In a little under a year, I’ve reached a milestone on this blog with this, my 100th post. To you, dear reader, I’d like to say thank you for reading, commenting, sharing, helping, and inspiring me. Family history may sometimes seem like a solo pursuit, but at its core, it’s a cooperative affair. Family history is about our history, and we all have a role to play in ensuring that this history survives. Think of the heirlooms and old family photos you might have in your house. You would not have those had someone else not taken at least some care to help preserve and protect them. I am utterly grateful to my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and beyond for making sure that some of our family’s history survived long enough to make its way to my hands and eyes.
Just as those who have gone before us helped preserve history for us, so must we help preserve history for the future. The more we try, the more history will be preserved; the less we try, the more history will be lost. History is not just a collection of facts and artifacts that survives on its own and can be counted on to always be there. If we don’t take an active role in nurturing and protecting our history, it will be slowly be lost.
While photos and artifacts are tangible connections to our past, they are not inherently historical. I don’t mean that some kinds of things just aren’t important enough to be worthy of being historical objects—far from it. What I mean is that without accompanying stories, memories, meaning—in short, histories—these items will no longer be historical; they’ll just be old.
Objects lose much or all of their historical value when the stories about them are forgotten and cannot be somehow resurrected (through research, for instance). And far too often, once these objects lose their historical value, they lose their primary value to family members and are discarded, sold, or otherwise permanently lost to history. Consider an object like Hemingway’s typewriter—the one he received as a gift for his 22nd birthday from his future wife; the one he took with him everywhere he travelled; the one on which he wrote his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. Pretty amazing, right? It’s been estimated that if that typewriter were to come to auction, it would fetch well in excess of a quarter of a million dollars—a rough indication of just how valuable that particular historic object is to so many people and institutions. Now imagine that somewhere along the course of history, the association to Hemingway had been lost or forgotten. What would you have then? Just an old typewriter that might fetch fifty dollars from someone who wanted a nice steampunk prop with which to decorate their house. I only bring up monetary values to demonstrate in a less subjective way just how much value—historical value—is lost when the history of that object is lost or forgotten.
So what can you do to prevent the loss of our family history? As I see it, there are two main things that you need to do: 1) understand and recognize what is (and will be) historical, and 2) do what you can to help preserve these historical ‘objects’ (whether they’re tangible objects or intangible stories and memories).
How do you recognize objects of historical (or potentially historical) value? The historical value of many things is clear. Your great-grandfather’s monogrammed gold pocket watch—check. Your father’s honorable discharge after serving in World War II—check. The chair your great-great-grandfather made for his wife—check. Your grandmother’s wedding dress—check. The 30-year-old roll of paper towels you found in the back of your grandmother’s hallway closet—not so much. The part that’s often hardest (probably because it forces us to confront our own mortality and our all-too-rapid loss of youth) is recognizing what of our own lives will become historical for the generations to come. We usually take our own circumstances for granted. The things around us everyday aren’t as important to us as they might be to our distant descendants because we’re surrounded by them, we’re used to them, we take them for granted.
That brings me to the first part of my 100-year touchstone: think of the future 100 years hence. You and I and everyone reading this blog will be dead in 100 years, as well as our children and possibly our grandchildren. What would your great-grandchildren and their descendants, 100 years from now, want to have to remember you by? Too often when considering inheritance, we leap to the monetarily valuable—my coin collection, my collection of rare first edition books, my gold and jewelry. Those are valuable, certainly, but their historical value is probably negligible. How much of you will your great-great-granddaughter understand if she inherits your coin collection (other than the fact that you collected coins)? Think of yourself both as Hemingway and as the lucky person who’s inherited Hemingway’s legacy, if that helps. What things characterize you, encapsulate you, convey what it was (is) like to be you? Don’t focus on the rare and unusual; think instead of the commonplace. If you’re a bus driver, your bus driver’s uniform may well hold future historical value. If you’re a passionate woodcarver, setting aside some of your carvings for the future is good, but you should also think about preserving some of your woodcarving tools. Did you raise four children in hard times? Maybe the high chair you could barely afford when you got it, and which served each of your children in turn, is an object that captures an important aspect of your life. It’s important to realize that things that seem to be just ordinary and everyday things to you may be seen as extraordinary and wonderful reminders of you to your descendants 100 years hence. Don’t be so quick to get rid of everything around you when it gets old or worn or falls out of fashion; remember to save at least a little of your ‘material culture’ for the future.
Just setting aside some objects for the future is not enough, though—remember what I said before about historical versus merely old. These trappings of you that you set aside will be most cherished because of their history, their stories, their associations with you. This brings me to the second part of my 100-year touchstone: think of how people 100 years hence will receive the histories and historical objects that you’re setting aside for them. Think of those people and how they will understand what you’ve written. Write for them. All too often, we write only for ourselves and those who know us well. Your objects, your histories, your notes, your inscriptions—in short, your history—will be read by people who never had the chance to know you (or possibly even to know people who knew you). But they will be reading and scrutinizing because they want to know you, to know who you were (who you are)—make it easy on them. Captions on photos such as “I don’t need to tell you who these two gents are!” may be cute in the moment, but they may end up being frustratingly unforthcoming to those trying very hard to understand their family history; to understand you. Be kind to these people who, in 100 years, will be looking at the things and notes you’ve set aside. Be cute or clever or funny if you wish, but also be clear. It may help to write about yourself and those you know from a more distant perspective—rather than labeling your photos “me and sis,” “mom,” or “the whole gang, down at the lake,” try less familiar (and thereby more informative) labels such as “Bill Prettyman and his brother ‘Arch’ (Richard Frank) Prettyman” or “Clyde and Gert Askew at the lodge at Lake Odell.” Or even better, put both styles of labels on your photos. Your descendants (and other historians) will thank you.