Tips on Archiving Family History, Part 3

Readers sent dozens of questions about archiving and preserving family history and stories to Bertram Lyons, an archivist at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress in Washington. He was recently asked to be the editor of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives, an organization that aims to share best practices in the management of audiovisual materials internationally. He received his master’s degree in museum studies from the University of Kansas in 2009.

The first set of answers dealt with questions of preserving audio. The second set of answers addressed film and photos, digital and analog. This week Mr. Lyons fields questions about manuscripts, video and other issues. This feature is now closed to new questions.
How to Store Aging Documents
Q. I’ve been told that plastics are not the best thing to store old documents in, and they should be placed in archive quality, acid-free paper products and boxes. However, what advice can you give to family members who keep and cherish documents from the 1800s that are flood prone and who probably would not be willing to consider safety deposit boxes, because they want to keep them at home? Are there sealed, waterproof containers that are advisable in this situation? Pam
A. Pam, check out this list of suppliers of archival products that the Smithsonian maintains. It’s not the case that all plastics are bad. In fact, certain plastics are highly recommended for long-term storage. The key with plastics is to avoid PVC-based polymers and to avoid any type of plastic that off-gases to a dangerous degree. Three forms of plastic that are regularly used in preservation scenarios are polyethylene, polypropylene and polyester. Look for archival storage products that are composed of one of these three polymers. If photos are involved, make sure the product has passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT). If so, most products will advertise this fact.
Q. How could you preserve an autograph book that has writings in it from friends of my great-grandmother. The dates are 1885 through 1887. Cukie, Lacombe, La.
A. Cukie, the first thing I would do is to purchase a high-quality storage container for it. You want something that lays horizontally and that encloses the book entirely. It also needs to be made of acid-free and lignin-free materials. Hollinger Metal Edge sells such containers. You can also purchase 100-percent-cotton fabric to wrap the book before it is stored in the box. Keep it out of the light entirely (the full-enclosure box will help that), and keep it in a cool, dry space. Heat, light and moisture all speed the decay of cellulosic materials (which is what the paper of the book is made of).
Digitizing Documents From World War II
Q. We have a massive collection of old family WWII letters, many of which are near crumbling. We would like to have them digitized and then made into a physical book and an e-book. What suggestions do you have to accomplish this myself or with services that do this type of archival work? Thanks. Koa
Q. My grandfather’s negatives from World War II are crumbling. I know from letters written between him and his brothers that Agfa chemicals and paper were used. How do I preserve them? They are 120-millimeter format. Should I try refixing them with fixer? Villette 1
Q. I have a box filled with items from my father’s WWII experience in the Persian Gulf — many letters, photos, crumbling newspaper clippings, pamphlets, patches. How do I preserve and put them together to form an interesting archive for my children and grandchildren? Peggy
A. Koa, take a look at the responses I provided to other questions about photo digitization and preservation. I provided a lot of resources related to digital imaging (scanning) that will be useful for your case, too. Before you prepare for any scanning, though, it would be helpful for you to stabilize the letters physically. If they are not already, be sure to store them in acid- and lignin-free folders and boxes and to keep them in dark, cool, dry locations, preferably off the floor.
Villete 1, I’m sorry that I cannot be of more help. I have little experience with physical conservation of damaged negatives. This article by Paul Messier gives a good introduction to preservation considerations for negatives. It also has a useful bibliography that can lead you to further sources. Also, see my earlier answers to photo-preservation questions in which I included many other links to resources.
Peggy, it sounds as if you have a wonderful collection to pass on to your children. See my earlier answers to questions about photo and manuscripts preservation and storage. There are links to resources that provide guidance on methods to store and protect your collections. Remember to also document what the contents are. If there are people in photographs, document them. Your children will not have the information otherwise. Document dates and places as well. You can keep inventories on paper or in digital formats that your children can use in the future to know what everything is. And if the collection is ever donated to an archive, these inventories will be of great help to archivists and researchers.
Being an employee of the Library of Congress, I would be remiss not to mention the Veterans History Project (VHP) as a potential home for collections that document the experiences of United States veterans. Its Web site gives information about the project and how to participate. It is an amazing and growing resource documenting the experience of veterans of all United States wars from World War I to contemporary conflicts.
Many Choices for Digital Video
Q. We hold a growing community archive of recorded and filmed oral histories. For archival purposes, we’ve been using digital video tape for filming, as well as CF cards for audio.
1. Is there any reason not to switch completely to nontape video recording? What format or quality setting is most universal (HD/Standard)?
2. I recently became aware of the limitations of the Mac’s Time Machine as an archive and now create actual file backups. Should we abandon Time Machine or double up on the external drive stack?
3. What is the most important part of any interview to save and in what format? Our archive of recordings and transcripts is stored on external drives and refreshed, but we also keep printed hard copies of all interviews. Chinquapin
A. Chinquapin, you ask great and difficult questions. For long-term preservation purposes, the trend is to move toward file-based digital formats instead of carrier-dependent formats. This trend assumes an underlying strategy for maintaining the integrity of digital files and for keeping the files alive and redundant. Unfortunately, for video, there are many choices when it comes to codecs (the way the bits are encoded/decoded to represent the visual data, e.g., ffv1, H.264, Apple ProRes) and wrappers (the way the elements of the video — video, audio, metadata, etc. — are packaged together into a single file, e.g., Quicktime, AVI, MXF). And then there are more choices for matters such as resolution, color space and frame rate. I serve on a working group for audiovisual guidelines as part of the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative (FADGI). Although it is not available yet, we are working on a comparison chart for digital video codecs and wrappers.
I am not too familiar with Time Machine’s limitations, but I am certain that you should make an effort to keep redundant (multiple) copies of your files on multiple drives, and if possible on multiple storage formats, as well as in different physical locations.
At the American Folklife Center, we keep the raw footage from interviews as well as the final produced version (if one exists). We also generate transcripts and store those transcripts in physical and digital formats.
Kara Van Malssen (Audiovisual Preservation Solutions) provides a useful overview of video preservation and management in this article that was written for a project called Oral History in the Digital Age. The article includes a list of resources that add further depth to the conversation, including “A Primer on Codecs for Moving Image and Sound Archives” by Chris Lacinak and a link to the video preservation Web site.
The Importance of Metadata
Q. What is the role of metadata in the personal/ family archive. Should an independent archivist have a metadata strategy when preserving digital historical material? Where do we even begin? I would also love to hear your thoughts on the longevity of external hard drives. a_wall
A. A_wall, metadata, at its most basic, is information about the what, who, when, how, why and where regarding any given object, idea or event. Therefore, in my opinion, metadata plays an essential role in the personal/family archive. The beautiful thing about family history is that we often pass it orally from generation to generation. Humans also have a long history of writing things down in memoirs or letters or on things themselves in order to send information about the past into the future. I think people will continue to do such things.
The harder question, however, is in what format will humans share information about digital collections as we pass it down from generation to generation. You cannot write on the back of a digital file, as we all know. But you can write in the digital file. And you can keep supplemental information about the digital file in spreadsheets and databases and other electronic forms. I think it is important that we all independently think about the methods through which we will share essential information about our digital collections with future generations. In my work, I’ve found that simpler methods of description prove more sustainable than complex methods. As an independent archivist, if you can develop a consistent strategy for describing your digital historical materials, you will be doing a service to those who come after you. With digital material, this assumes that you also develop a long-term storage strategy for your collections and the documentation about your collections, which leads me to your next question about the longevity of hard drives.
Hard drives will not last forever. They have an average failure rate of about three to five years at this point. This means that you need to have plans to migrate from drive to drive about every three years. It is also important that you have redundant copies of your collections on separate drives (if possible on different storage formats or with some combination of online storage services and local hard drives) and in separate physical locations. Digital preservation is a long-term commitment to active migration.
No Storage Medium Lasts Forever
Q. What’s safer (i.e., more crash-proof and more secure from prying eyes): an external hard drive or online storage? What are the best online storage sites? Larry
Q. What is the life expectancy for an external hard drive? Will my backups last forever? Sam
Q. I’ve already lost pictures, videos and audio because of lost and broken drives and computers, so I’ve started storing media in the cloud more and more. But is “the cloud” really safe in the long term? spacebailey
A. As part of a Web site about personal archiving, the Library of Congress recently put together a quick guide to thinking about storage media. The key takeaway, in my opinion, is that no storage medium lasts forever. With digital information, active migration is essential. You will need to be prepared to develop a storage strategy for your digital files that includes multiple storage formats (hard drives and online storage services, among others), multiple locations (home, online, neighbors, friends, family) and active monitoring and migration to new storage in regular intervals. At this point in the game, no single storage format or service is enough to ensure the health and integrity of your files.
The Library of Congress also produced this video with advice about digital preservation.
Q. When will the Twitter archive be available for public search and retrieval? Jason F.
A. Jason F., here is the most current release of information about the Twitter archive from the Library of Congress. Included at the bottom of the page is a detailed white paper on the topic.
Unifying Family’s Oral Histories
Q. I’ve been interviewing my grandparents and great-aunts and -uncles as part of a project to create an oral history of my family for future generations. The recordings are digital, but at this point I have dozens of hours of recordings spread across CDs, USB keys and external hard drives — and I haven’t transcribed any of it. Do you have any pointers for organizing this audio, other than the basic transcription services out there? I’d love to be able to sort the audio by family member, date or other information. Carol
A. I love that you are doing this project, Carol. It will be a valuable resource for future generations. First and foremost, I recommend that you unify all of your recordings under one roof. Move them all to an appropriate-size external hard drive and then make a copy of that drive so that you have two copies. See some of my other answers in this column for more information about digital file management. Next, take time to make at least a preliminary inventory of your recordings. Use a spreadsheet instead of a text document so that the data is standardized and can be imported into other formats. At the very least, include information about the interviewer, the interviewee, the date of the interview, the location of the interview and the duration of the interview, as well as a short summary of the contents of the interview. Also provide a unique identifier for each audio file (e.g., the file name) and connect this identifier to the data in your spreadsheet. This will provide quick searchability while you wait to move to a more automated method.
At this point you have the raw materials necessary for use in any automated interface. There are simple and basic systems that you could use for search and access, even something like iTunes could work locally on your computer. Be sure not to assume that a searchable system will provide preservation. You’ll need to continue to be active in your efforts to ensure the integrity and health of the files and the descriptions about the files. There are also more robust systems that you can use to provide access (for yourself, your family or the public) to the interviews. A new project, Pop Up Archive, hopes to provide support for people like you who are looking for methods to organize, preserve and provide some type of access to audio collections.
The Need to Share Stories
Q. I thought my mother’s diaries, tiny handwritten lines, would be a memory trove. But I find myself not reading them. Now I am trying to leave memories to my grandchildren, writing memoirs, assembling pictures. But I ask, “Will they care?” Maybe all this memoir writing is for me, to justify my life, not for them? How can I put these artifacts and words together so it might be relevant to their lives? Barbara
Q. I have a rambunctious group of siblings, associated nieces and nephews, grand-nieces and -nephews and an angelic, positive 92-year-old mother who is full of stories developed over the life of all these people. Her attitude in life has brought her through so many situations with positive outcomes, an exhibition of what a positive attitude can do in face of the most difficult of situations. How can we best capture her life for sharing with the current and future generations of our family? Kat
A. Barbara, Kat, in my mind, you are asking questions about the most fundamental impulse that drives collecting institutions like archives, museums and libraries: memory. How do societies document evidence and information about the past in such a way that will be useful for their members in the present as well as for anyone at anytime in the future? How do families pass down their knowledge, experiences, histories and legends from one generation to the next? People have been successful at this endeavor for centuries and centuries, and I have no doubt that we will continue in step. Different groups in different times have employed a diverse set of available technologies to communicate to future generations, including oral traditions, written traditions and documentary recording media (still images, sound recordings and moving images).
In my opinion, what we have learned up to this point is that we need to continue to exploit all of these methods to ensure that we pass on as much as possible from one generation to the next. We need to share stories; we need to write to each other, and about each other; and we need to record our voices and our likenesses. We cannot preserve everything. And not everything needs to be preserved. But the more we talk, the more we write and the more we document, the better chance some fragment of our expressions and experiences will make its way to our descendants.

Bertram Lyons
Lisa Rausch

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Loss of Memory in Pahlavi Prisons

In total, [I was in prison] about 6 years in two arrests. For the first time after several years, a soldier arranged my escape. I do not know why! Maybe he was one of the influential elements of Islamic groups. They took me to the hospital for the treatment of my hand, which was broken due to the callousness of an officer.

Hajj Pilgrimage

I went on a Hajj pilgrimage in the early 1340s (1960s). At that time, few people from the army, gendarmerie and police went on a pilgrimage to the holy Mashhad and holy shrines in Iraq. It happened very rarely. After all, there were faithful people in the Iranian army who were committed to obeying the Islamic halal and haram rules in any situation, and they used to pray.

A section of the memories of a freed Iranian prisoner; Mohsen Bakhshi

Programs of New Year Holidays
Without blooming, without flowers, without greenery and without a table for Haft-sin , another spring has been arrived. Spring came to the camp without bringing freshness and the first days of New Year began in this camp. We were unaware of the plans that old friends had in this camp when Eid (New Year) came.

Attack on Halabcheh narrated

With wet saliva, we are having the lunch which that loving Isfahani man gave us from the back of his van when he said goodbye in the city entrance. Adaspolo [lentils with rice] with yoghurt! We were just started having it when the plane dives, we go down and shelter behind the runnel, and a few moments later, when the plane raises up, we also raise our heads, and while eating, we see the high sides ...