Family Records: Dispose or Donate?
Office organization is a hot topic these days, especially considering how many people are using their residences for remote work. There’s lots of hype—and rightly so—about proper filing techniques, desk accessories and chair ergonomics. It’s true, being comfortable while you work is key to a productive workday. Having the ability to efficiently locate needed information and reference materials is a much desired asset in any office. The same is said for family history collections and research. Historical records considered safe for public access are a treasure trove for researchers, and it takes a focused mindset to ensure we’re all doing our part to save the past for future generations.
Many keen family historians and genealogists bemoan the fact that they don’t have someone in a younger generation willing to take on their ancestral collection when they’re gone. It is a scary thought: all those wonderful heirlooms, memorabilia, family photos, stories and detailed pedigree charts simply being binned or sat to collect dust in an attic.
There are solutions at hand. Here are some ideas to help you maintain your precious family history collection even if you have no eager beavers in the younger ranks.
Idea 1: Donate to local archives or museum.
Example: A person's paternal grandparents’ records were donated to the local archives in the tiny seaside village where they lived and farmed. Bringing these records back to their original home will enhance the historical records of the area.
Idea 2: Donate to specialized archives or museum somewhere in the world.
Example: A person's maternal grandparents were avid British cyclists. Their regional cycling museum was glad to receive their cycling scrapbooks, medals and club newsletters.
Obviously ensure you aren’t donating items about living people or those meant to be kept confidential. Archives can put a ‘hold’ on records for a certain number of years if the donor requests it, but these types of donations do create more administrative work for the archives and prevent access by other researchers. Also, consider if your collection is intended to be a loan or a donation: they are two separate items, and you’ll want to be clear on which one you prefer for your family’s records.
Never underestimate how interesting your family history collection will be to the local archives.
Never underestimate how interesting your family history collection will be to the local archives. Their specialty is preserving local history and this includes topics concerning people, businesses, events, landscapes, agriculture, weather, crafts, trades, sports, education, entertainment and much more. Just because your father worked a 'boring office job' doesn’t mean the archives aren’t interested in his life story. You don’t need to be a celebrity, multimillionaire or social media influencer to have value to your home town. Or the town you moved to. Or the town you did a lot of business with over the years. You get the picture.
Selecting a Facility
When selecting a facility to approach, consider these factors:
1) Where do my family records best fit?
2) How are the records unique?
3) Do the records highlight anything of particular interest or a specialty for this location?
4) Are the records clean, organized and is there a summary/index/reference?
5) What format are the records in and are there multiple formats as back up?
Archivists’ gold standard are well-organized, unrestricted access, fully donated collections that are free from mold and pests. All the better if there is a clear index or collection overview, and better still if a living family member can walk them through the files. In general, archivists loathe breaking up collections (also known as fonds). Records should be kept together so as not to interrupt the flow of a person’s life, activities and accomplishments. Imagine how frustrating it would be for a researcher to discover that the family they are researching has records scattered in three different locations, and no records are digitized. That is super awkward, especially if the records are stored a long way from the researcher’s physical location.
Use Common Sense
One does have to use a bit of common sense as the family records are gathered over the years. It is unlikely an archives will want fifty of your child’s finger-paintings (although the answer might be different if your adult son or daughter is a well-known artist). Selectively weed as you go, yet keep in mind there is a burgeoning market for nostalgia and old toys (pristine condition and in boxes are best) and other unique items. Be careful about digitizing records with the goal to throw away all the paper copies. Many records are historical artefacts themselves offering unique information about the era and person involved. For example, throwing away old family photographs after digitization prevents you from seeing any ancestor’s handwritten notes on the back, the paper stock used by the studio and the original, specific color of the photograph. Digital records are wonderful second copies, but they will never replace the actual artefact. Ensure that you scan the backs of professionally produced photos, too, as the photographer’s details and the design style are essential for dating.
Help is Available
If you don’t have room to store records, and truly have exhausted any family member leads for custodianship, then go to the archives and ask for guidance. Remember, many times a dedicated researcher has saved valuable records from the dumpster, tossed out by someone who didn’t take the time to properly understand their importance. There are plenty of family history and genealogy societies who can help you onto the correct path. After all, their focus is on accurate research which depends upon the existence of a vast collection of records. Seek them out via a simple internet search and ask the friendly volunteers for some guidance – they would be pleased to assist.
Every person should feel a sense of responsibility when faced with grandma’s photo album or an uncle’s former business records. These make up the fabric of a community somewhere, sometime, and are precious to social historians and family historians trying to piece together the past. Treat your family records with the dignity they deserve. Remember, what may seem meaningless to you, could very well provide key insights into a forgotten industry, skill or world that a researcher thousands of miles away is desperate to find. It’s true, every person gets too close to their immediate world; the key is to never get complacent. Just because something is routine and familiar to you doesn’t make it boring and uninteresting to someone else. Think of it like a documentary watched by someone on another continent: someone living in the desert will be fascinated by your seaweed growing business. Someone living by the sea will be amazed at your fruit orchard in the desert. It’s all a matter of perspective. The very least we can all do is ensure the records in our possession are made available for the rest of the world to enjoy.
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