The Future of Family History

Sometime back I sat in on a panel discussion of the future of genealogy. Most of the discussion revolved around technical advances and digital content being added at the large database sites. I was surprised that little was said about the impact of personal archives. While the large databases are a treasure trove of vital records, probate records, immigration records and such, personal archives are where the letters, journals, photographs, portraits and artifacts reside that add life and personality to our ancestors. I don’t know about you, but these items are the life blood of my research and storytelling efforts.

My family has been knocking around an idea to photograph many of the family heirlooms to create a book that would allow each of us to “share the heritage”. In researching what it would take to pull such a project together, I realized this could easily become a massive effort. In addition to lighting and photography equipment, wouldn’t it also be wonderful to have conservators and appraisers available to offer expert advice? Wonderful? Yes! Affordable? Not so much.

It was at that point that it dawned on me this would be a perfect project for a local historical or genealogical society. Societies have the expertise and connections for both digitizing and documenting family heirlooms. Putting on such an event could also give them access to personal archives which could expand the society’s knowledge base. And, the institution could ask for digital copies with appropriate releases as a part of the digitizing/documentation service. Then, there’s also the possibility for negotiating loans of artwork and other artifacts for special exhibits in local museums. Individuals get digital copies of their artifacts along with conservation tips and some idea of their history. And, hopefully, everyone has some fun in the process.

Our mobile society means a small local genealogy society needs the support of distant members to survive and prosper. This is increasingly difficult when their record collections are only available in print format. Projects to digitize both the society’s collection and their members’ personal archives can go a long way to attract new members and create a vibrant community where both local and distant members can actively participate.