Preserving the Past, Making family Heirlooms work!

As we approach the centenary of the First World War and everyone is considering and remembering their ancestors it’s a good time to point out our joint responsibilities in preserving the past.

I, like many have been moved by the wonderful displays of poppies at the Tower of London commemorating the fallen of the great war, if you haven’t seen them click here . It’s a wonderful tribute that will encourage anyone to consider their own past and their own history.

So what can we do to pass on the knowledge for future generations? Do you have memorabilia from a bygone age? Are you the keeper of the family achieve or shoe box of old pictures of those past generations? Preserving the past is your responsibility. What should you be doing to make sure these items are preserved and kept in best condition for future generations?

First lets look at Letters, postcards and old pictures as the most likely heirloom that might be in your possession. These may at present be in boxes, draws or old albums or even envelopes. The first thing you need to do is get them all out and make sure the letters are flattened not folded. preserving creases turn into cracks and tears. The pictures and postcards should be stored in plastic sleeves as should the letters in larger clear plastic material. These aren’t expensive and if you have a lot of old postcards or smallish photographic prints they are easily obtained at places like this . They also do storage boxes and all the materials are non acidic so will not degrade the base papers of your heirlooms.

If the postcards or pictures are in old albums it’s worth copying the pages photographically so preserving a record of how the album was laid out first and then removing each item and placing it in a plastic sleeve to preserve them. The quality of the papers used in old albums was very acidic and if the items are left in them until the paper rots they will degrade the items too.

Now you have all your items stored individually you need to register any information known with each item. This could be done with an indelible pen on the outside of the plastic folders, or sticky backed labels applied to the outside of the folder. Or you could just write a journal registering a reference number for each piece and what information you know – the only problem with this method is if the book gets separated from the items all your work is wasted. You no longer are preserving your knowledge of the item just keeping the mystery in better condition.

The thing most people forget to do is mark on photographs who is who – a picture is taken and we all know it’s uncle Fred or friend Jim. But future generations won’t and even when you pass on yourself your children will not necessarily know all the names of the people in your pictures let alone the generations before. A scribbled note on the back of many a picture of the past have lead researchers in the correct direction to identify ancestors. So preserving the history for future family researchers.

Many people get into Family History research and because of the ease of researching names online these days with sites like many hobbyists very quickly get swept up in the collection of names of past ancestors going backwards in time with little other relevent information. And it’s interesting to note many get so swept up in this collection process that they loose sight of what it is they are doing, gathering quantities of names and ancestors instead of details and history. This is to miss the point completely. We all have a responsibility to record the details of what we know, the flesh on the bones. Who cares if you are related to a Martha Jones in 1642, who you have no chance of finding details on, as opposed to knowing that Grandfather Jones’s brother Harold was a pilot on the Thames or aunty Jean was a nurse in the first world war and served in France. These stories are more important than the facts to record because they are the bits that most often get lost or forgotten.

With today’s technology we have advantages over the past to not only record but also to restore and regenerate old images whether they be postcards or pictures. We can not only scan and digitally store but we can retouch and enhance images to make them fresh and real to future generations. We also have access on line to achives of newspapers and records that would have taken much travelling to reach, now at the touch of a button.


preserving andretouching images
restoration of images to preserve them


There are two other options, you might be keen at writing up the stories of the past you know, it’s a great way to preserve your memories, diaries etc being one form. But what about taking your word documents or converting your diaries to word documents and then have them made into a printed hard back book – an ideal way to gain the interest of those not into family history research – it’s all about presentation, it makes it accessible to those who might not have an interest.

And how about this one? Record your own history on video. A who do you think you are type programme to pass on to future generations in a digital format whether it be on DVD or memory stick. We are all so interested in finding out about previous generations that we forget our own life story is just as important and far more interesting than we realise. The average person in their 50-60’s have lived through a lifetime before computers, they know about hand cut cheese and patted butter at Marks and Spencers. They know about school life with blackboards and chalk and warm milk on the radiator – their grandchildren don’t.

I like a few other video production companies specialise in this sort of production and know how to get the best out of people when interviewing them, take a look here to see examples but it’s possible for the do it yourself type to sit down with their phone and record their thoughts and history. At least having the files stored then on one folder or a spare hard drive gives future generations a chance with material to work from.

So if you have that shoebox of old images, get them out now, record as much detail as you can remember about each image and store that information in an age resistant format that gives future generations a starting point to work from for their own research. Do the same for old letters and postcards. Do this and you are preserving the past for your generation and passing the torch on for others to follow.


Brian Russell

Copyright October 2014