Monday, October 17, 2011

Introduction to the Unofficial Family Archivist

The Role of This Book

Fourteen years ago, my husband and I bought and moved into our first house as a couple. I began unpacking personal papers and heirlooms that had been boxed in apartments for years. They would have taken up too much space in cramped quarters for me to permit their release from confinement, but our new home afforded us the room to settle in and unpack the things that represented our family memories. As I worked, I took time out to flip through long-neglected albums and began noticing problems with them. All of the causes for concern were common preservation issues I confront every day as an archivist: The images of my childhood in the 1970s were beginning to discolor. The glue on the “magnetic” pages on which the pictures were stuck, not intending to budge, was browning. I found that I needed my professional skills in my personal life. Up until that time, I primarily thought of applying my archives background to collections within institutions. After this experience, I began thinking of all archives (records with long-term value) and personal memorabilia within anyone’s possession as mini “collections,” requiring similar care to those materials housed in professional repositories.

Within every home is a treasure trove of information. Unfortunately, many irreplaceable documents that help tell individual stories, and the stories of our communities, are deteriorating among our personal belongings. Photographs are turning yellow and fading. Papers are growing brittle. Staples holding items together are rusting. Files are getting lost among growing digital trails. The documents and keepsakes we have gathered over the course of our lives are often not given the attention they need to maintain their physical condition. Few are given organizational structure or are labeled in a way that would be understandable to people who do not have a direct connection to the items. Many memories are getting lost in piles of personal “stuff.” In my work as an archivist and consultant for the last eighteen years, I have found that most people think that their family records are important, but they do not know how to properly maintain them.

This book focuses on the care of personal papers, photographs, and memorabilia. Personal papers are created by individuals and families and are one type of archives. Archives are the recorded information that we create in any form during the course of our daily activities. They document our lives and shed light on our personalities, actions, and values. They tell about how we function in society. They include information about our communities and the culture that surrounds us. Our photographs help illustrate these moments. In addition to creating this information during our lifetimes, we also collect “memorabilia” that is meaningful to us and helps describe our activities. Memorabilia makes it easier to celebrate the events and special occasions we cherish. Ribbons picked up at state fairs, postcards from trips, and buttons we wore in support of campaigns tell much about who we are and what we value.

Clients often tell me that they have been called or see themselves as “the family historian.” They develop an interest in family history that is sometimes sparked by finding old papers or photos in their home, or they are thrust into the role when they inherit a pile of old materials. Interested in the past and concerned about the neglect of the resources that shed light on it, the family historian attempts to care for these materials with little guidance. This book will give you or the person protecting personal papers the knowledge needed to begin caring for materials thoughtfully and in a competent manner. You will be capable of creating a valuable resource that you can access for family information and will learn how to safeguard your materials for the future.

The Unofficial Family Archivist: A Guide to Creating and Maintaining Family Papers, Photographs, and Memorabilia grew from a presentation focused on one aspect of safeguarding personal materials—the act of preserving them. I have addressed varied audiences on this topic in a workshop I offer titled Preserving Memories: Maintaining Family Photographs, Personal Papers, and Memorabilia. I find that attendees are often people with an immediate need. They bring in treasured personal papers and objects that they see are in danger. The materials are usually discolored, disintegrating, or moldy; items are brought in shoeboxes and manila envelopes. Simple changes in the way they are kept will promote their longevity, but there are other aspects to consider. This book addresses a wide variety of topics so that you gain a broad, encompassing perspective on your personal items and the history they represent.

Think of the papers in your home as a “collection.” This grouping of materials tells the story of your life. People who influence you, important events, and topics in which you take interest should all be represented. The papers you create are the raw information (or the “primary sources”) that one would use to write your biography or examine to better understand how you lived and worked among your peers. Think about how your personal papers represent you. What aspirations and activities are evident that explain the real you? How do you want your children to remember you? What personal papers among your archives show your humanity and highlight your role in society? When we save the records of our past and work to define the context for them, we strengthen our family traditions and values. We increase our knowledge of humanity and better our communities. Understanding a personal and larger history goes hand in hand with protecting its resources.

The Unofficial Family Archivist is organized into eight sections that discuss preservation and other methods you can use that will protect your family history. Topics relate to creating and identifying materials that represent you; how to properly organize, preserve, and describe these items; and how to prepare them to pass on to future generations. This book provides information to guide you so you may enjoy your materials, easily access them, feel comfortable that they will last for a long time, and be confident that you can pass them on to future generations.

Important Things to Keep in Mind as You Read

First, please realize that it is not necessary to be perfect. For example, my home has wide temperature fluctuations from one end to the next. Though changes in temperature increase the possibility of materials disintegrating, I do not have much choice. Most of my materials are stored in the room that is hottest in the summer. This is not ideal, but that is where they fit, so I make do. Rather than focusing on achieving all of the suggestions in this book, focus on those that you can most easily achieve first and work to improve things over time. Do not get frustrated if you cannot afford all of the supplies that I recommend, do not have perfect storage conditions, need to keep certain things separated throughout your house for space reasons, or cannot identify all of the people in your photos. Changing just a few things about the way you care for your personal papers can greatly increase their longevity and informational value.

Second, consider your personal papers as a whole. Take account of your old and new records. Think of all the materials that represent your life. The concern that you have for the letters your mom passed on to you should be given the same care as the emails you send to your daughter in college. “Personal papers” can take a variety of forms. The information that we collect and create is becoming more complex over time, but the basic strategy for viewing your materials as a whole “collection” representing you remains the same. The basic archival methods described here—preservation, arrangement, description—apply on a general level regardless of the medium of your personal papers.

The Unofficial Family Archivist: A Guide to Creating and Maintaining Family Papers, Photographs, and Memorabilia explains the basics of managing personal papers in a way that is understandable to nonarchivists, while retaining accuracy about archival methods. Some of the information is quite in-depth for those who wish to fully control their personal papers. The chapters on arrangement and description primarily are those that go into more detail than many users may want or require. Adapt and abridge the field standards for your individual needs and do not see them as a set prescriptive to which you must adhere.

This book highlights a selection of the personal collections for which I have cared that are held by small repositories in New England. These samples demonstrate how individuals and families living their “normal” lives can prove extraordinary to future generations. Some of these stories make up the most respected parts of the American psyche from major events such as the Gold Rush, the Civil War, and the suffrage movement. They include the struggle of immigrants and working professionals. They reveal common people with big dreams that often take them to great places. They should serve as models for caring for your own materials and demonstrate the value of each life story to a larger history. In the appendix, I outline these and other collections from repositories with which I have no professional affiliation that are also mentioned in the book.

The end of each chapter includes short exercises to help you with the care of your family records. A glossary at the end of the book may clarify unfamiliar words. Though I would like to avoid jargon, I think it is important for readers to get a handle on the most common words that archivists use when they think about collections and caring for cultural heritage resources. The words are intended to inform and to spur interest. I do not want them to be a source of frustration. The technical names for things do not matter—the concepts behind them do.

The Chapters

Family heritage keepers need to consider whether they are passing on a well-rounded collection of experiences through their written pieces of lifetime evidence or whether they are just passing on bits that leave more questions than answers. The first chapters of this book explore how to ensure that you are keeping the important things. I teach you how to eliminate clutter to highlight important resources. Removing unimportant papers from your files tightens your remaining items into a core collection of valuable informational resources for your family. Chapter One helps you begin thinking about the important elements and stories of your life. Chapter Two assists you in identifying which records best reflect your narrative to help you form a strong informational source.

Then, whether preparing your records for your own personal use or for future generations of relatives or community, this book assists you in making your family information accessible. After reading this book, you will be able to put in place an organizational system for family papers that highlights your life and values. Chapters Three and Four introduce established arrangement systems and accepted, easy techniques for preparing collection indices or lists of documentation. They explain how recording the subject matter found among your materials and creating an inventory of file names provides additional assurance that your organized collections are also comprehensible. For those interested in more thorough tools for “indexing” collections and ways to make information more accessible, I introduce a few professional concepts for describing collections. Among these are describing the scope of the collection, including essential biographical information related to the creator(s) of the materials, and other elements that provide a more complete overview of one’s personal papers.

These chapters are particularly important because many people have told me that they are concerned that family materials are not valued, and that once they no longer personally care for them, the items may be discarded. This book will eliminate anxiety concerning the future security of your family’s history. The value one can inject into a family collection through proper boxing and description methods makes the need to properly maintain the materials obvious to anyone who takes over archiving responsibilities after you. Your preparations will secure materials as a noteworthy family asset.

In Chapter Five, we explore preservation problems and techniques that keep items safe to ensure their longevity. This section explains the basic elements that cause deterioration so that you can avoid common problems. I provide information about storage supplies and what to look for in a safe storage space. I make you aware of issues for which you should seek expert help and where to get that help, while providing tricks for smaller pesky problems, such as eliminating a musty smell from materials. My goal is to show you that a few simple measures can make a tremendous difference. I offer advice about disaster preparedness to ensure that you are ready in the face of a threat such as a flood.

Chapter Six encourages you to also think about what aspects of your life are not recorded. We explore projects for recording previously undocumented information. Oral history, journaling, crafting, and more are considered and examined for appropriateness in documenting personal history. Readers are encouraged to try to capture a sense of place in their written records. I explain how different formats are valuable for conveying different information and also to suit different personality types.

Chapter Seven discusses digital information. Thinking about electronic documents as a standard part of modern personal archives, I describe their unique preservation and management needs and explore how to deal with common personal digital files. I note places where we leave our digital footprint, how to organize our electronic personal information, the role this information plays in telling a life story, and the challenges ahead for maintaining information in a quickly changing digital environment.

The final chapter of this book encourages individuals to consider donating materials to local repositories to add pieces to a puzzle of a community history. The addition of personal papers to established collections helps ensure the protection of a larger cultural heritage. This chapter discusses how to approach local professionals to donate papers, how to provide information about your family’s historical role in the community, and what to consider when offering your papers to an institution.

Cultural Heritage Collaborators

This book relates to the concepts presented in my previous book, Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation, which aimed to encourage partnerships among cultural heritage repositories and communities. The Unofficial Family Archivist further explains the role of families to ensure the complete documentation of historic events in our times. These two books may be used together to encourage communities to take better care of their historical resources.

I promote the idea that, beyond their family connection, our personal papers tell what it is, or what it was, like to live in a particular place at a particular time. Within cultural heritage institutions around the world are the personal papers—diaries, correspondence, photographs, and other documentation—of common citizens like you and me. Our stories are important for understanding what it means to be of a certain race, sex, or ethnicity. All of our historical documents, whether kept in professional repositories or in private homes, have value to the human story. We must all work together to make sure our heritage is secure and that the documentation that tells this story is inclusive and comprehensive.

This book unlocks the world of professional archivists so that you are aware of how your personal materials relate to those held by cultural heritage repositories. It introduces you to archivists’ methods and how to get in touch with an archivist when you need additional assistance. It provides information about fields related to archives management, such as museum studies and library science. Our personal papers are a valuable resource that forms the backbone of history, but materials hidden in homes and unknown to cultural heritage experts often hold as much historical value as materials found in professional repositories. I encourage you to seek partnerships with professionals who can help you better understand your personal and community history. I encourage you to play a part in working with professionals to create a plan for effectively documenting your community and your contributions to your community.

Use this book to start thinking about your collection and your place in history. Treasure your personal papers and recognize that they are a valuable cultural asset. You can choose to highlight your place in civilization through the records’ care or inhibit your legacy with their neglect. Recognize that the role you play as an individual can assist cultural heritage institutions formed with the purpose of preserving wide-ranging heritage. Your role as an “unofficial archivist” is vital for capturing personal experiences that illuminate larger trends. By maintaining your papers and supporting the care and safekeeping of diverse historical resources, you help guarantee the long-term memory of civilization. Know from where we came so that we can better plan where we are going. 

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an interesting book. I really like when you say "These samples demonstrate how individuals and families living their “normal” lives can prove extraordinary to future generations." That is so absolutely true. You never know what is going to be interesting to historians someday. I have recently been working with a collection that includes several Civil War era letters; the family lost a few members in the Civil War too - it's been very interesting reading.