Will Your History Be A Mystery?

January 16th, 2013

By Karen Osburn, Archivist

What will your grandchildren be able to find out from the historic records you leave behind? I am often asked why I don’t have images of or information on a certain home, building, event, or person in the Historical Society Archives and I tell the questioner it is because no one shared a photo or research material with us. Most of our collection is made up of items and information donated to the historical society.

Many people think photographs and manuscripts from 20, 30 or 40 years ago are too recent to be of interest to historians, but these items are already historic. How many people remember businesses like “Cool Beans” located in the Dove Block during the early 2000s or Mario’s located on Hamilton Street? These were businesses that existed in Geneva just 10 years ago and are now gone. Our archive has a small amount of material on each of these restaurants that we actively collected when we knew each establishment was going out of business, but hundreds more everyday events that make up the bulk of history, go uncollected and unrecorded each year.


Example of a letter from our collection dated 1829. Will there be any documents to tell your story in 184 years? How many examples of handwriting will actually survive 100 years from now?

This is a problem and will become a larger problem as time goes on. In the age of information, people may not save photographs in the same format, may not write letters, may have manuscripts saved in the “cloud”. There are wonderful new space saving, easy access forms in which to store information, but will your children think to look on your computer and transfer your image files to their computer? Or, if you saved electronic communications, will your grandchildren find your e-mails to their parents as detailed and interesting as the letter you would have written 20 years ago? Do you keep journals or diaries on your laptop? Will your unprinted manuscript ever get printed? Will your nieces and nephews find the images of the old family homestead that you linked to Perhaps, but what happens to the history of your family, the first family home, or the business your grandfather started if they don’t think to look at your electronic records?

I don’t bring these questions up because I want folks to flock in here with all their records (though I wouldn’t mind that), but because I would like to remind everyone that history is fragile. No museum or historical society has the staff to continually go out into their city and record every change that happens each year; we rely on our members and the public to help us preserve the story of our area. If your history, which is entwined with the place you live, is created and preserved on a computer will your heirs think about contributing this information to the local historical society or just wipe the hard drive clean?


A photograph of Hugh Dobbin who died in 1855. Will there be a photograph of you for your relatives to see in 158 years?

I have a few suggestions that may help you ensure the future of your past.  If you save your photographs electronically back them up on a flash drive, or external hard drive.  Also make sure you label each photo and each file so people looking at them know who is in the picture, when and where it was taken.  The quickest way to insure photos will not be saved by future generations is to leave a collection of images with no identification.  There will come a time when no one remembers who the people are and the images lose their historic value.

The historical records you leave behind for your family allow you to tell your story to them long after you are gone. The words and images you preserve for them will bring You to life for generations to come. A little careful planning on your part can help you ensure your personal history is accessible and preserved for your family. If you want help or suggestions on record preservation just contact the archivist or curator at your local historical society and discuss it with them. The steps you take today save history for tomorrow.


Volunteer, Jane Donegan, working on Warren Hunting Smith’s papers, a collection consisting of over 30 boxes of material.

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