Timely Tips for Preserving Your Family Heirlooms


By Steven and Jill Decker

Generally defined, an heirloom is an object of worth passed from one generation to the next. Dolls, dresses, photographs, personal journals, even recipes can be heirlooms. The object is given value by the receiver—the caretaker—of the object. Caretaking, then, becomes vital; heirloom recipients become archivists. The question quickly turns to what heirlooms to keep and how to preserve and share them.

In speaking of preserving heirlooms, or any objects, Randy Silverman, head of the Preservation and Binding Department at the University of Utah, said “It’s an uphill battle,” and told FamilySearch, “The first question to be asked is not how, but why?”

He offers two cardinal rules. First, don’t sort while you’re grieving. During the grieving process, family members may often attempt to cope with their loss by ridding themselves of clutter. “Once it’s in the dumpster, it’s a moot point,” Silverman explains. An alternative coping method is often simply to “keep it all."

Second, after the grieving process has passed and you begin the sorting process, be sure to identify a caretaker who will understand her or his role and ask the vital questions: To whom is this important? To whom do I leave this? Silverman stresses the importance of remaining optimistic and realizing that the next keeper may not yet be born. These heirlooms may have different meanings to various people in the family. Do not throw anything away until all pieces have been identified and shown to all interested parties.

Bring a Family Story to Life with Oral Histories

Silverman, winner of the 2013 Paul Banks and Carolyn Harris Preservation Award from the Association of Library Collections and Technology Services (a division of the American Library Association) and Fulbright Specialist Award winner (improving preservation standards at the National Library of Uzbekistan), explains that heirlooms preserve not only individual history, but cultural history. The Christmas card, the wedding dress, the handwritten letter “represent times and eras—bygone times and bygone people. It is the living who define merit.”

Once the what question is answered, consider the question of how. For years, librarians have been trained to use the box-in-a-box method of storage for archived materials. Again, from Silverman, “Remember, the pyramids are just boxes used to store things. What you have is a time capsule. Pack it as though you were shipping it through time. Wrap alkaline paper around the wedding dress, with notes and instructions. Whose was it? How did they get it? To whom is it left? What did it mean to the keeper?” Tell descendants and future keepers of the artifact why it has been preserved, not just what it is—“This was great grandma’s ring, I loved it because….” When you attach merit to objects, emotional merit is OK.

In 2012, the History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints produced a series of video clips outlining why and how to care for family records, heirlooms, and artifacts. The videos are brief and address proper health precautions, handling, housing, organizing, storing artifacts physically and digitally, displaying, and conserving records and items. Record and heirloom keepers should become aware of the information in these clips, particularly before attempting to mend or repair items in their possession. In addition, dozens of useful informational leaflets are available from the Northeast Document Conservation Center.

Bring a Family Story to Life with Oral Histories

Methods of digitally preserving records have become increasingly accessible and popular in recent years. However, there is a caution—many records have been scanned to discs or CDs or even saved in cloud-based formats without the ability for further access. Over time file formats have become obsolete, and the records have not been migrated to a new format. Sometimes the account holder has not left information to allow others to access his or her digitized records. If the goal is to keep records or heirlooms for future generations, record keepers must not only ensure that the records are preserved but also that they may be accessed by those to whom the records are left.

As noted above, the answer to the question “What shall I keep?” is to be shared not only by the recipient of the heirlooms but also by everyone who had an emotional attachment to these items. The answer to the question, “How do I keep these?” can be found in the links noted above. The Internet also offers many resources to help heirlooms survive for generations to come.

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