What to do with your family history or memorabilia?

Currier Art Library Doty Family Display

Courtesy of Currier Art Library Doty Family Display

Not everyone can see the value in old items such as letters, diaries, bibles and even war medals. Many times when people die all their possessions are just dispersed into the bin, second hand shops or sold off.  The problem is that unless it is obvious sometimes, it is hard to work out what should be kept. The other problem is having the time to put it all together in some ordered form. With a funeral to organise and the emotion of a loved one passing it can be hard to start sorting through.

Thinking about what to do with your family history and historical items should be done well before time. You will be the best person to sort through it and the best person to see where it could be of use to your own family and the wider community. The first step is to put all your stuff together in the one place and make sure that it is all titled with dates, places and people. A master version should be put together in digital items with regular back ups to a hard drive and a remote location or cloud like Dropbox.

Even if you don’t have anyone to pass your papers and photos on to they may be of value to people outside of your family. To read and see what it was like to live in a certain place and time can be taken from these papers and photos. This further “local” information can be a goldmine of information that may have had relatives that where living in the same time or place. Old photos may have important historical buildings in the background. Other photos may be events that other people were known to have attended. What is kept in local societies, State Libraries and the National archives has the flavour of the community in those areas. People don’t have to be celebrities, it’s seeing how people lived before us that is the interesting part.

There are a few points to note if you are considering who and when to hand over your items to.

  • Get the society, state library, museum to look at your items first. They will be able to let you know whether the items would be appropriate for them. It is good to do this before you sort your will so that you can sign the information/ items over to the historical archives of the organisation you have chosen. To start this process, contact your chosen organisation.
  •  Archives cannot afford to buy the items so they require donations of the items. (This may be interesting for family members to know so there is no expectation of payment when items do go to the archives.)
  • You will have to depart with holding onto the original items as researchers want to deal with the original works. Just like a museum wouldn’t want a photocopied diary to put on display.
  • You need to understand that when you give the items over then they are not technically yours anymore, so they may be used in marketing, people’s research, and they may need to be signed over so that other family members cannot get them back.
  • All types of material are of interest, many people may just think that only letters, memoirs, diaries, photos are the only things of interest. However other interesting material also can include such things as brochures/fliers, minutes of meetings, legal documents, speeches. That is why getting the material assessed is a good to do. (In my own family, my husband’s aunt just sent me a large political poster of my father in law. It is a great family memento for us.)
  • Historical archives take donation of the information and you sign it over. It generally isn’t a case of you loaning the material.
  • Also may need to make time restrictions on the information, due to privacy of some people listed in your memorabilia.
  • As the heir of material you have donated,  you may be eligible to the copyright of the documents. However the depositary may want to make the records available to the public to use as part of their research and require ‘fair use’ in regard to copyright. (This can mean that parts of your grandmother’s memoirs may become part of a university project on feminism or that her poems about the family could be used for a website slogan.)
  • Although you have donated the items, they may not get displayed. Many archives have a long list of items that are stored and cannot all be on display. You may need to understand that before donating the items.

I love sharing my family history and I get very excited to see items on display at museums that may have been hidden away from the world. Imagine how exciting it would be to have your family walk into a museum to see your treasured possessions on display and see many other people appreciate them too. I was most touched on ANZAC day to hear excerpts of soldiers from their diaries. Families would have found these last moments of their loved ones lives hard to part with. But if these things are not donated, then we would be missing something very special.




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