Why Every Family Needs a Historian

A family historian is motivated to curate years of photographic memories and stories for others in the family. Here’s why the role matters.

Why Every Family Needs a Historian

In the future, if our great great grandchildren should try to find out more about us, they will have plenty of material to wade through – blogs, emails, social media posts, to name just a few sources. With our digital lives expanding constantly, we are leaving sizeable and largely indelible online footprints.

But if we are going to be faced with the challenge of not being able to control the information that will be available to our descendants, the problem is actually quite different for those in our families who lived their lives entirely in the pre-digital era.

There are fewer clues and not much in the way of documented information for these individuals. And so we have to try and reconstruct their stories using whatever we can unearth – private diary entries, public records and personal photos — mostly photos.

Being able to put these stories together is important, for communities and individuals alike. On a broader societal level, it provides information that is valuable to historians and anybody who is interested in the past. For example, most towns in the country have historical societies that seek photos, oral testimonies and any other evidence that can give us a window into the past.

Individuals who take on the role of family historians are focused on preserving memories and stories and making them more accessible to future generations in the family. And many find that, as they execute some of the tasks associated with the role – digitizing photos and film, researching genealogy, cataloging and storing  – they become more and more invested in creating a single archive of memories that others can tap into.

Over the decade and more that we have been helping people digitize their analog assets, we have heard from several who have played this role.

Rob Hull was one of them. After his mother passed away in 2005, Rob chanced upon her large photo collection and came face to face with a problem that he later described in a personal blog post:

“It was then that we realized that we lost far more than our mother. We lost so many stories and memories. As we uncovered boxes of slides and photographs we realized that we didn’t really know many of the stories that should accompany them. And to make matters worse, how do you divide up the family albums among four siblings?”

Rob offered to digitize the collection so that his three brothers and other members of their extended family could easily retrieve the images and contribute to the stories behind them, wherever possible. He put all the images on flash drives to share with his brothers. For other family members, he created some web galleries that they could browse and download from if needed. He also combed through the images, adding details wherever possible – the date taken, people in the frame, and a brief story or background of the photo – using Lightroom.

Another customer, Jan, shared a fascinating story about her quest to to learn more about a mystery member of the family – an aunt of whom nobody in the family seemed able or willing to share any information.

She shared a poignant and very gripping account of her quest in this blog post.

My father had passed away several years before, taking with him any information he might have been able to give me about his sister. My mother, being a very private person, chose not to share much family history with me. My maternal grandmother did give me a few clues to her own family. Over the next few years, I was overjoyed with the arrival of our two grandchildren. This reignited the spark in me to fill in the blanks about our family, in order to pass along this history.

After she submitted her DNA to a research site, she found herself connected with a person who happened to be the mystery aunt’s grandson! He was able to supply some precious details and photos to fill the gaps in the story.

Other people have written in to describe how they took the plunge and digitized several shoeboxes of prints and negatives and were very happy to have done so. Suddenly, having the ability to easily sort, store and access years worth of memories made them feel more empowered as family historians.

The family historian clearly plays a very important role – in consolidating, archiving and curating years of precious memories. Rob Hull said it best in some responses he later shared with us on his own experience:

Not everyone in a family is keenly interested in family history. The paradox is that the interest in your roots, the stories that make up you life, tends to bloom throughout your life and by the time you decide to take action so many of the storytellers have died. Even if it seems that there is no interest among your family members, take the time and effort to collect some of these images and stories. They will be appreciated in time.

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