Saturday, May 02, 2009

MayDay, MayDay!



Yes, it was the day traditionally known for hanging small baskets of posies and/or goodies on a friend's front door knob, knocking or ringing the doorbell, and running like mad to get out of sight before they discover that you are their secret gift giver.

But yesterday wasn't just May Day, it was MayDay, as in the phrase used by pilots and ship captains the world over to broadcast a distress signal. Only it's not about a plane or ship in dire straights; rather, it's to raise awareness of the condition of the materials in our libraries, archives, museums, and other repositories of historical materials, and to do what is necessary to preserve and protect these valuable items from deterioration and disaster. In the last two months, we've heard of the collapse of the city archives building in Cologne, Germany, and an earthquake in Italy that damaged the state archives of Abruzzo. Such losses are tragic and have a world-wide impact.

Besides doing what we can to help out our local archives, libraries, and museums by supporting them with our tax dollars, fund raising events, and volunteer projects, as genealogists and family historians we should consider our own homes to be mini-repositories with historically-significant valuables archived within. It's likely that your home contains photographs, documents, and historical items passed from one generation to another that are not available anywhere else in the world. Suppose something happened to your home? It could be a disaster such as a fire, flood, or theft, or it could be something quiet yet insidious such as mold, mildew, heat, insects or other pests.

It's likely that you feel as I have in the past: a little overwhelmed at the thought of figuring out how to preserve everything of genealogical value for future generations. Browsing through archival supply catalogs or reading articles on how to scan and digitize all my photos and documents sounded expensive and time-consuming. However, like any great and worthwhile task, it's best to start out with baby steps. Doing a little something is always better than doing a lot of nothing!

Here are some of the steps I've taken in the past couple of years. I didn't do them all at once, but began each one as I had the time and money to do so. There are still many steps I have to take, and my tasks many never be done as I continue to receive heirlooms, papers, and photographs from other family members as they recognize my unofficial status as family historian and archivist.

*I have rented a safety deposit box from my financial institution to store some of the most financially valuable or difficult-to-replace items of the small family heirlooms in my possession, as well as important household documents such as our home and vehicle titles, insurance papers, etc.

*I obtained a subscription to Carbonite, a computer-backup service that works quietly in the background to back up my files and folders, which include scanned family photographs and genealogical documents.

*I purchased cotton gloves from my local photographers' supply shop to use when handling photographs of any age and fragile documents.

*I started Scanfest as a means to regularly undertake scanning projects that I probably otherwise would never had started.

*I removed photographs from "magnetic" photo albums as the materials these albums are created from quickly deteriorate the photographs within.

*I separated newspaper clippings of articles and obituaries from photographs (the acid gas from newsprint is extremely harsh and damaging to photos), photocopied them to be stored in file folders (separate from photos) and scanned them to store them digitally on my computer (backed up by Carbonite, of course). The newsprint was then thrown away.

*I have begun to photograph items and heirlooms too large to be scanned or stored in a safety deposit box. I also photographed items that are on display in my home (portraits, dishes, crocheted tablecloths, etc.). These photos are stored online, so that if anything should ever happen to them, at least I'll have a photograph of what the original item looked like.

As I mentioned before, there is still much to do. For those of you who may be wondering, "Where on earth do I begin?" I have a challenge to set before you. This month, do what you can to preserve three things. Think of the most valuable document, photograph, and item that you have. "Valuable" could mean the oldest one, the most fragile or at-risk one, or the one that would be most expensive or difficult to replace should you lose it. Do what you can to preserve one document, one photograph, and one item this month. Leave a comment below and tell me what those three things will be. Then come back at the end of the month and tell me how you completed (or at least started on) your preservation projects for May.

My goals will be to 1) scan my great-grandparents' marriage certificate, which is too large for my scanner. I'll need to take it to Office Depot or Kinko's and make a reduced size copy; 2) scan the only photo I have of my ancestor James BARBER; and 3) photograph and tag several crocheted items displayed in my home that were made by my great-grandmother and my husband's great-grandmother.

What will your three preservation projects be?
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