seems so remote and abstract that I think, “Who cares?” When I’m working in the archives and I wonder whether or not I should save something, I always look back and think, “What don’t we have that I wish we did?” or “What do we have, that I’m glad we do.” Asking these questions changes our perspective. With that in mind, let’s apply the formula to our ancestors.

  • Say you had a great, great, grandfather who was born in 1800.
  • If he lived to be 100, he would have died in 1900.
  • His 10 year old great-grandchild would have been born in 1890.
  • If the great grandchild lived for 100 years, he would die in 1990.
  • The person who was born in 1990 would now be in their twenties.

Doesn’t seem that long ago when you put it that way, huh?

 

 

 

Photographs:  Abby Coelho, Edmund Frenier, Sr.

The Eternal Connection to Our Ancestors

Genealogy shows like Finding Your Roots, Who Do You Think You Are and Genealogy Roadshow, bring to life how connected we are to our ancestors. In each Agnes Flaherty Chadwickepisode people are deeply touched and moved when they learn that a great-great-great-grand-parent who they never knew, lived through a major historical event or disturbing personal tragedy. Whether the history tells of a celebrated past, or a painful circumstance, we are connected to our past. We care deeply about our forebears lives. We often can detect how what happened to them shaped who we are today. Stories and legends get passed down for generations, some true, some only partially true. Today, we have the opportunity to tell the story of our ancestors and to add our story to the mix.

Sometimes values are handed down that are not connected to a story anyone remembers, and yet, everyone in the family lives according to that lore. In a particularly moving Genealogy Roadshow episode, a young woman learned that her grandfather was part of the Tuskegee Experiment. After understanding her grandfather’s tragic story, it made sense that she was brought up believing that she should never trust the government.Tuskegee

In my family after three generations of fathers who left women and children behind, a legacy of strong, independent women who learned to fend for themselves and their children was created. “Always have your own money,” my mother taught. “Just in case.” We all knew the legacy of my grandmother and my mother, but few knew the story of our great-grandmother who also had to support herself and her children at the turn of the 20th century by doing laundry for college students. Her experience most likely influenced her daughter to get divorced in 1930 and her grand-daughter to leave behind her husband in 1972. Unlike most of their peers, their family history provided the permission they needed to get out of bad marriages.Jeanette & Friend

What are the values your family lives by? Some values and traditions are so deeply rooted we may not be aware that they spring from the experience of an ancestor 100 years ago. At the same time, we need to ask ourselves what legacy, values and traditions am I creating? What lessons have you learned, or been forced to learn, that you hope your future forebears will benefit from?

The Fate of Unlabelled Photographs

When you die, your stories and your memories die with you. This includes the stories you know about your grandparents and great-grandparents; the stories your mother told you about relatives you never met; the stories your grandfather told about life in bygone days.  Unless you preserve these stories in a way that your family can access them and in a way that is meaningful, your family legacy will die, if not with you, then with your children.

mable, edna as kids with unknown other kidsWhen my childless Aunt Hope died I took a box of photographs stored in her closet that my cousin was going to throw them out.  I couldn’t wait to get home to see what was in them.  I opened the box anxiously anticipating what I would find hoping to see pictures of my father and aunts and uncles when they were little.

What I found was disappointing. I didn’t know who was in the pictures or where they were taken.  Pictures are of my father’s mother’s relatives who I never met remain mysterious.  Without information accompanying the pictures, their meaning is lost to me. 

I brought the box of photographs to Hope’s sister, Thelma in the hopes she could identify them.  She was helpful to a point, but dementia had already set in and I quickly became aware that she was making up names in an effort to do a good job and please me.  Taking the time to include the who, what, where, why and how of photographs may be the difference between a photograph being kept and cherished and one that finds its way to the trash bin.

Have you ever gone to a flea market, yard sale or church bazaar and found a box of photographs on the table ready to be sold to the next buyer?   I’ve always wondered how those photographs ended up in a place like that.  After seeing my aunt’s photographs, I understood why a family member would have no reason to keep them.  Why not get rid of a box of photographs that are meaningless to you?  Without an explanation of who is in the picture and what is going on, the pictures are just clutter.  Unless you take the time to organize and preserve your photographs, they might end up in a flea market bin someday, too.  On the other hand, if you take the time to describe your photographs and other materials, you will create a family legacy that people in your family will appreciate for generations.

 

Sisters

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Rhonda, Donna, Debbie,

When I was a teenager my mother would say,

“Your friends will come and go, but you’ll always have your sisters.”

That sentiment has been true for us.  And my mother should know.  She had sisters, too.  My family is filled with Three Sisters.  I have two sisters (Donna, Debbie, Rhonda), my mother had two (twin) sisters (Pauline, Pam, Jean).  My mother’s mother, Lena, had two sisters (Lena, Mabel, Edna).  On the other side of the family, my father had three sisters (Stella, Thelma, Hope).  The May 2016 issue of Vanity Fair devoted the entire magazine to “Sisters.”  Reading through the articles we find that often sisters are the one who has your back, they are our best friends, and our trusted partners.

Although I think my mother’s sentiment is true, I also think

having sisters prepares us to be good friends.

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Edna, Lena, Mabel

My sisters and I all have long-term friendships from high school.  Over the years we have made many other friends as well.  While these friendships are important to us, the bond of sisterhood has always taken precedence.  Like a marriage, we are together in sickness and in health.  My sisters attended my first communion, my confirmation, my high school graduation, and my college graduation.  I was one sister’s maid-of-honor and the other’s bridesmaid.  We are all godmothers to each other’s children.  We’ve attended all the family functions together – weddings, christenings, funerals, Fourth of July parties, family reunions, showers.  When I had an accident in 1985, my mother and both my sisters visited me that night to hear all the details and make sure I was okay.  When I had to have minor surgery in 1991, I stayed at my mother’s house while I recovered; one sister made me my own tin of toll house cookies, the other brought over a pot of barbequed spare ribs.

When I was in my early twenties, everyone from high school used to go to a nightclub in town.  The place would be packed, wall to wall, on a Friday night, standing room only.  While I knew many, many people in the club and talked and joked with many of them, I was always happy when my sister showed up.

She was like an anchor I could return to after any other conversation.

But, more often than not, I was happy to just hang with her and make observations about the people in the room, or just talk about our own lives.

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Jean with brother Harold

After both sisters got married we started a tradition: unless another commitment came up, we would meet at my mother’s on Sunday.  At first our Sundays were quiet times where we shared our weekly happenings at work, adventures with friends, things we bought, deals we got, recipes we found, clothing we purchased.  We discussed politics, world events, and the latest scandal in the local newspapers.  We might tell each other about the movies we watched, giving a scene by scene description encouraging them to see the same movie, or telling the funny parts, or the most dramatic.
The quiet of our Sister Sundays eroded when the children were born.  As they got older and louder and more demanding, my mother set up the cellar as a play room.  Rarely was a full thought or a full paragraph uttered without interruption.  Gleeful chaos.  I didn’t see it that way then.  Then it was mostly annoying.  But I look back on those years fondly as gleeful chaos.  Sometimes our grandmother and Auntie Pauline would join us. My mother lived with Auntie Edna, so she was always there.  Woomania, my brother-in-law called it.  All the women.

Jean, Caitlyn, Casey, Rob, Donna, Matthew

Jean, Caitlyn, Casey, Rob, Donna, Matthew

The children eventually grew, as children do, and stopped coming on Sundays.  Our Sundays got quiet again.  We still shared the latest gossip, world events, and trivial minutia of our lives, but now sans the constant disruption and disarray.  Auntie Edna died in October 2000.  My mother sold the house and moved to a smaller place.  One sister stopped coming on Sundays.  My mother, the other sister, and I continued to meet and go to dinner and share our lives.  A few months before our mother died I asked my sister, “Do you still want to get together on Sundays?”  “Sure,” she said.

My sister and I still meet every Sunday.

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Twins – Pam & Pauline

My friends know not to ask me to do things on Sunday.  I’ll be with my sister.  When we met at my mother’s we sat around the kitchen table, talked, went out to a restaurant for dinner, then sat around my mother’s table again.  After she died we started going to the movies or fairs or art festivals.  This summer we started hiking.  Sometimes we meet for breakfast.  Usually for dinner.

My sister’s mother-in-law had a sister.  The two of them lived to be almost 100 years old.  They both died at the age of 98, two years apart.  The last few years of their lives were difficult, but well into their nineties they were fit and strong, active and aware.  My sister and I hope to be as lucky.  There’s a saying,

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

Sisters are the ones who toss aside the umbrella and dance in the rain with you.

 

 

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Rhonda, Debbie, Donna

 

Our Home Libraries

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Someone asked me recently what they should do with their books after they pass on?  Many of us have extensive libraries in our care that have taken years to create.  Any bibliophile can take you into their library and speak with love and reverence of the books they have collected and own.  If you come into my library, I can tell where the books on the shelves in my library come from.  Many, of course, were purchased on Amazon.  But others were bought in bulk at used book stores, or  yard sales,  church bazaars, or sales at local colleges, universities or public libraries.  Friends have given me boxes of books as they downscaled and/or moved.  What they couldn’t take with them, they gave to me knowing I would value them, and would take care of them.  Many of the books in my collection have been signed by the author after I attended one of their lectures.  Some of the books on my shelves I love and can expound on, ad nauseum.  Many others are awaiting the fortuitous day I will have the time to pull them off the shelf and spend luxurious hours reading.  I told a friend one time that my unread books haunt me.  I feel like they are staring at me all the time wanting me to read them.  He said,  “Just think of them as old friends you haven’t met yet.  Someday you will.”  I hold on to that promise.

My favorite bookA true bibliophile is like that.

Our books are not mere paper and ink.  They are little islands of knowledge and adventure.

The authors we’ve never met, are like friends who have revealed the most intimate details of their lives to us.  We value those revelations.  Whenever crisis has crashed on my doorstep, I go to my library and find the books I know will soothe my aching wounds, and quell my quivering hands.  At those times, my books become a lifeline.

Favorite ShoesAlong the road of life I’ve met two women who gave up their libraries.  One of them I met a month after she had taken the drastic step as she moved across the country to attend grad school.  Why get rid of your books, I asked?  Why not just put them in storage?  I watched both women go through a grieving process as they spoke lovingly of one of their favorite books only to realize they were no longer the owner of said book.  It was painful.  I have no plans to get rid of my books.  My sister always talks about purging and downscaling.  I understand that perspective, but acknowledge that as long as I’m here on this green earth, there are certain things I want near me, and my books are pretty high up on the list (along with lots of favorite clothes).

FavoritesConsidering the great love affair we have with our books, the question remains, what do we do with them after we have passed.  If you make no provisions, your children will probably take what they want, invite others in the family to take what they want, then give the rest to Salvation Army.  Instead, you could will your books to a local library.  Depending on what’s in your collection, you could consider donating them to a university, perhaps your alma mater, a college or a local public library.  Of course if you think your children might be interested in the collection, you could stipulate that whatever they don’t want will go to the library.  You could also select different libraries for different parts of your collection – the history books, science books, and computer books to go to a college library while the trashy novels you love could go to a public library.

Favorite RecipesWhat will happen when they get to the library?  The Acquisitions Librarian will go through the books to determine if there is something that will fit within the scope of their collection policy.  All libraries have a collection policy that stipulates what types of books they will collect and what kinds they will not.  If there are books in the collection that the library doesn’t want, but they know of another library that collects that kind of material, they will pass it on to the appropriate library.  The remainder of the collection may be sold cheaply to their patrons, they might be sold to a used book store, or they may be sent overseas to fill the libraries of third world countries in desperate need of good books.  In one way or another, the books that have brought so much joy to our lives, will hopefully find their way into the hands of a new caretaker who will value them as much as we have.