Good family history requires documentation

An entire wall at the Columbia River Gorge Interpretive Center Museum near Stevenson, Washington, features family photos of residents of the area. The grand building on the Columbia River is filled with historical information about the residents through time.

Why include family photos along side artifacts of the area’s Native Americans, historical images of Mount St. Helens, interesting tidbits about the Oregon Trail and facts about the historic visit by explorers Lewis and Clark?

Because “regular” people are part of the fabric of history, too.

labeled family photo

I fell in love with this image of the Bevans-Moore family from 1936. Why? I appreciated the symmetry of the composition, I suppose, with the kids and grandkids surrounding the matriarch. But I really loved the smiles. Sometimes historic photos lack personality, but this one has tons. After reading about the sorrows on the Oregon Trail and the calamity of Mount St. Helens’ eruption in 1980 (compelling, sure, but not exactly uplifting), the Bevans and Moores made me smile. It reminded me of why people live in Stevenson, Washington.

What can the “regular” family historian learn from this photo?

Labeling matters.

If it had not been labeled with name, date and location, it probably would not have been added to the interpretive center’s collection.

So if you aspire to add a photograph of your family to the local historical society’s archives, take the time to label your photos with basic information.

How? First of all, if it’s a digital image, print it out. Someone might display your digital image in some high-tech museum, but I wouldn’t count on it. Use a No. 2 pencil or photo-safe pencil on the back (so you don’t indent the photo), or write the details in the margin on the front with a photo-safe pen. Or preserve the photo in a photo sleeve, and write the details on the sleeve.

Now, someday when a museum curator runs across your photo, your family can be a part of documented history, too.


6 steps for making a milestone album for someone special

I’m sharing these popular instructions again — reprinted from two years ago — for photo album makers thinking of making a meaningful gift this year.

As you look to the year ahead, think about whether the most important people in your life may be celebrating a milestone.

Is your mother turning 60?

Are your sister and your brother-in-law celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary?

Is your father finally retiring?

If someone special is celebrating a milestone in the near future, it’s time to think about making Special Someone an album.

Such a gift requires a little bit of planning, a lot of cooperation from Special Someone’s friends and a few hours to assemble an album, but the result will be worth every bit of effort.

I made such an album recently for my mother-in-law when she turned 70. My husband and his brother hosted an open house for about 60 of her friends and family, and I made her a beautiful keepsake full of memories and birthday wishes for her to enjoy until her next milestone birthday.

Nina album cover


Here’s how I did it:

1. Plan ahead. Three months in advance, we sent “save the date” cards to everyone in Special Someone’s address book (we had my mother-in-law participation, but you could do this on the sly if you’re a good detective or if you have an inside man). The cards included this message:

We’re creating a memory album for Special Someone to present to her at her birthday party. Please share a memory and/or photo of Special Someone so we can include it in the book.

What to contribute: Send a message (a story, memory or birthday wishes) and/or photo(s) to Special Someone’s daughter-in-law, Album Creator. Email or snail mail accepted. If you can’t bear to part with a printed picture, mail it, we’ll scan it and send it back to you.

Don’t delay! Send your message right now, while it’s fresh in your mind.

Include your email and mailing address.

About 15 invitees sent me something during the next 8 weeks.

2. Remind: We sent invitations six weeks in advance. Included in the invitation was this message:

Don’t forget! If you want to contribute a memory, good wishes or a photo to Special Someone’s memory album, send it NO LATER THAN DATE to EMAIL or ADDRESS. Thanks to all those who’ve already contributed.

A couple dozen more people responded, including my mother-in-law’s brother who had an abundance of photos. In my situation, the only people I had to bug to contribute were my mother-in-law’s 20something grandchildren.

Typed and handwritten messages side by side.

Typed and handwritten messages side by side.

3. Decide format: I scanned all hard copies (including handwritten notes) so I could create a digital photo book. I chose to print with Shutterfly because of its fast service (when complete, the album was delivered within a week).

album black and white

4. Select a design: One theme throughout a book ties different subjects together, so I recommend sticking to one color scheme or coordinating designs. Here, using a classic background, black and white images blended beautifully with color images on other pages.

Early years

Early years

5. Organize: I used a roughly chronological approach to the album, so friends from high school (with pictures of high school) went in the beginning, messages from her card club friends in her current life went in the middle and messages from her grandchildren went at the end. It wasn’t perfectly chronological though; images of she and her brother were near the beginning, whether they were toddlers or retirees at the time.

I tried to put similar people together on the same pages (co-workers, for example, and aunts).

Album Chris

I got a lot of family reunion photos (because, of course, that’s one of the places Special Someone often sees those who contribute to such an album, so I grouped them together here with an image in the background of South Dakota, where many relatives live(d).

6. Print and present: We put my mother-in-law’s album on display at her party so all the contributors could see their own contributions and others’ in print. But we presented the album to her a couple of days before so she could absorb all the wonderful things people said about her and remain composed at the party.

In the end, her book was 50 pages long and covered almost every important achievement and person in her life. One life. One book. Amazing.

album wedding

I sprinkled appropriate quotes and titles throughout the book, but the theme I used was sewing because my mother-in-law is an accomplished seamstress (she sewed the gown I wore to marry her son and many contributors mentioned her talents and gifts). One of my favorite quotes was this:

Destiny itself is like a wonderful wide tapestry in which every thread is guided by an unspeakably tender hand, placed beside another thread and held and carried by a hundred others.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Leaving your mark: A love letter to your family

One way to leave a legacy for your loved ones is by writing an ethical will.

It doesn’t require you to organize years of photos, dig through boxes of memorabilia or figure out how to hook your camera to your computer. No lawyers are required.

An ethical will, as defined by, is a way to share your values, blessings, life’s lessons, hopes and dreams for the future, love, and forgiveness with your family, friends and community.

Ethical wills can take many forms, according to a story about ethical wills in today’s edition of the Chicago Tribune, including art pieces, a compilation of music, cookbooks with personal recipes, scrapbooks or memory boxes with personal notes or videos.

An ethical will can be as short as a single page of text. If you’re writing more than say, a dozen pages, you might want to consider writing a memoir or having someone help you write your autobiography.

Interested? Besides Google, other resources to help you write an ethical will include classes, books and personal historians.


You CAN do it: Organizing your photo collection requires liberal use of the trash can

Ready, set, GO!

It’s GO month, as dubbed by the National Association of Professional Organizers. GO means Get Organized, and a lot of New Year’s Resolutions revolve around cleaning up, scaling back and streamlining every bit of clutter from clothes to collections and housework to paperwork (click here for more about GO Month).

A part of any organization effort certainly must include a trash can. As we sort through our stuff, we inevitably find junk we can’t believe we’re still storing or otherwise holding onto (unless you’re a hoarder who mourns every bit they’ve ever thrown away instead of the garbage they’ve still got).

Even if you’re not a hoarder, getting rid of emotionally charged belongings can be difficult. Real Simple magazine addresses this subject this month with “Sentimental Clutter: 7 Steps to understanding what — and how — to let go.”

This magazine article addresses all kinds of meaningful — and meaningless — clutter including a deceased parent’s collections, sweet baby clothes, correspondence and other memorabilia. But if you’re holding on to a slew of printed or digital photographs that are overwhelming you, the article offers some good ideas that can be applied to a photo collection:

  1. Enlist help, if you need it: “If you’re the kind of person who works better with a partner,” Real Simple advises, “a friend could be a great motivator.” Remember, the Association of Personal Photo Organizers can put you in touch with just such a coach, trained to help you.
  2. Do you like it enough to display it, or will it be in a box forever? This question from the story is great to ask about blurry photos, duplicate images and photos of scenery. If you no longer know the names of the people in the picture, is it really worth keeping? If you can’t think of a way to display the photograph (in an album, on the wall, in a digital slide show or even in a box that will be sifted through at some point by someone who cares), then get rid of it.
  3. Save the best, toss the rest: Though I once worked for a company that encouraged moms to make beautiful, detailed scrapbooks for their children, it’s a high standard to set and no child leaves home and takes 18 2-inch thick scrapbooks with them to a tiny college dorm room or apartment. But I do believe every child should have at least one photo album chronicling their life and at that rate, you need only 4-12 photos per year of the child; if that’s how you’re paring your collection, those 4-12 photos should be the very best of the year.
  4. Give things a new home: Would your ex-husband or your children, the family genealogy fan or family reunion organizer, an alumni group or a local historical society appreciate some of the photographs? Pack ’em up and send them away. Real Simple suggests that “if you get that ‘oh, please no’ look, donate the belongings instead” but honestly, if that’s how other people might feel about your excess photographs, the trash is better place than Goodwill.

The whole concept of organizing and clearing clutter makes me think of a 38 Special song from the 1981 (I heard it on the 80s channel on xM radio this week, and I just knew I could work it into a post a some point!):

Just hold on loosely
But don’t let go.
If you cling too tightly,
You’re gonna lose control.

Good luck controlling your clutter — photographic and otherwise — this month and beyond.