Friday, November 26, 2010

Please don't throw it person's trash is another's treasure

Keeptidy ask
Recently an old photograph album has come into the possession of my Mum and I. The cousin who gave it to us didn't know anyone in the photos and told us we could throw it out if we wanted. One look at the album and Mum and I are sure the photographs show relatives of my great great grandmother Susan Ellis (nee Hehir) who immigrated to Australia from Killow, Clareabbey, County Clare, Ireland. The photos appear to date from the 1880s/1890s.

When treasures are sometimes considered trash

I'm sure we've all experienced this story at one time or another in our family history journey... Aunt Nell remembers that her second cousin John had a photograph of great great great grandfather Smith. She remembers seeing the photograph years ago on John's wall - it was big, it was clear, it was treasured by the family...or so it was thought. Trouble is second cousin John had no children and when he passed away his nephew inherited all his 'junk'. The photograph meant nothing to this nephew...and one day it was thrown into the bin.

If you are like me such stories will possibly make you almost cry. Accidental loss would be tragic but understandable, but the deliberate destruction of priceless historical items is heartbreaking.

The story above was fictional, but I am afraid that similar stories have happened in my own family. We know a lot of historical things were thrown away by older relatives who unfortunately didn't like the "old things".

This photograph of my Randall ancestors was saved 
My Mum talks about a photograph her grandmother used to have at her house of a handsome Lighthorseman with a feather in his hat. When my Mum questioned her grandmother who the photograph showed she was told "Nobody you'd know dearie." It turns out the photograph was probably of her nephew who was killed at Gallipoli during the First World War - but we don't know what became of the photograph.

Among Mum's grandmother's other possessions was a photograph of my third great grandparents, emigrants from Essex, England. It almost went to the tip too, if it had not been saved by my great aunt. Mum now has the photograph in her possession and copies of it have been distributed to other descendants across Australia. It is the only known photograph of my third great grandmother (see Wordless Wednesday: My Randall Family).

Then there was the story my Mum accidently overheard on a bus trip one day. Two older gentleman were sitting across the aisle discussing the disposal of items which had come into their possession following a death in the family. One of the men was new to the experience and quite nervous about how he should act. The other man had been through all this before and was ready with useful advice, which went something like this:

I inherited all these photos from Mum. But it wasn't only our family there were the grandparents and the aunts and the cousins. I wasn't interested in all that stuff. What could I do with it? So I called in the shire garbage disposal, and they left one of those big bins with me for a week...and I put the lot in it. That's what I'd suggest you do.

So there went all the photographs from that family! It has been a joke between my Mum and I since that every ancestor we can't find a photograph of was likely to have been pictured in one of the photographs thrown out in that man's bin!  (That is, apart from the ones we know for certain went down old gold mines!)

But what if you don't want the treasure or can't take care of it?

If you are not interested in old photographs or documents, or you don't have a safe place to keep them, what should you do with them?

(1) I would suggest first of all to ask around any known relatives. You might find one of your cousins is interested in the family history, even if you are not.

(2) Check with the local historical society, genealogical society or local heritage museum. They might be interested in your old items.
(3) Check with local or state libraries, archives or museums. They may have photograph or manuscript collections to which your items may be a welcome addition, if they meet the relevant collections policy criteria. Even where photographs are unnamed they could still be useful for historians. If you have some idea of where the photographs were taken, then scenery or buildings may be able to be identified, or other local families may be able to identify people in the photographs (see Museum Victoria's Biggest Family Album for more information on how photographs can be a useful historical resource).

General library, museums and collections links:
Some collections have specific requests for material on specific topics:

Examples of collections policies for various repositories:
I treasure my items, how should I take care of them?

You may realise how precious the old photographs and documents in your possession are and you may want to keep them safe yourself. I would suggest that you first photograph or scan the items and distribute digital or printed copies to other relatives. There are many places to access information about keeping family treasures safe. The following are some resources you may find helpful.

Archival storage products are available from:

Copyright © 2010 Australian Genealogy Journeys.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't put it better... thank you. I have been sorting and copying for a while now and have packets addressed to various groups, societies, libraries, etc. and when I come across something I add it to them.

    I would suggest anyone wanting to donate copies of their family history, etc. approach the places that interest you now and ask would they like copies, rather than having it all dispersed before anyone reads the will. Don't forget the smaller local libraries and museums, especially if you've lived in the area for quite awhile.

    They usually appreciate things given to them, especially photos of the area 'then and now".


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