Sunday, 26 June 2011

Preserving Personal Papers: A Cautionary Tale (and a confession)

I had a great time at the SAFHS conference yesterday and attended some interesting lectures. These included a talk by Richard Hunter of Edinburgh City Archives on “Edinburgh its Archives and Inhabitants” in which he emphasised that many records of the city’s schools and other organisations have been lost - in most cases simply thrown away. 

Today, I’ve been clearing out some boxes in a cupboard and have discovered that some of my own papers have been lost and damaged - in this case due to poor storage. 

I’m a bit of a hoarder and wasn’t too worried when it was discovered that one of the boxes was somewhat damp as I thought it just contained some old papers from uni that I would most likely throw away if I ever got around to sorting them out. 

I was, however, more than a little upset to discover at the bottom of an increasingly wet box a cardboard folder containing a set of certificates and other papers that I’ve been collecting together since childhood so wet and covered with mould that it some cases half of each document has been eaten away and no longer exists. 

These papers include my GCSE certificates, a series of dance and music examinations going back to the 80s (some with handwritten reports by the examiners) and a group photo of my school year as well as less official ‘certificates’ such as one confirming that I took a trip in a hot air balloon in 1991. Not the most important documents in the world perhaps (it could have been a lot worse) but I know I’d be pretty excited to discover something similar concerning an ancestor. 

Of course as a genealogist I know that not only should these have been more carefully stored (I honestly believed that this folder was kept in another cupboard!) but also that I should have scanned them and kept multiple backed-up copies. As a human being, I hadn’t got around to it yet. 

I confess that I don’t really have a proper system when in comes to storing genealogical documents. I’ve always figured that all the important stuff is still with my mum and dad and that most of the records I have are modern copies of documents held in public archives that would be relatively straightforward (if costly) to replace. 

Yes, I’ve heard of Scanfest (apparently there’s one happening today!) but somehow I just never thought it was relevant to me and, probably like many genealogists, I’ve never given much thought to documenting my own life. 

Thanks to some advice from Facebook friends I’ve now put what survives of my documents in the freezer. I am hoping this will dry them out sufficiently to be able to separate the pages so that I can then scan and/or photograph what remains in order to salvage some of the information, if not the documents themselves. 

In the meantime I’m giving some serious thought to making sure I have scans of all my other personal and family papers and to (finally) implementing a proper system for backing up my data - honest!