At Play In The Archive
Hello, People. I’ve gotten a few queries about how I manage my archive, so I’m going to digress a bit today and describe my process. If nerdy details are not your cup of tea, then please come back tomorrow when I’ll resume my usual programming.
I didn’t set out to establish an archive, or take up genealogy, or write a blog, but only to satisfy my curiosity about the contents of some forlorn cardboard boxes in the back of a closet at my maternal grandparents’ house. Emptying out a home after the death of its occupants is a weighty job under any circumstances, but my grandmother had a truly mind-blowing amount of stuff. We — her children, grandchildren, and our spouses — had a limited amount of time in which to accomplish the removal, so when I peeked in boxes and saw very old albums and hundreds of loose photos, I simply sealed them up and shipped them home with the intention of examining them all later. Nobody was terribly interested in pondering them at the time, fully engaged as we were in dispatching mountains of furniture, tchotkes, kitchenware, clothing, and hobby supplies.
Fast forward six months, when back home I began unpacking the boxes and trying to make sense of the chaos. I recognized only a few people in the photos, some dating from the very early 20th century. Very few of the images were labeled, and where labels existed, they were mostly dates or locations, almost never names. Many of the documents were in German, handwritten in indecipherable script. Who were these people?
I asked around the family, but no one knew. I’ve always been something of a magpie where old photographs and mysteries are concerned, and I soon found myself in a quicksand of tantalizing questions that I was compelled to explore. My archive was born of that compulsion.
Here are the steps I followed. It all looks a lot tidier in retrospect than it felt at the time.
Step 1: Consider why you do it.
When the going gets tough, it’s very, very tempting to wander off and do something easier. Capturing your reasons for taking on this demanding project is very helpful in keeping up your discipline.
Here are some of my reasons:
I also had some mysteries that I was dying to solve, so that kept me going too:
Your motivations will be different, but you won’t regret taking the time to capture the reasons you started.
Step 2: Establish categories, even if they are wrong.
I bought several large plastic file boxes and several cartons of hanging folders, and then I did my best to sort the artifacts into rough categories by family. The biggest folder of photographs I labeled “Mystery People,” but it wasn’t long before I began to recognize the same faces over and over. Soon I was able to correlate them with other clues from my genealogical research. Eventually “Mystery People” became “Leo’s Mystery People” and “Margaret’s Mystery People,” which in turn led to other clues and identifications. I can identify a lot more people now than I could when I started.
For the record, I also had folders named weird things like, “Empty Houses” and “Cars Someone Loved” and “Traveling Dogs” but you might not want to get quite that granular. I had a ton of random stuff, so I had to start somewhere.
Step 3: Decide what kind of archive you’re building.
Once everything has a folder home — even if it’s wrong — you have a choice to make. Will the archive be only a physical archive, or will it also be digital? I felt compelled to blog about my genealogical explorations, so I needed my archive to also be digital.
Whether you stop with the physical or move on to the digital frontier, it’s important to store your physical archive in acid-free materials that won’t eat up the precious things you’re trying to preserve. There are any number of supply houses for archival materials, but I’ve always had the best luck here: www.gaylord.com. Beware: archival materials are pricey, which is why I recommend doing a preliminary sort through your goodies to determine what you really need before purchasing. I also highly recommend following the advice of The Practical Archivist. She is a real archivist, so if what I say and what she says ever conflict, go with what she says.
Also, you don’t have to keep everything. There are no archive police who will come arrest you if you toss things. Completing Step 1 was important in helping me determine what to keep and what to toss. Space and money are not unlimited, so I only keep what is of interest of to me as Queen of My Archive.
Step 4: Pick a focus and start scanning.
On to the digital archive. I do not recommend starting with the first random thing on the pile, because scanning gets very boring very quickly, and I guarantee that your enthusiasm will peter out if you don’t have a clear purpose. Yes, I made this mistake in the beginning, which is why I’m warning you. After puttering around aimlessly for a couple of weeks, I decided to focus strictly on ephemera related to my beloved great-grandfather, Franz Georg Leopold “Leo” Lessiack. When that was done, I moved on to the next grouping.
Be sure that you scan at at least 400 DPI, and 600 DPI is even better. You want a resolution high enough to enable extreme enlarging in your digital photo tool. Some of my best identification clues came from zooming waaaay in on a tiny detail (like a wall calendar behind the subject, or a sign across the street).
I have two scanners: a small Flip-Pal Mobile scanner that allows me to scan images smaller than 5×7 that are glued into albums, and a large flat-bed scanner that allows me to tackle larger flat images and documents. You definitely don’t want one of the feed-through style scanners because really old paper can’t take the strain. Likewise, I’m not a fan of outsourcing your scanning because most vendors won’t deal with the varying sizes of very old photographs, and no one will take the same exquisite care of your artifacts that you do.
Full disclosure: I have a lot of stuff yet to scan, People. I will probably still be scanning on my deathbed. Coming to peace with the undone is part of the journey. However, I did find it motivating to adopt one basic concept from the professional archive community: the notion of the “closed collection.” A closed collection is one to which no more artifacts will be added. My great-grandpa Leo’s stuff is a closed collection — he will not be adding to it, because he is no longer with us. The crap I shoot on my iPhone is the opposite of a closed collection, because it just grows and grows and grows. If actually finishing something is important to you, pick a closed collection to begin your scanning adventures.
Step 4: Organize your scans.
First, pick a tool. The internet is lousy with advice on the best tools for managing digital images, so I will not recapitulate all of that here. Use the Google and find the tool that works best for you. Many tools offer a 30-day trial before you have to plunk down money.
The sheer size of my archive dictated the use of a professional tool, rather than a consumer-level one. I started out using Aperture (which Apple promptly discontinued) to manage my digital image library, but I recently migrated to Adobe Lightroom. I wish I had done it years ago, because I’m finding it to be a much better tool.
If your tool offers the choice to “manage images directly” or “manage images by reference” choose the latter. It’s much more flexible in the end because your stuff won’t be trapped in some arcane, proprietary database. Also, be sure that you save your images in a non-lossy format, such as TIF. The files are much larger, but they won’t degrade with repeated openings as they would if you stored them as JPGs.
Finally, I live by the following golden rule: Keyword every image. My keyword strategy centers around people (lastname firstname maidenname), themes (dogs, ships, birthday parties, etc.), and locations (Panama Canal Zone, Hamburg, etc.). I also keyword publication status (blogged), and mystery people by who they might have known (Leo mystery, Margaret mystery, etc.) Where I know the year, I add that too. Metadata stays with the image, so regardless of which tool you use, keywords are almost always going to be your best bet for locating images.
Mine is not the only keyword strategy that works, but it’s the only one that works for me and the ways in which I use my archive. Your mileage may vary, and your needs are likely to be different than mine. It takes time to develop a keyword strategy that is both scalable and useful. Whatever you do, don’t just load a bunch of images into your catalog without keywording them — as your collection grows, it will become impossible to find anything. If you can assert only one kind of discipline on yourself, make it be this.
Step 5: Have a backup strategy.
Do not neglect backups. They are essential. Hardware fails all the time, and you don’t want to learn this tough lesson the hard way. The conventional wisdom is that a digital archive should be backed up in three different places and formats.
For me, “backed up” means two local hard drives (one on my desk, one hidden in another room lest I be burglarized), a continuous backup in the cloud via BackBlaze, and an online gallery hosted on SmugMug. I supposed you could consider this blog to be another sort of archive, but I don’t upload high-resolution images, and it is by no means comprehensive. Again, your mileage may vary and you might prefer different methods, but you should not neglect backups, however you choose to accomplish them.
Step 6. When you don’t know, guess.
This is also step 7, 12, 15, 23, and 50. I theorize constantly, and am always on the lookout for data to support or disprove my theories. Staying organized allows me to double back and correct assumptions, make new connections between data points, and find related artifacts quickly.
Guessing has resulted in some amazing connections for me. For example, when I started this project, I knew nothing about my Spielmann relatives, but by correlating my data, guessing identities in my old photographs, and publishing my guesses on my blog, I was able to make contact with several heretofore unknown cousins who corroborated my guesses and allowed me to make much faster progress than I might otherwise have made. One reader thanked me for publishing the only images of our mutual ancestors that she had ever seen. Talk about satisfaction.
Don’t be discouraged if your family doesn’t show a lot of interest in your hard work. Mine doesn’t, for the most part, and that is perfectly OK. My blog (and the archive it spawned) provide me with great personal fulfillment, and I would work on them whether anyone else cared or not. My point is that you cannot possibly imagine who will care — your fellow nerds are out there, and some day your descendants might be curious. The community of truly committed genealogists is small, kind, and dogged in its pursuit of truth. If you are right, someone will tell you, and if you are wrong, someone will also tell you (and then you should go back and correct your archive). The point is that you shouldn’t be shy about guessing, sharing what you know, or displaying the artifacts you have. You might open a whole new horizon for someone else’s research. This happens fairly often for me, and there is no feeling like it. I treasure the connections I’ve made as a result of this work.
Happy archiving, People. If you find something interesting, give me a holler.