Genealogists, by nature, are collectors of “family stuff.” Once it has been established among our extended family that we are the keepers of the family’s history, we often become the recipients of a large amount of ephemera. Such was the case with me, with grandparents giving me large amounts of material that they themselves couldn’t bear to throw out. Over the years I received a lot of wonderful records, but also a number of items of only marginal historical value. I kept it all.
It all begins there, innocently enough. But then, as we hone our skills as genealogists, the years roll by, our research files grow, and we create a lot of paper. Not only do we collect original photographs and documents like those alluded to above, but we make copies of a great many documents, from birth and death certificates to obituaries to biographical sketches from county histories. We also take lots of notes as we go into courthouses to abstract deeds and wills. As we continue to pursue our hobby, the mountain grows. Yes, we can digitize, but what about all of our work before the digital age? I have been a genealogist since my early teens in the early 1970s. In the last 40 years, I have acquired a lot of “stuff” – maybe even too much. I have tried to do all of the right things. Our family photographs are all archived in archival photo sleeves in albums. The original family correspondence, family diaries, and documents are all housed, along with those of my wife, in archival file boxes, occupying an entire floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in a spare bedroom of my home, which we call the Archives Room. Here we also keep our file cabinets, computers, and scanner. Yes, it is sort of a genealogist’s “man cave,” but my wife also uses it.
This year, with the mountain of paper growing ever higher (this in spite of making extensive digital copies of many files), my wife said to me pointedly, “Do we really need to keep all this stuff?” I did not consider the question impertinent. After all, I have published a number of family histories, and in them made extensive footnotes to original and secondary sources. For those families, I have definitely “closed the book” on my research so to speak, with no intention of ever revisiting them. At the same time I am mindful that I won’t live forever and that my children have only a marginal interest in it all. I had to ask myself some pointed questions. Do I really want to take the time to digitize everything? Are there some papers that I can truly discard and not feel any compunction about my decision? Do I really want to burden my children with all of this material, knowing they may well throw out the good with the bad?
After much thought, I decided to start spring cleaning this past winter. I began with the obvious, throwing out early drafts of my published family histories that I saw no value in keeping. Without touching any of the archived items, I turned next to the stacks of boxes that I had accumulated, both in the Archives Room and in the attic. And then I devised a set of criteria. First, I looked at the files for families that I had already published and fully documented. Would I need really that census record or obituary of that third cousin twice removed? Would I really need to keep those family group sheets and correspondence with people whose families I had finished and published? Would I really need all of my old genealogy notebooks with notes on families already published? I decided that the answer in all of these cases was no, and I began to pitch those items, even being a bit brutal about it. I kept the most meaningful correspondence and a few items that served as signposts in my early years as a genealogist, but many other paper files went to the recycle bin. The garbage truck hauled it away, and I felt some sense of satisfaction in seeing it go.
It was a different story for the files on those families that I still hope to publish. In those instances the boxes remain – some in the attic and some in the Archives Room - in the belief that I will yet have time to publish something about them. I am mindful that my children will not likely keep those boxes when I’m gone, but frankly, I don’t expect them to. I will be happy if they keep the archived photos and the more valuable original diaries and letters that I preserved in archive boxes on that bookshelf in the Archives Room. But being realistic, I realize that even those things may not make it, and I may decide, when I’m older, to send some of those files to archival repositories in the places where those families lived. Right now, at least, the mountain is getting smaller, the bookshelf of my published work is growing, and I feel like I’m moving in the right direction.
Every genealogist faces the question of what to keep and what to throw. We all will die sometime, and we all have to climb that mountain and make decisions about our collected “stuff.” For me, the solution has been to digitize some, archive some, and defer deciding on others. A more important imperative is to keep writing – writing as if you don’t know if you’ll be here tomorrow in the hope of preserving your life’s work for posterity. We may never get it all done, but we can try. To quote my favorite philosopher, William James, “Hope for the best, pray for the best, and if death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”