From the office: The importance of saving family archives

By Editor, 2 March 2017 - 2:20pm

After gasping in horror at seeing Sunetra Sarker's family archive sitting in an abandoned house, WDYTYA? Magazine editor Sarah Williams is now worrying about her own legacy

Sarah Williams is editor at Who Do You Think You Are? MagazineThursday 2 March 2017
Sarah Williams, Editor
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Sunetra Sarker Who Do You Think You AreSunetra Sarker discovered piles of dusty old documents sitting in her great grandfather's former house in India

It has been niggling at me ever since I watched Sunetra Sarker’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? The empty house, unlived in for eight years, full of her family’s archive.

If you’ve seen the episode, you’ll know the moment I’m referring to. I think every family historian in the country did a collective gasp as she opened what looked like a large wardrobe and discovered it was full of documents and photographs, all carefully stored, but in an abandoned house with all the risk that that entails.

British family historians are very lucky that we, as a nation, have held onto so many of our documents. Who would have thought that old school registers from a hundred years ago would be of such interest today? Why did our governing bodies not throw away old Hearth Tax records hundreds of years ago? What on earth did they think we would use them for?

And yet use them we do and we are delighted by all sorts of scraps of paper and parchment tucked safely away in our record offices. When I saw Sunetra in her family’s abandoned home, surrounded by dust and documents, I was horrified. I wanted to rush over there and sort it out myself.

My husband then pointed out that I could do with sorting out our own house first and, although I realise he meant the general mess, I was chastened to think about how we store our own family archive.

We don’t keep much in our loft but there is a large box of slides that I have been meaning to go through and I’m not sure a damp environment is where they should be. How many of us have keepsakes in an attic, garage or shed that could be better kept elsewhere?

In this digital age it is difficult to know what to keep and what not to keep. We could end up leaving the next generation with so much stuff that it becomes meaningless. However, who are we to judge whether our great grandchildren will want to see our school reports or not?

Perhaps it is time for all of us to start thinking about how we curate our own family archive. And with that has to come the issue of preservation. Creating a digital family archive (safely stored both physically and ‘in the cloud’) is probably our best bet.

If I knew that was going to happen to the contents of Sunetra’s 'wardrobe' I would probably have slept better after her episode. Luckily I'm going to have a chance to talk to her at WDYTYA? Live on 8 April and I know what one of my questions will be... 

Take it further

You can book tickets for Sarah's interview with Sunetra Sarker at the NEC here


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From the office: Cutting our coat to suit our cloth
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Five things you might not know about WDYTYA? star Sophie Raworth
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