Downsizing, minimizing, and tidying-up aren’t anything new. Family curators have been organizing and saving family history for a lot longer than Marie Kondo has been teaching people how to discover joy in decluttering.1Finding family history tossed in the trash, however, is not so joyful.
A few years ago the news was filled with stories about family heirlooms your children don’t want. Now, the trend is to sort personal possessions and keep the things that truly give joy. Out with stuff you don’t really like or use. Decluttering is part of the minimalist design trend as much as mid-century modern furniture and potted cacti.
Trends. They come. They go. I’m happy to report that family heirlooms aren’t dead yet.
“Hang on to Your Keepsakes,” is the advice from textile designer Michelle Dopp, notes the Wall Street Journal. “No two collections of family heirlooms, travel finds and accumulated tchotchkes are alike.” 2
Create your own personal style, she adds, with “a curated layer of things that mean the most to you and tell your personal story.” Displaying a curated collection of family keepsakes ranks Number Two in the Wall Street Journal’s list of seven tips for avoiding passing design trends.
Good advice: if you can’t keep everything, keep the photos, documents, and artifacts that tell your family story. Some things may not spark dance of joy. Yet, they may be too valuable, too dear to discard.
Curate Like the Pros
I receive a lot of questions about sorting and organizing family collections — what to keep, what to toss. Professional archivists, researchers, and academics who have been working with archival materials for decades are good models for family historians. Sometimes it helps to put on a new hat and think like an archivist or a researcher or a professor.
My inclination is to err on the side of caution. You can always give something away. But if you change your mind, it might be hard to get that treasure back again. Or, if new information comes to light, you might wish that item were still available.
This isn’t to ignore the reality that most of us don’t have room for a dedicated family archive, or heirs waiting to step in and take over one day. It’s wise to make plans for the future. To digitize, to seek out a good fit for donation, and, most importantly, to write up our research so our work isn’t lost.
The job of a family curator is flexible. It will grow and contract to fit your needs and time.
What is a Family Curator?
My favorite reference, the Oxford English Dictionary, calls a curator a guardian, steward, or manager of people, souls, or things. I like “keeper, custodian.” That is, after all, what we do. Keep safe, preserve, and manage.
Read more in my recent blog post “Are You Curator, Creator or Caretaker of the Family Archive?”
The family curator is a multi-dimensional role that includes not only safeguarding a collection, but making it understandable to others. Look at any job description for a “family curator” in today’s archives, museums, or galleries and you’ll find that a suitable applicant needs to be able to develop educational exhibits and materials, write grants, understand archival preservation best practices, work with the public, use social media, and be knowledgeable of the collection’s materials and theme, as a start.
Think Like an Archivist
A museum or archive typically focuses on acquiring items that meet the institution’s mission or collection objectives. For example, the Detre Library and Archives at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania seeks materials that will help researchers understand the history of Western Pennsylvania. University libraries often focus on collecting records related to the university history and its faculty and students.
Your personal family collection can benefit from curation too. Think like an archivist when deciding what items to save in your family archive.
Think Like a Historian
My grandmother’s trunk was filled with fading photos, brittle letters, and assorted personal and family stuff. I say “stuff,” because the “keepsakes” included everything from metal hair rollers to braided locks of hair; and from embroidered handkerchiefs to leather wallets. Those random artifacts tell their own stories, but the kinship secrets and clues to lost ancestors were buried deep in old letters and photos. Those items were my first priority.
I had a hard time figuring out where to start until a historian friend read a handful of letters and ticked off some of the themes and topics she noted:
- Women’s lives and limited choices in the early twentieth century
- Marriage, divorce, single parenthood
- Social boundaries and prejudices
- Expectations for women, men, children
- Limited job opportunities and family stability
- Coping with financial hardship
- Family migration from rural to urban living
- Family patterns of communication, visits, life events
Think like a historian, looking for recurring threads in family letters that show how your ancestors responded to natural disasters, domestic challenges, widespread economic collapse, crop failure, or war.
Did they write about personal worries with optimism, hope, or prayer? Or with scribbles of gloom, anger, and doom?
Did they write at all? Why or why not?
Think Like an English Professor
Although I inherited an “embarrassment of riches” from one grandmother, I have nothing at all from other ancestors. Their story has to be teased from sources like census, probate, and tax records, and the lucky find of a letter, photo, or personal document held by a cousin, a public archive, or a DNA match.
That’s when the family curator needs to think like an English professor and do a “close reading” of the text. Look for connections. Read between the lines. Form hypotheses and test ideas to analyze discrepancies.
- Our ancestors’ neighbors named on the next few pages of the census might be part of the family story.
- The baptismal witnesses may show up with your ancestors on a passenger list.
- The surname of a DNA match may ring true with an unfamiliar name on a family photo
Tell the Stories Like a Genealogist
A family curator has to be an appraiser, an archivist, and an artist. We have to appraise things in our care to tease out the stories. We want to safeguard a collection with archival best practices. And, we need to find artful ways to share those stories with others.
Narrative and compiled genealogies have been the mainstays of genealogical publishing for decades. New media now offers opportunities for engaging visual and audio genealogies. The Board for Certification of Genealogists Genealogy Standards provide guidelines for sound genealogical research for all genealogists.3 We can write, scrapbook, or podcast our family stories. If we don’t, who will?
I always learn something new and find inspiration for my own research in these favorites:
National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ)
Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly (APGQ)
Utah Genealogical Society, Crossroads
John Colletta, Only a Few Bones, They Came in Ships
Elizabeth Shown Mills, Isle of Canes
Marsha Hoffman Rising, The Family Tree Problem Solver: Tried-and-True Tactics for Tracing Elusive Ancestors
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- “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” Netflix. 2019.
- Gavan, Tim. “Death by 1,000 Likes,” The Wall Street Journal, Saturday-Sunday March 2-3, 2019, page D8, col. 4.
- Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, Second Edition. 2019.