Tag: archives

Caring for a Family Collection

Many of us caught the genealogy bug when we were children. I find this is especially true with the current generation of NextGen genealogists. As a child, I was well versed in my family’s deep and varied history. I credit those stories with my burgeoning passion for genealogy in my twenties. One such intriguing story was my grandfather’s service during World War II. As a medical doctor, he served in the South Pacific for over eighteen months, and shortly after my grandfather shipped out, my father was born. They did not meet until my father was a toddler, almost two years later. Another facet of this story is any historian’s or genealogist’s dream: My grandparents wrote to each other every day during my grandfather’s deployment. Better yet, the majority of the letters survived. Originally preserved by my grandparents, the letters eventually came under the care of my father who passed them along to me.

Becoming the caretaker of my family’s historical past is a great responsibility, and it does feel overwhelming at times. There are many aspects of care to consider: how should the letters be preserved, who is allowed access, privacy concerns, what happens after I am done with them, and so on. The following is a narrative of my journey as the family archivist. Nowadays, there are many options available as well as many tools. In my case, this collection of letters, documents, and photographs is huge. In fact, there are over 1,300 letters! Did I mention how overwhelming taking care of a sizable collection can be?

My first thought when I acquired the letters was that I wanted to read them all to glean any genealogical information I could. In retrospect, this sounds wonderful, but at the same time, very naïve. I found reading one letter or two at a time to be fun, but I missed out on the bigger picture of the narrative—similar to picking up a book and reading a chapter in the middle. I knew what happened on one day, but I did not know how or why those events occurred at that particular time.

Family Collection

Organization became the key first step. In the beginning, I separated my grandfather’s and grandmother’s letters and arranged them chronologically. I was able to see the gaps in the narrative more easily. I opened each letter, removing rusted staples and paperclips and flattening folds. While not the best preservation technique, I saved each letter in a plastic sheet protector and organized them in binders. For me, this was the easiest and cheapest method. There are drawbacks to using plastic sheet protectors, especially in places where water damage is likely to occur.

Transcribing and scanning the letters came next. In the beginning, it was difficult to read my grandfather’s handwriting, but I improved over time. Transcribing the letters forced me to actually read what was written, instead of skimming over the words. Once I finished transcribing each letter, I scanned it. All my scans are .TIFF, not .JPEG, which are the better file for preservation. Having a backup copy or a digital image to share with family members is important. What if my house was damaged and the letters with it? I feel much happier knowing I have backups! And always remember to save a set of backups off-site.

Sharing the letters with family was a priority to me. My father had never actually read the letters, even though he had kept them safe for many years. The letters tell his story, although he was too young to remember any of it. With digital copies of the letters, I could have shared them with family through email, or shared sites like Dropbox or Google Drive, but I didn’t. I chose blogging instead. Very early in the project, I decided to post one letter a day on a blog. For me, blogging established a routine as well as a disciplined way to keep myself on task. By posting the letters, I created some lovely “cousin bait.” I have connected with distant cousins as well as descendants of my grandparent’s FAN club. In return, I have acquired new stories and photographs.

Since privacy may be an issue for some readers, always consider the information you might be sharing. In my case, the vast majority of people involved in the letters are deceased; the only person who might object to the content of the letters is my father, and he has given me his wholehearted support for this undertaking. I also feel strongly against redacting history. I may not agree with the opinions or attitudes of the past, but I feel it is my duty to preserve the past, not rewrite it.

After blogging “a letter a day” for a few years, I decided I wanted to reach a different audience as well as preserve the letters in a more concrete way. Self-publishing books has become exceedingly easy over the last few years. Companies like CreateSpace and Blurb produce high quality products, as well as the ability to sell the books through Amazon. I published the first volume of letters last year and am currently working on the second. By having a physical book to share, donations to libraries and genealogical societies are now possible. Books are also great for older relatives who shy away from the Internet.

While I may be finished transcribing the letters, the collection still takes up a lot of my time. I continue to prepare the letters for publication as well as plan for their future. My preservation techniques have improved over the years. Currently, I am phasing out the plastic sheets and binders and am in the process of moving the letters into Hollinger boxes and archival folders. I plan to create a finding aid and catalog the collection. Eventually, I want to find a repository or library willing to house the collection. While I enjoy caring for the letters, I am not sure my children would want the responsibility, so it’s wise to think ahead to the next next generation! 

IamNextGen #1 (1)Deborah Sweeney is a genealogist, author, and blogger based in Northern California. A former theatrical costumer and a fourth grade teacher, she holds a Certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University and has completed the ProGen Study Group. Dear Mother, Love Daddy is the first published volume of letters written by her grandparents during World War II, and a second volume, Lots of Love, Daddy, will be published in the fall of 2016.




How to Achieve Genealogy Success with Archival Research

While the next generation of genealogists may not have to travel to archives, libraries, or courthouses as often to do research as in previous decades, visiting repositories for genealogy is far from outdated. No one has been able to actually measure the percentage of records that are accessible online, but it’s clear that for those who focus simply on researching from their computer, they are missing a lot of information. While I personally have an affinity for researching with original records and spend a good amount of time volunteering at the National Archives, I know that when I walk through the stacks and gaze upon miles of endless shelving that it is far from being all online.

If you are thinking that you want to do some genealogical research at a local repository, you should look forward to the opportunity. There are a few steps you can take to prepare for your visit. Ultimately, you want to structure your visit around your research goals. Is there a specific record or file you want to retrieve and have reproduced? Are you looking for sources that will allow you to go deeper with your research questions? Having a plan is key and the best way to follow a plan is to spend some time doing reconnaissance work about the repository.

Archival Research

There are several methods for scouting out the holdings and collections of a particular repository. Be sure to always check out the website. Most repositories will have a catalog or a variety of guides (finding aids) to their specific collections that will help in becoming familiar with their holdings. The website is also likely to have a page dedicated to policies and procedures, so you can plan what you need to bring or leave behind. A great way to survey materials throughout multiple repositories would be to use large catalogs like WorldCat and ArchiveGrid. You can enter in different subjects, family names, and keywords to locate possible resources. Other resources include genealogy guides that are in print and online for different jurisdictions including counties, states, and countries, even as specific as large cities or college towns where a lot of repositories are in one place. Whatever you find that is of interest, write it down and make it a part of your research plan. You will greatly increase your chance for research success if you go in knowing what you want to look at.

Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to the staff ahead of time. Even if an appointment is not required, it’s good to make contact before your visit. You can explain your research interests to them and they might have some knowledge that will shed light on your query. I think it’s important to prepare how you present your questions. Tell the staff exactly how you are stuck in your research and what you are looking to find out from their collections. They can save you some time and pull files for you, so you’re ready to go right from the minute you walk in.

You might be asking, “Can I save myself a trip and have the archivist carry out research for me?” Yes, but only in a limited number of circumstances. If you have a specific reference to a document and need it reproduced or if there is a name index associated with that collection, then yes, the archivist can do a look-up for you. But I’d say for anything that would take more than fifteen or twenty minutes, you are probably going to be politely let down in that regard.

You are more likely to get extra help and tips for your genealogy work if you carry a good demeanor. You will not be treated differently based on your expertise with archives or microfilm readers, but your overall attitude. Being courteous to the staff goes a long way and it’s important to understand that they have to serve the needs of a variety of patrons who are using the archives for different purposes. It wouldn’t hurt to dress with some class when you go to visit, as it’s good to make the impression that you care about you do. The facility and it’s staff care very much and take pride in their collections, so they want to feel that their files are in good hands when they leave the shelves.

Most of all, enjoy your time there and the fact that you are on a research trip. You experience your research differently because you’re not working on genealogy at home. A bonus of spending time at the archives is you become acquainted with so many different types of documents and sources. This knowledge allows you to think beyond the standard array of must-use genealogical sources and perhaps will encourage you to approach a brickwall problem in a creative way.

Jake FletcherJake Fletcher is a professional genealogist, educator, and blogger. He has been researching and writing about his ancestors since 2008 on his research blog. Jake currently volunteers as a research assistant at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts and is Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).