How can I best preserve several boxes of family photos, letters, and documents?
June 17, 2010 7:29 AM   Subscribe

I have a large amount of family letters, photos, and documents dating from the late 1800s to the 2000s, with most ranging from the 1930s to the 1960s. Some are in fair condition, and I'd like preserve them for future generations. Most are in English, but there's a smattering of Hebrew and French, neither of which I can read. My questions inside.

1. Is there a good service I can use that will digitize these fragile items?

2. Once digitized, where can I store the images so that others can see them, browse through them in an organized way, and ensure they remain digitally available for a long time to come?

3. How can I ensure that images of envelopes and letters remain together if scanned separately?

4. Is it worth transcribing the text of letters and, if so, what's the best service to use?

5. What's a good service for translating documents in Hebrew or French?

6. Outside of family, would these be of interest to anyone, such as a museum or university? In particular, is there an organization that studies Jewish immigrants that might be interested?

7. Where are some other places I can ask questions like these?

8. What other advice would you have for this project?
posted by scottso17 to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
As far as number 2, try Omeka. For number 4, I think it is absolutely worth it to transcribe. I don't know of a service, but a genealogist might be able to recommend one. For number 7, try forums, your state's GenWeb site, and look for pertinent groups on Cyndi's List.
posted by jgirl at 8:53 AM on June 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know nothing about your family. Some families are more historically significant than others. There are billions of families in the world, and nearly all of them have records of some kind, although from your description I would say that yours has considerably more records than most. However from the point of view of a university, museum, or other historical organization, not every family is of interest. Whether yours is of interest, I cannot say on the basis of what you have told me. Do your relatives, past or present, include any famous people? Any people of great accomplishment or ability? That makes the family more interesting. Fame counts for any reason; even famous criminals are of interest.

It is not unusual to devote a book to the history of a particular family. Even if such a book is never going to be of interest to the general public, it is likely to be of interest to members of the family in question. It has a certain guaranteed readership. So, this documentation that you have would be tremendously useful for that particular project, if either you or any other relative of yours might wish to do an official family history (some families even hire a professional writer to do this for them, which is also an option if you have money to invest in such a project).

So the first thing I would advise you to do is to seriously assess just how interesting your family really is. Of course, you may not even know the answer to that question before you get the French and Hebrew letters translated. But again, bear in mind that of the endless billions (possibly trillions) of letters that have been written trhoughout history, most are of interest only at the time they were written, most concern relatively trivial concerns ("Hi, I'm in Vienna and having a nice time, wish you were here!") and have no lasting value. Just being old is not enough to make something interesting.
posted by grizzled at 8:57 AM on June 17, 2010

Best answer: IANAL, but I am an archivist.

It would be helpful to know the actual size of the collection. Does "large amount" mean 100 items or 40 boxes?

1) The easiest and probably cheapest way to "digitize" your collection is to buy a scanner and do it yourself, but if you don't have the time or whatever, you could consider contacting library schools in your area (try Simmons College) and hiring a student or recent graduate of an archives program to process and scan your collection.

2) You will probably want to store them on your hard drive and have an offsite backup. Look into Archon, which is a widely used open source archival software. It's meant for institutional use, and I don't know of individuals using it outside that setting but I'm sure you can research that. I'm less familiar with Omeka but that would probably be fine too. It might depend on the size of your collection.

3) Should be handled by the software you use I guess? I don't see this as being a huge issue.

4) and 5) Don't know. +1 on checking with genealogy groups in your area.

6) I don't know of a specific institution, but there will definitely be an organization in your area that is interested in collections of materials relating to the Jewish immigrant experience. I would probably start by inquiring around your local Jewish community, or again with the genealogy groups. Your family definitely does NOT have to be "famous" in order to be of interest to a special collection, but don't take it personally if it turns out that no place is able to take your collection. Many factors play into collection development decisions. Mainly money, but others too.

7) I would go to the reference desk at the nearest historical society, university special collections, museum, whatever, and speak with a librarian or archivist. That person might be able to point you in the direction of an appropriate repository for your collection, and answer some of your other questions as well.

8) A couple resources that might help:

Family Papers Preservation and Organization (PDF), basic info from the Society of California Archivists.

A Guide to Donating Your Personal or Family Papers to a Repository, a nice brochure from the Society of American Archivists
posted by CheeseLouise at 10:22 AM on June 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the very useful advice, CheeseLouise. I'm still gathering papers and photos, and I'd guess that it will come to about 1-2 medium boxes of documents and 2-4 boxes of photos (some in albums, some not).
posted by scottso17 at 10:58 AM on June 17, 2010

Collections of letters are always of historical interest.

Just to add to CheeseLouise's excellent comment -- a scanner will give you the highest quality digitazation, but should you have any items which you feel are too fragile for a scanner, you can also digitize at a fairly high resolution with a good digital camera.
posted by jb at 12:08 PM on June 17, 2010

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