Monday, July 11, 2011

Dealing With All The Family Stuff: Does Anyone Else Care?

Genealogists have stuff. 

Usually, lots of it.

Some stuff, like family photos with names on the back, for example, can be obvious, even to the uninformed.  (All your family photos are identified, right?

Other stuff – artifacts with some kind of family significance – is much less identifiable as “important” to the casual observer.

If the things that make up our “family stuff” have a resale value, that’s one thing.  But if they have only “family history” value, then, the casual observer often only sees them just so much junk.

So, who’s this “casual observer”?  

In this case, it’s anybody who doesn’t “do” genealogy.  That usually encompasses most of the people we know outside of our circle of genealogy friends, and, sadly, a good part of our families.  

Think heirs.

We live in the hope that our heirs will know that our “stuff” is valuable and that it needs to be saved/preserved for future generations. However, there’s a cold reality that we rarely face.

Only we – who know the history of the “stuff” - know exactly why it’s important.  And, without our knowledge, it’s just junk.

So, what got me started on this line of thought?  

Well, actually, it was a brown archival document box that I needed to move to make room for something else.   Inside the box was “stuff.”  

The “stuff” was a collection of items that were part of an exhibit at the Albany Institute of History and Art way back in 1986, when the city was celebrating its Tricentennial and the Albany Institute (founded in 1791 and one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the United States) hosted a two-year exhibit called “Albany’s Families: 350 Years of Growth And Change

Back then, they asked me to represent German-American families and to gather together the family “stuff” that might make for interesting viewing in a two-year long museum exhibit.  The fact that I was the Executive Secretary of the Tricentennial Commission for the City of Albany make have played a small part in all that.

The First Mel - Wire Service Pic
In any case, I had one thing that made for an interesting exhibit.  My grandfather, for whom I am named, had been a professional (and major league) baseball player.

He was, among other things, a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox.

I had his Chicago White Sox uniform from 1917, the year the Sox won the World Series.  I had his glove.  I had my grandmother’s season pass to Comiskey Stadium for 1917. 

And a whole lot of other stuff – baseball and non-baseball, including a copy of my great-great grandfather’s emigration permit from the Duchy of Saxe-Altenburg - spanning a total of five generations of the family in Albany, since 1857. 

But in the end,  it was the baseball stuff.  Kids visiting the exhibit loved it. How the kid from Albany - the son and grandson of immigrants - could grow up to play major league baseball.

A lot of this “family stuff” became part of the museum's exhibit, and after it closed in 1988, much of it ended up in that brown archival document box that I mentioned above.

As I opened the box and reviewed its contents, it suddenly dawned on me.  Nobody else knew what this “stuff” was and why it was important.

Now, I’m a pretty good genealogist.  No, strike that.  I’m an exceptionally good genealogist who, in the 50 years I’ve been doing this, has broken through more brick walls than the average “family genealogist” will encounter in a lifetime.  For nearly six years, I’ve written the genealogy column for the New York State Archives magazine.  I’ve been lecturing at national and regional conferences since the 1980s. 

I make no apologies; I’m very, very good at what I do.

But still, there’s all that “family stuff” in boxes.

How can I make sure that it doesn’t all end up in the dumpster, mostly because nobody else knows what it is and knows why it’s important?  After all, I’m a bit long in the tooth, having been born when Roosevelt was in the White House.

Well, for the past several days, in between putting finishing touches on the talk on archives research that I’ll be doing at the Massachusetts Genealogical Council’s annual event at Bentley University in  a few weeks, I’ve been designing (and testing) a system that I can use to inventory and catalogue all this “family stuff”.

Actually, it arose because of my PowerPoint slides on using archival finding aids that will be in my talk.

Metadata.  Data about data. Searchable.  Understandable to non-genealogists.  Finding an easy way to describe all the “stuff” in a family collection that ranges from documents to photos to artifacts over several centuries.  A system that makes it clear not only what something is, but why it’s important. 

In the issue before the current issue of New York State Archives magazine, I wrote about the “home archives” in an essay titled “Keepers of the Family Stuff.”  

In the next post or two, I’ll be discussing exactly how I’m putting this into practice, personally.  I'll be discussing metadata.  And "intellectual control", which is a jargonistic archives term.  And the importance of using a "controlled vocabulary", which you may never have given much thought to.

Of course, all your “family stuff” is already properly identified, so that your heirs will know what’s important and why, right?

No comments:

Post a Comment