Sometimes it’s the eldest daughter or the most responsible aunt and sometimes it’s simply the person with the biggest house. But in every family throughout the centuries, the task of keeping the family history alive usually falls to one person.
It doesn’t even matter if that person is particularly good at it. Whether they use a basement or an attic, there’s always one person whose home is piled with photo albums, birth certificates, marriage certificates, newspaper clippings and Civil War muskets.
And for centuries this made sense. Families didn’t move a lot, and photos and keepsakes – well it was so difficult to make copies of them or move them without them falling to pieces – that it just made sense to leave them be, until one of the kids who was “interested in those things”, came by to investigate where they came from.
And history wasn’t always relegated to photos and muskets. It was also passed down from generation to generation through stories and legends by people who had heard them so many times, they could simply sit down next to a fire and regale everyone with Uncle Frank’s escapades during the war or the time Aunt Sophie saved her entire family from ruin.
But in last few decades all of that has changed. Television and the internet have taken the place of listening to our elders share their stories. In fact those elders are probably too busy to do it. They’re all off starting a blog or out volunteering in the community. Family history now consists of fading ten year old video tapes or Facebook photos of last month’s birthday bash.
Which is probably the reason services like Ancestry.com are flourishing. We all want to know where we came from. Not just the last two generations but decades and centuries ago. And with places like Ancestry.com linking us with a past that makes our own history spring to life, genealogy is suddenly cool again.
And that leads us right back to the history keepers. Back in the recesses of those attics and basements are pieces of our history – and every day they’re falling to pieces. The photos are curling and yellowing. The documents are fading, the newspapers and Family Bibles are turning to pulp and the christening outfit is being consumed by moths.
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard the same thing. “Aunt Sadie had a huge house so she kept all the family albums. We never thought about whether they were safe or not, until the night her house burned down or her basement flooded. And then suddenly, two hundred years of history was a soggy, unsalvageable mass of lumpy paper.”
So who is the best person to be the keeper of the history in your family? There’s only one logical answer to that question.
Everyone! It’s time for every person in every family to start sharing the load and sharing the history.
Don’t just appoint one family member to do it. It’s not practical and it’s certainly not fair. What about getting together and making a day of it? Gather all of the family photos from everyone homes and have a scanning party. You can share memories while you scan and then when you’re done, each person gets a copy of all of the photos on a nicely labeled DVD. Do the same thing with the family videos or Super8 movies. One group can be scanning the photographs and archiving them, while another group transfers the videos and films onto DVDs.
Have you ever thought of doing an oral history of your family? Years ago, families didn’t have sound on their 8 mm or Super8 movies, and never had the chance to hear what their great or great-great grandparents sounded like. It’s such an honor and such an opportunity to be able to capture all of the people we love on video now so that we can share them with generations to come. Not only does it bring history to life for everyone, but it shows the entire journey of who we are as a family and how that has made us the individuals we are today.
When Spike Lee was on NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are,” he told a touching story about his grandmother. Evidently she was a wonderful storyteller and lived way into her nineties. Even though he’s a filmmaker and had all of the equipment right there at his fingertips, he just never got around to getting her or her stories on film. And then she passed away, and he lost that opportunity.
He had tears in his eyes when he told the story on the show, and today, not getting her on film is one of his biggest regrets. Maybe he just didn’t want to think that some time she might no longer be with them. So take Spike Lee’s advice. Grab a video camera and get those relatives and their stories on video for posterity. Then anytime you or your children want to hear Grandma or Great-Grandpa and visit with them for a bit, all you have to do is pop in the video and they and their stories will spring to life.
If you have a people in your family who are great at research, consider getting a membership for Ancestry.com and putting them hot on the trail of your forefathers and mothers. If you’ve never been out there, you’d be amazed the treasures you can find, like photos, censuses, war records and steamship records. In fact, we found out that we’re actually related to an amazing woman who led the Red Cross into the 20th Century!
But when you unearth all that information on Ancestry.com, save each and every piece. Archive it on your own computer and then save it to your family tree on Ancestry.com, and give access to that tree and documents to your family so THEY can save the document and tree on their own computers. This way each member of your family will have an entire history for each generation to come, without relying on the water-tightness of Aunt Sophie’s basement, or the crash resistance of one person’s computer hard drive.
We were discussing ways to keep family history and vital documents save with Steve Leveen, founder of Levenger, who is a great fan of fine books and libraries. He told us that, people in library circles have an acronym that helps them preserve important documents. It’s LOCKSS –Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe. The Library at Alexandria burned three times – believe it or not, one of those times was on purpose! But it still survived, because they learned not to keep everything in a centralized location. Centralizing things in one place makes them susceptible to damage.
And what if the relative who is currently the keeper of the history won’t let you take the family photos home to scan them? Not to worry. Grab a portable wand scanner, like the one we like best, the VuPoint Hand Scanner. They’re small, rechargeable and can scan any flat surface, including a photo right in the frame. Just gather a couple of friendly family members, knock on Aunt Sophie’s door, whip out your scanner and start capturing all that family history. Once she sees her prized photos being downloaded to your laptop, where they’ll be safe for years to come, she’ll come around. And if she doesn’t? Well, you’ve got your digital copies of her photos, along with a batch of her delicious cookies for the trip home.
1. First, Grab What You Have
Grab a pencil and paper and jot down the types of family history documentation you currently have in your home.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Relatives’ Birth/Marriage/Death Certificates
Family History Documents
Relatives’ Videos/Interviews/Oral Histories on tape
Anything else related to the history of your family
Using the list you just compiled, locate and gather all of those documents. If necessary, divide them into separate files for each family surname.
2. Next Scan & Archive
Are any of the family history documents or photos you located already on computer? If so, copy the documents (leaving the originals where they are on your computer) to a new folder called Family History Backup.
Scan all of the paper documents you gathered at 300dpi or higher and save them to your computer. When you’re finished, make a copy of those documents and put them in your Family History Backup folder.
If you don’t have a computer, see if you can find someone to scan and save the documents for you. If that’s not possible, then have high quality copies made at your local copy shop.
3. The Family Tree
If you want to take your family history up a notch – or if you’re the historian in your family – we suggest using Ancestry.com or their Family Tree Maker software to create your own Family Tree.
If you haven’t been on Ancestry.com yet, you’ll be amazed at the amount of information, photos, historical documents and census data that’s waiting for you. And once you’ve created your family’s tree you can share all of your information with other family members.
4. Finding The Other Pieces To The Puzzle
Once you begin preserving your family history, you might just have to go and grab pieces of it from grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles and anyone else you can find who has boxes of it in their attic or basement. Those boxes were fine when no one ever moved and historical documents could only be saved in boxes tied up with ribbon. But now that we can actually preserve documents either by storing them in acid free containers, albums or scanning them, there is no longer any reason to make Great Aunt Sophie the sole preservationist in the family.
Not only is it unfair to Aunt Sophie to have all of that pressure, but if something should happen to her home, the memories of an entire family will disappear. That actually happened to one side of our family. Just two weeks before we located the aunt who was the keeper of the records, her basement, bone dry for thirty years, suddenly flooded from a winter storm and along with it went all traces of the Sullivan family photos and history.
5. Getting The Real Story – On Video
Are there people in your family that you want your grandchildren and great grandchildren to meet years from now? Don’t just rely on a photo or someone’s memory to tell the story. Put them on video.
Fire up the video camera and get your favorite relatives to tell their favorite stories or prepare the family’s favorite cake or pie on camera. Then save the videos on DVD in multiple locations to preserve another piece of your family’s memories.
6. Fixing Those Faded Photos
First, once you have all of your photos or documents scanned and saved, look through and find any that are damaged, faded or yellowed and see if you can edit them to get them into better shape. There are three different tools we recommend for this.
A lot of people run right for their favorite photo software programs — like Adobe Photoshop Elements. Adobe is definitely one of the best and we’ve used it on our own photos with great results. But the problem is, there are so many tools within it to fix your photos, that it can be a little difficult, not to mention daunting, to use. One day, Mom and I had had it, trying to get the results we wanted on some of our pictures that needed a lot of color correction. So we began to look for a way to get the correction we wanted in the same few steps (and I mean FEW), whether the pictures were simply faded or way out of whack.
I’m happy to say we found it. Or rather created it! We found five steps that work to color correct nearly any photo of any age, using Photoshop Elements and put them into our book Photo Finish. it’s downloadable for a limited time. Below is one of the photos that we edited using those five steps. That’s me at Disneyland when I was about four. If you have a lot of pictures from the fifties to the eighties that have turned strange shades, download a free copy of our book.
If you don’t have the time, energy or inclination to fix your photos yourself, we’ve found one scanner that stands out among all the others in the marketplace, for color correction. It’s the Epson Perfection line of scanners, with Epson’s Easy Photo Fix software. Do you have any of those photos from the seventies and eighties that ended up a muddled brown-orange mess? All you have to do is use the Auto Fix setting on the scanner and then scan your seventies photos. The scanner corrects the color while it scans. Truly amazing!