29 July 2012

Sentimental Sunday - Empathy for a Family's Story

I had the great, good fortune to share my work as an Archivist and Genealogist with a good friend from high school. Her parents, mom and step-dad, live part of the year in Michigan where her mom grew up. Her step-dad isn't doing well health-wise, and so earlier in the summer she asked if I would be willing to travel to Michigan to work with them. While I wouldn't normally stay at a client's home, my friend insisted. I packed up my Archival supplies and headed into what was unfamiliar territory: a pseudo-client without a contract, no knowledge of how much material they had (other than 'a LOT'), and not knowing the extent of what they wanted me to do other than get their stuff put in order. Do NOT try this at home. <grin>

I'll make this disclaimer: because I don't yet have a signed contract (she's sending it back to me as I'm writing this) I'm not going to disclose who they are, just yet. But I'm going to relate some of what transpired because not only did I help them, but they helped me to better understand the process of putting together a family's history through pictures, documents, ephemera and most of all, empathy.

When I arrived, I found they have not one but two houses. Well, one's a house and the other is a cottage that sits in front of the house right on the water. It's a lovely location. After warm greetings and getting the lay of the land, my friend took me over to the cottage to show me the 'Stuff'. You know, the Stuff that's accumulated over a lifetime. In this case, it was mostly photographs and photo albums that had been owned by my friend's grandmother and then passed to her mom. There were about four large boxes; realizing that it wouldn't take me that long to go through and do a quick assessment, I did just that. Lots of older photos, some clearly from the first half of the 20th century mixed in with more contemporary stuff from the later half of the 20th century. Photo albums with those horrible plastic pages or sticky pages; framed material that would need to be unframed. All the usual suspects.

As I was explaining some of the technical aspects of Archives to my friend, her mom came over and joined the conversation. I explained that in my experience, I can easily go through a single banker's box of documents in 6 - 8 hours; photographs usually take me less. Looking at what they had, I felt I could finish up in the two days I'd expected to be there (Saturday/Sunday). My friend's mom then divulged that, 'oh, by the way, the "good" box is up at the house.' Heh. 

We went up to the house, and sure enough, she had a nice sized box of photos, most of which were taken before 1950. There was an album from the late 1930s as well as a few documents. They started showing me individual photos, explaining who the people were in them and the events that were taking place. At some point, not long into the process, I stopped them and asked, "Do you have a family tree that's been done?" 

Nope, everything they had was verbal; stories passed down. In this case, I thought it would help me more quickly process the photos to have an outline of who was who. So, I fired up my Family Tree Maker. I put the caveat on what I was about to do by explaining what a Professional Genealogist's job is, and how having names and information from oral family history does not a genealogy make. With the understanding that we would work together to ensure the best quality information, I  started to add names into a brand new database. 

Saturday morning arrived quickly and I started the work of organizing what they had in the boxes. I was able to start  picking out individual people I recognized and put them in their proper context. As I continued to work, they joined me to tell me more stories. What amazed me was that this family had an important role in the local area and that the history of the area was intertwined with the family. As we delved deeper into the boxes, more and more stories were uncovered and shared. They laughed when, on seeing a picture of someone with a huge fish I said, "That's Calvin!" My friend's mom quipped, "You're gonna know our family better than we do." Yep, that's my job.

This particular family had an unusual thread that ran through it: in each generation there was at least one person who had married multiple times. We're not talking just twice. Three seemed to be the magic number, although there's a family with two daughters who have both been married 4 times, and they're only in their late thirties. What a complicated tree with crazy branches of multiple spouses and children and step-children. At the same time, they are a very loving and fun family.

At one point on Saturday evening after everyone else had gone to sleep except for my friend's mom and I, she quipped that she would've never been able to get through the material as quickly as I had. Having listened to the stories and thinking about my own 'Stuff' that sits unorganized in my office closet, I realized that it is so much easier to work with other people's material. With our own, there are emotions attached to the people and events, whether good, bad or indifferent, that cause us to slow to reminisce or tease out if our memories are weak. As an outsider, I can work quickly without the emotional attachment. At the same time, I realized that having the ability to be empathetic to the family, to have an appreciation for the oral history that I may be poking holes in, that it's important to be respectful of the feeling that the material generates in my clients. 

I ended up staying Sunday night in order to finish up some detail work on the newly foldered photographs. When I left, the 'Stuff' had been neatly foldered, labeled and stored in three Archives boxes. My friend's mom kept asking if I'd thrown anything away because she couldn't believe it all fit into that small space. I assured her nothing went in the bin; properly organized material takes up a lot less space. They also have the beginnings of a nice genealogy database with 85 individuals, mostly unsourced, for now. And I took a 45 minute detour on my way home Monday to head to Barry County Courthouse to pull a land record for the family. One of the cornerstone stories passed down was that their great-grandfather had purchased land from the Indians at some time after 1878, when he came to the area. I knew that it was unlikely to be true and they really wanted to know. 

Of course, the deed I pulled was a treasure trove of information that included another generation back on the tree, confirmation of that generation's State of origin and the fact that, unless the Indian's were lawyers in an East Coast State, the land was purchased from an individual who was most definitely not a Native American. 

So, as I sit here writing this blog post to avoid delving into my own 'Stuff', I have a very happy new client. They have other projects for me to work on, and I hope that I have the opportunity to help them uncover more of the roots of their tree. For me though, getting the family photos organized and arranged was my first goal and top priority. The images we archived can now be scanned and shared with many, many others without detriment to the material. It will also be ready, eventually, to be passed to the next generation without having to be separated, which dilutes the stories they tell. Have you thought about having your own material Archived?


*Representative images; not taken at this client


  1. WOW! Those before and after photos of the process are awesome! Quick question for you . . . what exactly was your process with the photos that allowed you to sort, organize, and file them so quickly? What type of archival equipment/materials did you use and recommend to others?

    I have removed old family photos from those awful adhesive photo albums and placed them in photo storage boxes that I pull quarterly and go through to scan photos. But that's about it. I would love for my collection to look like your after photo. So any tips and suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

    Thanks for sharing this experience with us!

    1. Hi Liv! I'm glad you like the pics; it's material that I worked with and processed. I'm happy to give you some suggestions. Why don't you email me at archivalbiz@gmail.com and I'll be happy to share with you.

  2. It sounds like you had a good weekend, and did a great job :-)

    1. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment! I did have a great time, and as I mentioned, if the client is happy, so am I.

  3. This is a fantastic post! I can see where your job can be very rewarding. What a service you provided to that family -- and I love how you wrote it up.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. My work is most definitely not *cookie cutter*; each client is different, each family is different and each group of materials is different. That's why I love this so much.

  4. Your new client is fortunate to have you! Their new genealogy database with 85 members must be very satisfying to them. I really like your observation that when the photos/images are separated, the stories get diluted. Family stories tend to occur in clusters and kind of resonate and bounce off each other, it seems. They make a pattern of the family's personality. Is archiving material the same thing as "donating" material to a state/local genealogical organization (I ask from plain ignorance)?


Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on my blog!