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?