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It’s Wise to Organize

(from Allen County Public Library by Curt B. Witcher 6-1-2015)
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In all the talking, thinking, and writing about family history, proportionately few pieces and presentations focus on the many aspects, and great importance, of organization. We search for names, we follow shaky leaves, we explore hints, and we download trees, documents, charts and records like there’s no tomorrow. But how organized are we once we have the data? Can we find the information again among all our files? When we are more organized, we do better research; when we are more organized, we better record our findings and stories for the benefit and enjoyment of others; and when we are better organized, we are better prepared to deal with the disasters that may come our way.

Being organized carries such immediate and long-term benefits for our research that it is truly stunning to realize how little time we spend engaging in it. I am going to weave the topic of organization through four experiences I want to share with you in this column.
1. After disaster plaintive news footage.
2. The tale of a gift.
3. Two great questions from “Genealogy Gems” readers.

It would be impossible not to have heard anything about the devastating floods and tornadoes that have struck large areas of the country over the last many weeks. Again and again, we saw “homes without houses”–papers and photographs strewn for blocks, and in some cases miles. News reports often included pictures of waterlogged cabinets and trunks, and libraries offering individuals assistance in salvaging what precious little remains after the flood waters recede.

I have commented on the following point in the past, so I will be brief. Almost without exception, after a natural disaster of any kind, news crews capture scenes of victims sorting through ravaged remains for any scrap of paper or shred of photograph they used to have. That should never be us–not today, not ever. If we value our genealogies and family records, our photographs and unique documents, then we will be organized enough to ensure they remain available to us and our descendants. Extremely close to the time we find a new document, take a new image, or obtain a new photograph, we should create digital back-ups with offsite storage–both physically off site and virtually off site in the cloud. There simply is no reason not to. Be organized enough to do this–every time, right away.

A couple of weeks ago, The Genealogy Center again was honored to become the forever home for an amazing family history collection from a mother and her daughter. The collection is amazing because of its size. It is dozens of notebooks of genealogical charts as well as copies of supporting, and complementing, documents. Quite sincerely, though, the collection is truly most amazing because of how carefully and consistently it is organized. Every note labeled on the front as well as the spine. The contents of each notebook are clearly marked and logically ordered so that someone totally unfamiliar with the family could, in a very short amount of time, understand the research that has been done, link the correct individuals with their supporting documentation, and even continue the research.

One of my assistant managers commented to the donors about the careful organization, and how such clear organization would make it easier to process the work into our collection as well as make it easier to provide better cataloging so many more of the people and places would be discoverable in the online catalog. He struck a chord, as the mother smiled and told us a story about one of her research companions, now deceased. She and her research companion actually shared a few family lines. When her research companion passed away, the donor took responsibility for deciding what to do with the research files. The donor lamented that the files of her companion were so lacking in organization that, even though she shared a couple family lines with her friend, she could not make any sense of what her friend saved, recorded, and filed. The donor’s words to us: “It was useless, completely useless.” The lesson is clear.

A reader of my column last month brought up an issue that I have heard numerous times over the course of my career. It was so well stated, and so timely, that is deserves to be articulated here. She asked in her email, “In preserving family history and in particular, photographs and snapshots, what does one do who has no son/daughter, no grandchildren, no nieces and nephews to leave these items to?” She went on to say that other siblings were not interested as none of them have any grandchildren, and that as far as she knows no one wants the collection of family pictures.

Parts of my following response may tempt some to claim that Witcher is taking a walk on the wild side (again!). I will accept that criticism, though I will also ask that you think about the response–really *think* about it.

First, I believe that personal collections of photographs are intrinsically valuable simply because they were made–because the photographs were taken–because the collections exist. History is made, lived if you will, in the small places. The American Association of State and Local History long ago proclaimed that “all history is local.” Another way of stating that is life is lived in the small places, in our homes, and schools, and churches, and family and community gatherings.

Second, the preservation of personal and local photographic collections will be increasingly important as we watch the demise of popular print periodicals where one had a chance of finding images of everyday America, of small-town America, of middle-class America. Couple this phenomenon with increasing numbers of news outlets wanting to create the news rather than report the news, wanting to report on opinion rather than report on facts, and wanting to direct or even orchestrate public perception rather than capture life as it is lived, one can appreciate how personal photographic collections containing real life in family and community contexts are so important. Historians and sociologists continue to expand and enrich our understanding of the past by studying new photographic collections from nearly every decade since the invention of photography to the present. We truly have history in our hands.

Third, technology is opening so many doors for both further research and further enjoyment. We should be very careful about discarding materials initially assessed as having little value. Many are familiar with the exponential advances in facial recognition software in recent years. Some also may have heard about progress being made in perfecting the fairly rudimentary “query by image content” software that has been in use for a number of years. Hence, even the proverbial “shoebox of unidentified images” may have grand new life if these images are compared against silos of other photographs, and if these silos of images can be searched for shapes of Model-T Fords, Civil War musical instruments and insignia, and leather football helmets. The possibilities are impressive. What is old could truly be new again.

Finally, because of the above three points, the answer to the question of who is able to receive and archive these photographic collections will increasingly be libraries, archives, and historical societies in the locales from which the families hailed. However, the degree to which those collections will be welcome will depend upon, you guessed it, the collections’ organization. It will be many years before most libraries and archives of any type will accept completely unorganized and disjoint collections of photographs (or other documents for that matter). If the entities are organized, and contain as much metadata as possible, they will be most valuable, and they will be preserved and shared for generations to come.

Collections of family photographs (paper or digital) are typically best archived *and* made accessible to interested parties in institutions that are physically in the geographic areas the collections cover, or institutions that serve those specific geographic areas. It is very important to note that The Genealogy Center of the Allen County Public Library embraces the role of “repository of last resort.” Simply stated, if one cannot find an appropriate library or archive for an organized photographic collection, The Genealogy Center will be pleased to archive the collection and make it accessible to researchers. Indeed, we welcome digital copies of any organized manuscript or photographic collections regardless of where the actual artifacts are deposited.

Another reader of this column last month posed a request that certainly has to do with organizing. He wrote, “I would appreciate an article about how to link the photos and the descriptions so they cannot be separated. I would think that software and photo geeks would have figured out how to do this, although I have not found a solution, even though I have looked online for quite some time.” Great request.

A colleague with more programming and technical experience than me offered a few thoughts on this matter. There are a number of ways to embed metadata with a photo. The challenge is that the metadata may or may not be viewable when opened in another program. For example, if you embed metadata using Photoshop, that data might not appear when you view the photo’s metadata in Picasa or Paint.

The IPTC (International Press Telecommunications Council) metadata format is supposed to be universal and read by anything that will get into a photo’s metadata. More details can be explored through the many links at their website < https://iptc.org/> Additionally, someone on the Technology for Genealogists group on Facebook posted something about XnViewMP. It’s a program that will let you add IPTC-compliant metadata to your photos, and it’s available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. We will be looking for a guest columnist to address this particular topic more completely in a future issue of “Genealogy Gems.”

I will conclude with a few thoughts of my own on keeping metadata married to the appropriate images. I completely and totally agree that the following is a pedestrian approach; however, linking photographs to individuals in genealogical data management programs and using the notes and annotating features of those programs as places for image metadata is an option that is easy to deploy. Another option even more basic and more pedestrian is to make sure your digital photographic images are *always* in appropriately labeled folders, and those image folders *always* contain an open-source worksheet or other similar program with the metadata for all the images in the respective folder. Being consistent with image naming conventions also assists in organizing digital photographs, with those image names being the linking data between the digital images and their metadata.

History in our hands–making old new again; indeed, it is wise to organize!

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