A Note to My Readers: We spend years and countless dollars, travel to ancestral grounds and haunt offices of county clerks, libraries and museums – looking for new research material…new information to feed our habit. That’s all well and good…I love it, too, but taking the time to organize and maintain your home archives is one of the most important things a family historian can do. You are a personal museum if you think of it and your inventory is irreplaceable. Put down your Indiana Jones hat and pick up the white gloves and become an archivist for a bit. You might have new revelations about your ancestors providing a new path for research, but if nothing else you will find comfort and confidence knowing that your legacy will be passing down the knowledge of what your family heirlooms are.
My family bible is 146 years old. It was the marriage bible for my great grandparents Elbert Purdy and Elizabeth Williams of Enfield, Tompkins County, New York. The wedding certificate is a page that is one of the illuminated pages at the very center of the bible that contains pages of marriages, birth and deaths. Other than the fact that the front cover is separated from the binding…the pages are in remarkable condition. The bible has survived house fires, many moves…from Enfield to Ithaca to Auburn to Cayuga, New York to New Hampshire and Rhode Island cross country to California and back to New York state to New Jersey and finally here to Pennsylvania…thousands and thousands of miles over 146 years. It has been passed down through several generations and I hope it continues to do so. For years it was in a box…in my mother’s closet…and then in mine. Until I started working on the family genealogy…and was bitten by the bug.
I work with historians and archivists…museums and libraries…and have learned how to protect my valuable family treasures. Mementos is too small a word. Treasure is more fitting. The bible is in my barrister bookcases…behind glass…not exposed to sunlight and in a temperature controlled environment. The newest expert opinion is out on the subject of handling old paper with or without gloves. Making sure your hands are clean before perusing old books and documents seems to be the prevailing wisdom of the day though I still run into museum and library folks who maintain the glove requirement protocol. The standards I have hung my hat on come from the National Archives…and you don’t have to be a big institution with vaults and expensive methods to use their guidelines.
Digital is nice for sharing with multitudes of people…and I have an ongoing project to scan old photos, documents and ephemera to do just that, but the real thing…the tangible items are dear and touching and a digital image can never evoke the same awe.
Store your items well…organize them. If you are a Virgo, Type A like I am…catalog and index what you have. When you pass them down, there will be no guess work for the next generations about what they are and to whom they pertain. I spent over a decade working out mysteries and I still have some ‘orphan’ material and photos, but they are few and far between, thank goodness. After all, we all have expressed regret because we didn’t get that information from the previous generation and we are left wondering.
Lots of stuff? It’s not going to get any less, so choose one small box at a time starting with the oldest material and settle down on a rainy or snowy day and begin. Your great grandchildren will be glad you did.
Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher
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