Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Saving Your Family Stuff

Photographs, old letters, grandma's wedding dress, Great-aunt Hattie's teaching certificate, shoeboxes of old family postcards – as family historians, we end up collecting lots of family stuff. Much of it is old paper and nearly all of it is one-of-a-kind and irreplaceable.

These days, it's not unusual to hear genealogists talk about digitization as a “document preservation” technique. That's like calling catsup a serving of vegetables. (And just because the U.S. Department of Agriculture did that several administrations ago didn't make it so!)

While properly done scanning can provide an effective, cost-efficient way to disseminate copies of valuable paper documents to relatives and other researchers (thereby reducing the chance of damage to the originals through improper handling), it's important to remember that the digitization of old documents is not the same thing as document preservation. In fact, when archivists and records managers talk shop about “digital preservation”, they're usually referring to “born digital” documents, such as emails and computer-generated documents, not those scanned copies of Uncle Fred's 1906 death certificate or Cousin Bill's diploma.

Think of it this way: scanning an early 19th century family letter doesn’t actually “preserve” the original letter any more than photographing an early 19th century tombstone “preserves” the stone.

Since you'll still have the original paper document to deal with after you scan it, where do you turn to learn about the current “best practices” for its long-term care and preservation? It just makes sense to hear what some of the “big guns” in the preservation field have to say. Ginger Yowell of the Smithsonian Institution Archives has just tackled the information problem by directing researchers to some great advice from the country's experts in her current post titled “What Shall I Do With All This Stuff?!?” on the Smithsonian's “The Bigger Picture” blog.

Got stuff? Ms. Yowell's post, with its links to expert advice from the Northeast Document Conservation Center, the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, will help you take the proper steps to keep your family treasures intact for future generations.

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