Why Don’t You Pursue Your Family History?

I’d like to ask anyone reading this post to answer the following poll.  Call it Genealogy, Family History, or…  If you don’t work on your Family History, why not?

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If I Can’t Scan My Photo Prints in Right, Then Why Do It?

There are good reasons to get a representation of your photographs (recorded images) scanned so that they can be stored in digitized form:

  • If you have your negatives and prints properly stored, then with digitization you have a 3rd form with several options available for storage
  • There are computer tools available that can be used to enhance your photographs (restoration, modification, creation of collages/posters, etc.)
  • There are computer tools available that can be used to share your photographs with others
  • Etc.

There is much discussion and some controversy over how best to scan your recorded images. On a good negative, there is likely much more information available for scanning than you need for simple images. Much depends upon what you will wish to do with the scanned images in the future. If you wish to print large, high resolution images, then you need higher resolution scans. If you plan a one-to-one print, then some say a 300 dpi scan is sufficient. The higher resolution scans use significantly more storage capacity.  What to do?

Yes, your prints/negatives might deteriorate or be lost, damaged, or destroyed. However, unless you take no care of them – which I gather is unfortunately the case for a lot of prints/negatives – then the probability that they will become useless is much higher than that they will be destroyed. As clarification for this statement, a recorded image is in danger of becoming useless in my definition when there is no one who remembers anything interesting about the photo. An image is recorded so that it can evoke something in the mind of the observer. The act of computerizing a recorded image does nothing to address this fundamental issue. The memories that make a recorded image useful are far more fragile than the recorded image.

My answer to “What to do?” is to get a reasonable representation of your photos digitized somewhere, and find a way to use that to get your recorded images documented – the latter being the most important aspect of the exercise. I gave my answer away in a prior post – “Photo Indexing Project” – so feel free to have a look at that post. I’ll be talking more about what I believe is a good solution to the problem in the future. You have time to figure out the RIGHT way to scan your photos – but with every day that passes you are losing opportunities to acquire the stories behind some of them.

We received a Christmas Card for 2010 from a couple Julie and I know from High School. This summer when I was working on our photos, I was in our home town and I nearly called his mother to discuss possibly working with his family to document their photos. I learned in their card that his mother died in October. While I don’t know yet whether she was still capable of helping with the project, it seems to me like this was probably a tragic missed opportunity and it makes me sad that I didn’t help these good friends preserve some of their family memories!

Photo Indexing Project

I mentioned in a recent post that Julie has collected a large quantity of family historical records. This includes a surprising quantity of photos, some of which were waiting for us at our parent’s homes. Since we’re “free as birds” we’ve been spending some of our time there. Looking at stacks of photo albums, suitcases full of loose photos, and Julie working tirelessly at assembling our family history compelled me to devise a project to put all of these photos online and provide a system for documenting them.

As I looked through the photos, the thing that really frustrated me was the fact that most of them had no documentation. Some did, and we’re lucky for that. The rest are just photos with a hint here or there via resemblance, an occasional print date, etc.  Old photos are cool – at least many of them. Even the ones with documentation mostly just state simple facts – who, when and maybe where. Very few provide family or other historical context, what was happening in the photo or what led to the photo, etc. Julie and I are very fortunate that my mother and both her parents are alive and their memories are quite good. They’ve already played a significant role in this project, and we plan for that to continue.

The information that can be used to make a photograph a meaningful family heirloom exists in the minds of people that know something about the photograph. As time passes, memories fade and people die. Attempts are made to pass along these memories, but rarely are they organized or lasting. Computers and the Internet provide amazing opportunities to solve problems like these. So far, I’ve uploaded around 12,000 photographs. Most of these came from our parents collections – their own and their ancestor’s. It would be interesting to know how many photo prints others have in their collections, so please take a moment to answer the following poll:

When someone comes around to the conclusion that they want to “organize” their photo collection, the task can seem overwhelming. To scan or not to scan, and how to I approach scanning? Should I physically organize the photos? What about photos that are already in albums? How do I document the photos, and how do I associate the documentation with a given photo? The questions are many, and I haven’t found many useful discussions of the subject.

Between Joel and I, we’ve put together a pretty good solution to the problem of DIY computerization of a significant photo collection. We’re working hard to perfect the solution, and in the process, we’ve discovered quite a few things. One of the more significant is that it is REALLY hard to get people interested in the problem. This is much like Genealogy in general – either you are interested and have time and have the propensity and you work on it, or the stars aren’t aligned and you don’t. It’s a lot of work (Genealogy AND organizing your photo collection). Computerization and the right approach dramatically changes the level of work involved, but it’s still a lot of work. I’m sure I’ll talk about the photo organization approach more in the future.

We have concerted efforts by several companies today to index public records. The amount of information available already makes the pursuit of genealogy through online research very fruitful – to the point where offline Genealogists can no longer claim that there is nothing but junk online with respect to Genealogy – that’s simply no longer the case.

Why aren’t there more efforts in place to promote the indexing of family records like photographs? These would naturally be conducted by the families themselves, since they are the ones that would gain from the exercise if anyone would. I suppose it gets back to the problems I discussed in an earlier post about gaining broader participation. Let me conclude with another poll:

Designated Family Historian

We sold our house in Garland earlier in 2010 after about 7 months on the market.  The experience of downsizing our belongings was painful to say the least!  I could – and may well at some point – go on and on about the experience, but I wanted to note some fairly specific observations at this point.  We ended up at the end of the day with over 10 boxes of photos and other family records that Julie has accumulated from quite a number of sources.  She had all sorts of stuff handed down from various estates – either from the estates themselves or from others who simply didn’t know what to do with the materials.  My Mother still had a couple of suitcases full of photographs from her parents and my dad’s parents estates, and she says she shared the photos from her parents’ estate with her brother.  Some of our own stuff was likely mixed in with the collection, but our own extended well beyond those 10 boxes.

Julie has been pursuing family history for about as long as she can remember, and the bug has really taken hold as all of the latest internet tools have really started gaining traction – ancestry.com, familysearch.com, etc.  She really started trying to use computers for the task in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s when she published a 2 volume set on the Berven family.  She used the Personal Ancestral File program at the time to help organize the documentation, and the Berven descendants enthusiastically supported the effort.  We had a couple of family reunions in the Estherville area, and Julie even needle-pointed a 4 generation family tree that’s currently hanging at my Mother’s house.  Life interrupted these efforts for quite a while, and I managed to lose that particular PAF file for her in attempts to back up the system she was using (which is ironic and disturbing, but that also is another story).  We have the entire text of the book in several forms electronically, and several copies of the book, but given all the special Norwegian characters used in the book, it would have been a real time-saver to be able to convert the files to gedcom and upload them.  Water under the bridge…

Julie is slowly but surely getting the Berven Family History rebuilt on ancestry.com.  It is now a history of all branches of our children’s family tree – Prentis, Tennant, Main, Stephens, Watts, Needham, Hansen, Berven and related families.  As far as we can tell (and we’re in the business), she’s using most of the best that the Internet currently has on offer for the task.  She has varying levels of collaboration ongoing with large numbers of people.  I’m biased in my belief, but others have told her that her tree is a fine work.  She’s done it all out of the goodness of her heart (and it’s mighty good).  She helps others selflessly, and others help her almost without exception on the same generous terms.

Aside from tooting Julie’s horn, my goal here is to openly wonder a bit about the pursuit of family history in general.  She spends a great deal of her time at this – searching, communicating, collaborating, investigating, sleuthing, etc., etc.  She has over 41,000 people in her main tree, and the main lines in the tree are well researched and documented.  There are over 5000 photos – including tombstones, documents, people, etc.  I believe this pursuit is and has pretty much always been a highly specialized pursuit and the folks that do it tend to become a “designated family historian.”  Other family members send information their way when they learn something, but other than that many probably don’t get involved in the heavy lifting.  I suspect that as more and more tools become available, the problem of involvement is becoming more acute.

The biggest question in my mind centers around how the barrier to involvement might be lowered to get more people involved in the process?

Is the problem of low involvement centered around difficulty, lack in interest, lack of time, …?

So far, the television series put together by ancestry.com – “Who Do You Think You Are?” – is excellent and seems well targeted.  Hopefully with repetition, it will start to address any lack of interest that exists, and then it will be up to industry participants – ancestry.com included – to “seal the deal” with potential new participants and create some more designated family historians!

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

A picure?  A thousand words?  I’m afraid I’d have to say yes – give or take – most (many?) photos deserve to have a story told about them.  I recently read on a web site that there are estimated to be 3-5 trillion photo prints out there – many languishing in basements, garages, attics, and probably libraries, historical societies, etc.  If the number is even remotely close, then someone better get busy.  If those prints are going to mean anything to future generations, there are 3-5 quadrillion (yes, I’m sorry to say that I had to look that one up) words that could be recorded about them – give or take.  Don’t get too hung up on exact numbers – that’s like discussing infinity.  The point is that there is a very large number of prints out there that, without documentation, will be largely useless to future generations.

Well, at least we’re good-to-go now – since “they” invented digital photography – at least we don’t have to worry about those photos that are stored electronically – do we?  Hold a print up next to a digital photo displayed on your computer screen.  Now consider that 150 years from now (give or take), if there are no written words or other system used to pass down the lore about either photo (print or digital), then neither is more useful though either could arguably outlast the other.  Given the literally explosive growth in photography now taking place – man, are we ever in trouble!

Depending upon the goal of the photo (Art shots excepted at least), I make the argument that for a picture to have worth, it needs to have a thousand words recorded about it.  Perhaps I should change the title of this post to “A Picture Needs to have a Thousand Words Written About It to have Lasting Worth.”

How many photo prints do you have in your family photo collections?

Are your photo prints well documented?

Another Step into the Unknown…

Julie and I have taken many steps into the unknown together.  The one that comes to both of our minds pretty much immediately when the topic comes up is our relocation from Iowa to Texas soon after we got married.  We risked a fair amount in this move, and our lives were profoundly affected.  We don’t know what our lives would have been like if we hadn’t taken that particular step, but the past 30 or so years pursuing the path we chose brought us so many wonderful things we’re not particularly inclined to consider the alternatives.

My company recently presented me with the paperwork for a retirement incentive offer.  If that’s not the potential for one serious step into the unknown, I don’t know what is.  I don’t know if it qualifies as more or less significant than our move.  We had things to lose then, we have things to lose now.  We had to have an income then, we have to have an income now.  We had a pretty limited set of tools to work with then.  Although it may or may not be enough, the good news is that we have a pretty significant repertoire of tools now.

We’ve got a very big decision to make.  I believe I’ve pretty much made it, and I think Julie is on board.  We’re hoping that “our” next 30 year career will be pursuing business opportunities through Watts Lab, Inc. in cooperation with any family members that would like to contribute.  Joel has been laying ground work for a while, and unless we get a case of “buyer’s remorse” I suspect that’s what will be happening.