Whether you have decided to collect the artifacts of your family tree, or your relatives just give them to you because they know you are the family genealogist, you have an important responsibility. Not only are you a genealogist, but now, you are also an archivist. It is up to you to keep these artifacts protected and in excellent condition for future generations to enjoy. After all, it is not just your family’s descendants who will be appreciating your artifacts in the future. Historians, lovers of art, and those who are passionate about the local region will all be interested in what your family produced and left behind.
So, how do you keep your family artifacts in good condition in your role as an archivist? Here are five tips to make sure you do your new job well.
Choose the Best Storage Methods
If you have a box full of loose, old photos, you need to get them into proper storage if you want them to be preserved for future generations. Improperly stored photos are subject to degradation from oils on fingers, acid from nearby paper on the backs of other photos or the box they are in, as well as potential water and dust damage. You need to store them in acid-free archival boxes if you intend to keep them loose and not put them in albums.
The best boxes for storing old photos are called Hollinger Boxes. They are heavy-weight, resistant to slight fluctuations in temperature and moisture, and protect photos from dust, paper-eating insects, and light that will fade the colors on the photos. Real Hollinger Boxes and other archival-safe ones are sold to historical archives and even to the Library of Congress. They may be made out of cardboard, plastic, or paper, but they are all acid-free.
Do not use recycled materials in your photo storage boxes, because it is impossible to gauge their acid content and quality. Ideally, you should choose photo storage boxes that have passed the Photographic Activity Test, which measures the stability of photos in certain containers. When old photos become faded, it is usually because they were exposed to light for prolonged periods in containers that were not archival-safe.
Of course, you can always buy archival-safe photo albums if you prefer to store your old photos this way.
Digitize Everything You’ve Got
You can’t guarantee all (or any) of the heirlooms you have collected will survive the test of time, regardless of how careful you are with the measures you take to protect them. Therefore, digitize them as a backup, and you can be confident knowing there will always be a digital copy of them somewhere on the Internet.
There are a variety of ways you can do this. Take photos and upload them to a website or the cloud (this is usually good for three-dimensional items). Scan them and upload them in a similar manner (good for photos and paper documents). Your phone is suitable for digitizing things, but you can do even better by getting higher quality images using a high-quality archival scanner.
Backup, Backup, and Backup Again
In addition to uploading the images online, also keep the images in easily organized and labeled folders on your computer, and back those images up to CDs, external hard drives, or thumb drives.
A good rule of thumb is to make three copies of anything you digitize. The copies could be in the cloud, on your computer, and on your phone. Store all three copies in two different places, like an external hard drive and a CD or thumb drive. Store one copy of all of your copies away from your house. Always keep one copy of everything away from your house, such as in a safety deposit box, at a relative’s house, or with a cloud storage service. This way, your copies are always protected, no matter what happens to your house or hardware.
Share Your Artifacts with Others
Make sure you share your artifacts with others, be they relatives you know or strangers who are interested in genealogy and history. Join genealogy message boards online, post on history blogs, join genealogy-related social media pages on almost any social media site and share what you have. Bring your boxes and binders to family gatherings and open them up. Tell people not only what they are looking at, but the family history story behind it.
Why do all of this? Because it helps others become familiar with your artifacts and your family history stories, it introduces newly discovered relatives to artifacts and stories about the family they may not have known, and those who are into antiques may discover your postings and tell the stories of your artifacts to others. It is an excellent way to make sure the stories behind your artifacts (and, hence, the stories of your family) live on.
Reach Out to Others
Don’t just share the stories of what you have, ask for new heirlooms and artifacts from others, even if it is just digitized copies of them. If you are missing artifacts from certain ancestors or branches of your family, go online to genealogy blogs, social media sites, and message boards, look for cousins from those branches and ask what they’ve got and if they would be willing to share. Don’t just assume nothing from those ancestors or family branches still exists. You would be surprised at what is out there, and who may have ended up with it.
Not only might these newly discovered cousins have artifacts they are willing to share with you, but they may also have the answers to your brick wall genealogy issues, so you shouldn’t be shy about asking. Not everyone will respond to you, but plenty will. They are on those sites to find out about their family history, too, after all. You can even reach out to people you find on DNA websites and ask the same questions. This is a wonderful way to keep adding to your collection of artifacts, and add information to your family tree, too.