August 1, 2012

Paperwork!: preserving family documents, step one

I began the morning paying bills and now, at 10:15 p. m., I have monstrous piles of family documents and artifacts bedecking the living room rug.

I'm beginning to get a handle on the huge project I've undertaken.  My father died at age 88; my mother is now 90 and has a good memory for important things. Thirty years ago, Mother told me that you must always label everything.  That scrumptious photo of the most darling munchkin in the world, meaning yours, is going to be augmented by hundreds more photos, plus scrumptious photos of siblings; plus perhaps scrumptious photos of cousins; and then you throw in grandchildren; and I don't know about your family  but in the right light with the right tilt of the chin I'm hard pressed to distinguish between Charlie and Devin, Carson and Jon; David and Douglas; Mikey and Jeff - pretty much any of the boys - and a photo of my father in his youth.

Family resemblance is a powerful and wonderful thing, but it won't be your friend when 30 years from now you try to identify who's who on a photo that holds no indication of the date when every single one of those darling boys has a smile on his face and a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

So as I was saying, Mother labeled everything, except for the things she didn't, most of which were duplicate photos that are labeled, which is good, if you can ever get the originals and duplicates within ten feet of each other.

Meanwhile, Mother also did serious genealogical research, traveling with Cousin Carolyn to do research in libraries, phoning relative to find out who remembered what stories and to clarify relationships she was unsure of and also asking for copies of important photos, especially of her mother (who died young) and father, who each belonged to enormous farm families; so photos of their siblings were also good to get her hands on.

Mother created a marvelous set of notebooks into which specific family units were divided.  But then things got tricky. The notebooks collected the faintest whiff of mold over the last 2.5 years in a closed-up house.  Additionally, Mother apparently rearranged items in her spare time, with less than useful results.

I took a class on preserving family heritage last year, and this spring I qualified as a Kentucky Historical Society Certified Community Scholar, which means my head is full of information.  Some tips for your own preservation activities:

Item One. Remove every photo from every album. Mother had transferred most everything out of albums with magnetic pages, but a few remained. I took the albums apart and gave each magnetic page its own folder. Every few months I rustle the folder and see if the glue has dried enough for the photos to fall off.

Item Two. Keep the photos together in some sort of coherent chronological order.

Item Three. Photocopy and/or scan the papers Mother put together from her research. Then wipe off the glass of the copying machine, put the papers into archival quality folders, and store everything scanned and photocopied on a thumb drive and one or two more back-up methods.  (The more back-up methods the better, because everything is going to fail somewhere down the line, and you want backup upon backup for every potential failure.

Oh, wait.  There's another Item One, which is to separate newspaper articles from the rest of the artifacts.  Newsprint and ink are like friendly drunks, notorious for falling apart and taking everything else down with them because of their acid content.

On a side note, somebody at the preservation workshop last year had a newspaper printed in the 1700s, given to her by an elderly neighbor years earlier.  What should she do with it?  The answer:  find out whether the newspaper exists on microfilm, microfiche, or is any other way preserved.  If so, don't worry about. Newspapers, it seems, were a dime a dozen and -- here's a shocking idea -- their value was in the information they contained rather than in the paper on which the information was printed. Bummer, especially if you think you've been preserving something that might make you famous, or at least rich.

We don't have any of that stuff.  We are a plain people. We have lovely documentation, and lots of it, because my parents lived in the same house for sixty years and never threw a thing away. They weren't so much hoarders as cautious. If the water pump broke in the middle of the winter, you might just be able to get the one that worked poorly last year to work a little better this year -- at least, a little better than the one that isn't working.

On top of that genealogical notebooks and family photo notebooks, there are booklets from Tideswell, the town in Derbyshire, England, where my father grew up; and pamphlets published over the years by the ferry boats; and the odd wine bottle label; and a lovely letter my father received when he was naturalized, and an award presented to my mother for having voted fifty years straight. Then there are the various businesses my parents operated over the sixty years on the island; and information about other businesses; and Mr. Zippy on a postcard announcing that the zip code for Middle Bass was 43446.

I've found numerous photos of my mother that I don't remember ever seeing before; and a few new ones of my dad; and a darling photo of his sister, my aunt Mary, after whom I'm named, giggling the way only an eight-year-old girl can giggle.  I also found my parents' original wedding photo, which is a relief, because I haven't yet been able to locate Mother's wedding gown. I'm beginning to think a relative took it home for safe keeping, intending to deliver it to me once I weathered the uproar of my dad's death followed immediately by my breast cancer diagnosis. Meanwhile, I'm sorting and scanning and trying to get rid of the mild scent of mold now in my house.

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