Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Uncertain Future

As family historians, we spend most of our time looking to the past. I'm a bit concerned about the future.

My mother is in her 80's and wants to know what will happen to her things when she is gone. She has some family treasures stashed in the attic. There is the silver coffee set that she received as a wedding gift (and that needs replating), a couple of children's chairs (at least one was my grandfather's, both need repairs), our old cardboard fireplace (lots of memories in that box) and who knows what else. She has asked us to let her know what items we would like so she can have it all written down before her time comes. Of course she didn't specify any certain items when she asked so I replied that I'd like the little china hair holder that has been on her dresser for as long as I can remember. She was shocked that that was something that I would want. In the basement are my father's old photographic enlargers. Lot's of memories there for me but what on earth would I do with them? We've decided to sell them but I've put it off for reasons of sentiment. She also has a large thimble collection. Who will take that?

When my father died in 2000 we had to make decisions as to what to keep, what to sell and what to trash. There were pictures, awards and plaques that went home with me, as did an old broken ham radio and a couple of cameras. My sister took some things and my brother others. There were still things of my step-mother's in the house and my step-sisters made those decisions. The box full of plaques and awards sits at the bottom of a pile of others things I have no space for in the back of an overflowing closet.

I have large pieces of furniture that have been passed down to either John or myself. None of our children are interested in pieces that don't fit in with their style. I have pieces of jewelry that have been passed down, some of my grandmother's knick-knacks and other family trinkets. I have items that I've hung onto from my childhood for reasons important only to me I guess. Should I be worried about what will happen to all of these things when I'm gone? Will a great-great-grandchild of mine be interested?

Then there is all of my research and the boxes filled with notebooks and bits of paper that are too important to be thrown away and digital files I have created. From various things I've read, especially at Sally Jacob's, The Practical Archivist, there is a good chance that a descendant looking at the digital files 100 years from now, might not be able to read them if they are not continually updated to reflect ever changing technology. I started scanning with the thought that I could divest myself of much of the paper I have taking up space. Most of my pictures are in jpeg format and already should probably be converted to tiff. How long until that format is out of date?

Then there is the question of whether or not any of the things I'm concerned about preserving for the future will even survive me. I am terrible about backing up my files. Then there are natural disasters to worry about. Both Becky and Thomas had articles last month that really got me thinking about new ways to protect my data in the event the worst happens. Of course that means a commitment of more time and money.

So what are you doing to plan for the future? Are you giving away some of your treasures now? Is there a younger family member that you are counting on to preserve your treasures for a couple of more generations? Will some of your family papers go to a library or other archive?

As far as paper items go I will continue to sort and scan, probably for the remainder of my lifetime. I hope to publish a family history at some point and then win the lottery so I can afford to give copies away to far flung family members. The furniture and trinkets I will start photographing. I commented on one of Terry's posts that I had no curiosities to share. I realize that I actually have a houseful. I'm looking forward to Tim Abbott's new Cabinet of Curiosities as a way to preserve and share some of my treasures. The reasons why these items were important enough to be kept will then be written down in the event that a great-great-grandchild is interested.

This was written for the 36th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy, a carousel edition.


Jasia said...

You certainly got me thinking. I'm still dealing with the stuff I got when my mom died. It wants me to put it away for posterity but I don't know where to put it. I envision spending the cold winter months to come photographing and cataloging my share of mom's stuff. I'm already wishing I'd taken my camera and photographed some of the things my brothers got before they took them home. I haven't given any thought to what would happen to my own personal stuff. I'm hoping to publish books on "collections of stuff", just because it's so easy to do such things these days. Much to think about. Much to do.

Becky Wiseman said...

I've been thinking for a while about what would happen to my "stuff" - not just the family history but all the pictures and the things that really only have meaning to me. It makes me sad to think about it but I know it is something that needs to be done.

Thomas MacEntee said...

Thanks for the mention. Your post brought back some funny and not so funny memories for me:

- I remember when my great-grandmother was getting up in years. All the family members started writing their names in pencil on the bottom of items - even to the point of erasing someone else's name. My mother had the last laugh since Grandma left all of it to her.

- If anyone needs help with cleaning out a house after a loved one is put in a nursing home or dies, contact me. I mean emotional and intellecual support - I don't do heavy lifting anymore. I cleaned out my partner's aunt's house with 60 years worth of accumulations. I set up an organized system of having relatives review items, then hired a woman to hold a 3-day estate sale on the premises. Within a month we had a cleaned out 2,100 sq. ft house - the woman even arranged for a charity to pick up what wasn't sold.

I also had to clean out my mother's house last year when she went into a nursing home. This was difficult emotionally but rewarding at the same time.

Moultrie Creek said...

Another concern is when you are the "end of the line" within your family. I am looking for cousins and even historical societies for some of the photos, documents and other items I've inherited from cousins who don't have direct descendants.

Janice said...

Your post certainly hits home. I have already written one to be published for Thanksgiving that talks about how giving away family artifacts to appropriate historical societies is sometimes the best option.