Author Interview: Denise Levenick

Denise Levenick, known in the genea-community for her blog, The Family Curator, has just released a new book, How to Archive Family Keepsakes. It’s an amazing reference, full of many useful ideas for organizing and managing our family treasures. I was delighted to get her to answer a few questions about her book.

In the introduction, you mentioned a childhood encounter with your grandmother’s archive. Was that also the spark that began your interest in your family history?

My grandmother Arline was undoubtedly the biggest influence on my interest in “old” things. Her stories made long-dead relatives seem like next-door neighbors; I really felt like I knew them. She also loved reading to me, especially greatly embellished pioneer stories. Our favorite was a book of narratives reprinted from Capper’s Weekly newspaper. The stories were mostly about wagon trains, Indian attacks, and escapes from wild beasts. But the news clippings about her own early life were just as exciting, although I am still unraveling the truth to many of those tales.

I thought your decision to define your family papers as archives was a stroke of genius. Did that definition impact others in your family? If so, how?

I wish I were a Genius, but it seems like it took forever to get to that AHa Moment, “Hey, this stuff is a Real Archive, too!” And yes, this realization had an enormous impact on our family’s attitude. Overnight, it seemed, “Grandma’s stuff” just felt more Important. We let go of worrying about how to manage it all, and instead focused on organizing and preserving. I know it probably sounds simplistic, but the paradigm shift in attitude made it possible to work with the collection as a legitimate project rather than a room full of stuff that needed to be “organized.”

As you know, I’ve inherited a few more family archives since those early days with my grandmother’s trunk. My husband has become very tolerant of the boxes and bins and we now have a system that seems to work. Of course, it helps that some of those collections have come from his family members too. We still have boxes to sort, but now he’s the one filling them with documents, photos, and memorabilia.

Do you think the digitization of personal archives will have an impact on the growing interest in social history?

That’s a great question, Denise, and I think you have hit on something here. Like many bloggers, I’ve made interesting connections through articles on my website, and quite a few with historians working on special projects. Not long ago, a retired historian contacted me about a short excerpt I posted on my blog from a wagon train diary found in my aunt’s papers. I don’t know how she came to own the transcript, but it is one of those manuscripts that belongs with other historical documents in a public archive. I learned from my email exchange with the historian that documents like these do pop up from time to time and are valuable resources for researchers. He also gave me several good suggestions about donating my copy to an institution.

I would like to think that the family keepsakes we transcribe and post on our websites will be found and utilized by social historians. I think it would be  wonderful to know that the letters between family members transcribed and posted on a genealogy blog became part of a bigger story on some aspect of our culture or history.

Your worksheets are fabulous! They are going to be my salvation as I attempt to bring order to my family archives. How do you maintain your worksheets – on paper or as digits?

LOL. I am drowning in paper. Those worksheets are digital first and only printed “As Needed.” I certainly don’t want to bring more paper into my life, but I do need help organizing the information and my ideas. Sometimes just the typing and screen visualization are as good as the old-fashioned list-making.

Seriously, I’m glad you are finding them useful. I am a real Worksheet person, and find that I make better progress with a clear plan and tasks to check off when complete. I am a big fan of word-processing Tables. I wish I were more efficient with spreadsheets, but tables just come easier to me.

There were several “PRANG” moments as I read your book. One of them was the discussion on copyrights as it relates to inherited archives. Yes, it makes sense once I see it in writing that personal papers have copyrights, but I just never thought of it before. What surprises did you uncover in your research?

My grandmother was a great letter-writer, and although I don’t have too many letters in her own hand, I do have many letters she received from others. I would love to incorporate these in a story about her life, but by copyright law they belong to the authors and their heirs. If I get serious about this project I may have to collect releases just to be safe. Of course, all the letters she received from her parents as their heir came to my mother and my aunt, and thus to me and my sister. Maybe I wouldn’t need so many releases after all!

Any thoughts on what we should be doing now to develop our own archives?

Another great question, and one I’ve been grappling with especially since losing so many family members the past few years. I’ve made some big decisions prompted by what I’ve found left in other people’s archives. Probably the biggest suggestion I could offer is to destroy anything you want kept private. Letters you wrote to blow off steam and never mailed, photos you should tear up, or receipts or other evidence of bad decisions you’d rather forget. You are the curator of your life. If you don’t want folks to read, see, or know about something while you are alive, don’t keep evidence of it for them to find when you are gone.

On the same thought, leave your family with evidence to remind them of the your true self. I’ve always wanted to raise chickens; it’s a family joke, and my son gives me chicken-theme cards and gifts. I’m saving every one of them for all the smiles they recall. When we found every hand-made card my sons and nieces had sent my mom, plus ones from my sister and me, the story wasn’t that we had grown up to be great artists. The story was that Mom loved our efforts and cherished them. It’s a good story to hear from someone you love after they are gone.

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