I have worked with several families over the years helping to sorting out the family archive. The start of such projects can look overwhelming – boxes of photos, letters, papers, keepsakes and even furniture accumulated with each generation but never tackled. Along the way the gems of our history get buried and lost. However, modern technology offers us the opportunity to tackle our past, share the stories and create a structure for our future generations to record their own history.
So, if you feel inspired to begin the journey of curating your family history here are some of the lessons I have learnt:
- Understand the big picture – why do you want to do this? Is it to create the family archive? Write the family history book? This will help you to make decisions as you go along.
- Set up a curating workshop area. When you get those spare half hours you can easily sit down and continue working. Tackling family archives is a bit like climbing a mountain – one step at a time. You can also put together a curating toolkit of marker pens, folders, scissors, tape etc.
- Start with what you know. Even if you write it down on a big piece of paper draw up your family tree as you understand it to be now. You can then build it up from there.
- Gather, pile and file. Gather all the papers together in one place and then start sorting. For each person have 5 different files: Key/Official documents; Letters and correspondence; photos, keepsakes, and things you need investigate. Other tools and tricks include a numbering system and checklists.
- Choose your collaborators. Yes, one person can take this on but it is often much more fun to have some collaborators. Identify if there is anyone in the family who has a special skill you could use – such as a keen photographer might enjoy working through the family photo albums. I am often called in to get the project going – set up the organising structure and technology as well as tackling more specialist areas such as digitising documents and organising photos.
- Digitise and Share. Technology can be an awesome tool. From creating a digital archive making it accessible to everyone to tools like Evernote to store notes and discoveries as you go along. Ancestry is one option where you can build the family tree and photobooks can capture events or even individual stories and present them in a more manageable format.
My aunt sadly died this year. She was an extraordinary lady who very much forged her own path through life. Through the treasure trove of papers, photos, and art she left, we are learning all sorts of things about her and our grandparents. It is naturally fascinating, but I also feel the act of curating her things is honouring her life, acknowledging her contribution to the world and remembering what a special person she was.