Did you inherit the family stuff? What are you doing with it? Need some advice? Denise Levenick otherwise known as the Family Curator sat down with Jean to provide tips for your family archive.
Jean: Denise, I love that you remind us that “in every family, someone gets the stuff.” In my family, it’s me. It seems that, among the genealogists, that “someone” is also the one keeping track of the names, dates, and places. I guess that makes sense. Can you tell us what inspired you to find it your mission to help these people keep track of it all and treat it all with respect?
Denise: I inherited my first archive of family treasures in 2000, nearly forty years after my grandmother’s death. During that time, her letters, photos, and all kinds of bits-and-pieces had been stored in a large steamer trunk tucked away first in a shed and then in a garage. The trunk was opened twice in all those years when I was allowed to remove (and then replace) a few select items to use for a family history research project in college. By the time I inherited the trunk’s contents in 2000, both my aunt and my mother had checked out the contents and rearranged the contents once again. When “the stuff” came to me in five cardboard beer boxes (my aunt wanted to keep the trunk), I knew it was time to use better preservation methods. The Family Curator started as my online journal, a place to record my progress organizing, sorting, and working with all those papers, photos, and keepsakes.
Jean: And it’s not enough that you have a website (http://thefamilycurator.com), but you have written a couple of books. Tell us about them and how people can purchase them.
Denise: After writing about archival preservation on my website, I started writing articles for Family Tree Magazine on the same topic. Eventually, we discovered that a LOT of people were like you and me – they had inherited a treasure trove of family artifacts. My first book, How to Archive Family Keepsakes is a workbook style book designed to help family curators of any size collection. It’s the book I wish I had when I inherited my grandmother’s things. I share what I learned about organizing photos and documents, how to find archival containers and which ones to buy, and how to set your scanner for preservation copies of photos and all kinds of things you may want to digitize. One entire section of the book is really a reference to preserving photos, documents, and memorabilia – how, where, and why.
The companion book, How to Archive Family Photos, came about because there was so much more to share about family photos. With digital photography, we all have thousands of images to organize, including scanned copies of old photos, research documents like census images, and our own family photos. This book is a step-by-step guide to organizing and backing up your digital photos, and physical photos, with a section on how to create all kinds of family history photo projects. I wanted to write instructions for anyone who’d never made a photo book – to encourage people to use their scans and new digital images in new ways. I also wanted to give experienced photo book makers some new ideas, like printing photos on fabric or using photo apps on their smartphone.
Both books are available from Amazon and ShopFamilyTree, with links and more information on my website www.thefamilycurator.com/books .
Jean: Curatorial assistance – I love that phrase! And you offer it, inviting people to ask you for advice. Your FAQs are great, but then you have a form for the question you haven’t answered there. That is very generous. Do you get many responses and what is the most unusual one you have received (without disclosing confidences, of course)?
Denise: I love that phrase too! Actually a local business by that name works with art collectors to store and ship fine art anywhere in the world. I don’t offer shipping, but I do offer assistance with curatorial problems. And yes, I get a LOT of inquiries, and I do answer every single one.
Recently someone wrote to ask where to get replacement cord for an old photo album. She asked about using shoelaces, which is probably fine if it’s the standard old-fashioned non-archival photo book. I suggested that she scan the pages while they are loose and use cord from a fabric and trim shop (or a shoelace to refasten the book.) The album should be stored in an acid-free archival box for protection from dust and handling and kept away from light sources in a location with moderate temperature and humidity; a closet, cupboard, or file drawer inside the house would be good locations.
Jean: And then there’s your blog (there’s a link from your website). What great ideas you provide. What are some of the excuses people have for not following your excellent advice (I know you’ve probably heard them all)?
Denise: Some people (ok, many) want to save money on archival supplies so they insist on using “brand x” products labelled “Archival.” I have a hard time convincing them that “archival” is only an adjective like “storage.” There’s no official “Archival” label for true acid-free, lignin-free products. The best way to purchase true archival products is to shop with reputable archival supplier such as Gaylord.com or Hollinger Metal Edge. They make and sell containers to the National Archives, Library of Congress, and institutions nationwide. Their products are the best choice to preserve your family collection.
Jean: And, as a follow-up question to that, what is the number one thing you find people doing wrong, when it comes to preserving their heritage (and you can take that in whatever direction you believe will be most beneficial)?
Denise: Preserving our family heirloom originals is one thing our ancestors did and we can continue. But we can and should take the next step – digitize the photo or document and record the provenance (history) and the story of the item. All these wonderful treasures are worthless without a tie to the people and events of the past. It’s not hard to record the history of your heirlooms. I have a template on my website you can use to get started. Add a photo, collect the sheets in a notebook and you have a gift for your family. Here’s the link to my Heirloom History Form. Let me know if you find it useful!
Jean: Any other words of wisdom?
Denise: The role of family curator can be a burden or a blessing, but it’s a rewarding opportunity to get to know your ancestral family better, as well.
--Jean Wilcox Hibben