Preserving the Heirlooms of the Everyday: Part 2 of 2

(This post is part 2 of the series I started the other day in the spirit of Preservation Week, an American Library Association initiative I wish we had in Canada.)

Continuing on from my previous post about the disassembly of my grandmother’s photo albums after she died, the sum of the individual photos now in the possession of multiple relatives is less than the whole that the collection once was. This makes me sad, but what else could have been done to be fair to everyone? If only one person was the custodian of the collection, perhaps the others would have felt this unfair. Even if all of the photos were scanned and shared digitally, perhaps no one would have been content with only reprints.

And even if people were comfortable with one person holding the collection, who should this have been, and how would that person have been chosen? Although I would have gladly volunteered, I live in a different city than most of the family, so the albums would not have been very accessible to anyone. Perhaps the way my family divided the collection was ultimately the best solution.

This same sort of issue has cropped up in another family I know. A large cache of family letters, postcards, and photographs from the early twentieth century are in the possession of one family member, but several other family members living in other cities have an equal interest in this ancestral legacy. Everyone in this situation loves and trusts each other, and the person who has the family papers feels like the guardian of these precious objects and sees the collection as a legacy to be maintained — so at least the trove is in good hands. Furthermore, in the age we live in, at least it is now possible to preserve and share family papers and photos in digital form. But with aging and health issues in the mix, there has understandably been no ability in this case to move forward with scanning or copying the collection so that the others can benefit from it. It would be a big job for the custodian to do it herself, or a big expense to have things professionally scanned.

And even so, scanning does nothing to preserve or share the originals . . . These are the things the ancestors touched. These are the things that have travelled through time. You can’t duplicate or divide them to be “fair” to everyone. So what should families do?

I have searched for ideas on the web, and to my surprise I can’t find much when it comes to sharing the actual physical objects passed down from earlier generations. So here are some of my own thoughts:

  1. Take an inventory of the family papers you may want to preserve as a family: birth, marriage, and death certificates; albums; letters and postcards; war service records; diaries or annotated calendars; appointment and address books; video tapes or recordings; the list goes on. For starters, the inventory should include a description of content; format; the name of the creator and/or original owner; the year or period of creation; the name of the person who currently possesses the object; and the circumstances under which they came to possess it (e.g., through inheritance, by collecting it themselves, etc.). Initially, you don’t have to list every single photograph or letter if they can more conveniently be listed as a group (and keep in mind my earlier point about the sanctity of a collection, like an album, which should not be broken apart unless required for preservation). Ultimately, however, it is ideal if all photos can be identified (who is in them, when and where taken) and recipients and writers of letters or postcards detailed.

  2. With your family members, talk about the legacy that the collection of family papers and photographs represents, and how multiple members of the present and future generations have an interest in preserving this legacy. Some people may not immediately see everyday family letters or pictures this way, but you may be able to come to a shared sense of value through discussion. Talk about whether the collection should be brought together under one roof—if it isn’t already—or whether it should remain dispersed.

  3. Discuss and document a shared commitment to stewarding and preserving the collection over time, no matter whether it is housed with one person or split across multiple households. This may even involve stipulating in one’s will what should happen to the collection one is responsible for; the beneficiary(ies) of other parts of one’s estate may not be the best or fairest choice to inherit the family papers or photographs one possesses. Families might also consider donating their family papers and photographs to a professional archival repository, such as a local history museum or archives.

  4. Take steps to protect family papers and photographs using appropriate storage tools. Much advice for doing this can be found on the web. Family members should share the expense of doing this.

  5. Arrange to have the entire collection scanned or copied, and share the copies with all family members; again, family members should share the expense of doing this. While the digital copies are a means of sharing physical papers and photos that can’t be divided, another idea for sharing and giving more meaning to family papers and photos is to create a family history book.

The digital age we live in allows multiple people to see and access their ancestral legacies, and the web is awash with information about preserving documents and photos. However, as time goes on, physical letters, photos, and the like will become ever more treasured objects when we no longer produce such things. Taking advance steps to identify and protect family papers and photographs in a way that considers others’ interests in them may prevent heated disputes or great disappointment down the road, and a family’s ordinary, extraordinary legacy may be preserved.