Your yard is aflame – what would you grab?
The stories of recent years' fires in Southern California had a common thread. As thousands of homes vaporized, refugees – rich and poor – uniformly reported heaving the same things into cars and onto backs: family pictures. Sadly, Private Biographer's own inlaws saw a century of their photos, documents, and antiques destroyed in a Northern California wildfire, just before digitization became practical.
And ironically, the same kind of oxidation inflicted by the fire takes place within your photos and documents every day, only not as fast. The stuff is drying, acidifying, crumbling as surely as do the treasures of great libraries and museums of the world. Over $25 million is spent on preservation annually by the Library of Congress, for example.
No family has that scale of need, but most do have some photos and documents of great personal significance which are fading fast. Or slowly – it doesn’t matter, since it’s not only the paper’s mortality which is of concern....
Private Biographer's premise is that (physics aside) "matter" is simply not permanent. And most families should not break-the-bank trying to mummify fragile items which haven’t the historicity of, say, the original Declaration of Independence.
We should, however, make high-resolution digital copies of family treasures, just as museums do, and for similar reasons. Your family name may not be Lincoln or Einstein, but technology is now available to practically immortalize any record you like.
This has several benefits:
• Perfect copies of "The Best Stuff" can be safely enjoyed, not squirrelled away as fine silverware used to be.
• You can distribute the photo and document copies, providing further insurance against disaster, perhaps enlightening a young relative who will carry on as Family Archivist, or at least as point-person using a service like Private Biographer. Convenient distribution on CDs or DVDs might well:
A) provoke comments and amendments to photo captions and family stories, or
B) coax reticent relatives back into the fold or the communications loop as they remember themselves as part of a "larger picture," or
C) pry out secrets; most families have mysteries and tales about names changed, failed ventures, unpopular orientations, denied roots, black sheep. Sometimes records examined by multiple eyes yield answers and/or resolution.
• You can display the very best of your collection with proper restoration, color balancing, cropping, magnification. Did you ever notice that the smallish snapshots of the 1950s and earlier have gotten no larger? And that they seem more difficult to parse without a magnifying glass? Maybe you don’t know this if you haven’t visited your photos for years as they’ve sat piled in those boxes.
• Shooting photos as we go through life and not getting them organized is like doing research for a paper but never arranging the notecards (and then neglecting to turn in the proper thesis). Or: photos in shoeboxes are like the stones of a ruined castle or cathedral – they want to be reunited as a coherent whole.
• It’s like sharing genetic bouquets with family.
Ah, but is professional attention to such personal history somehow vain? Not really. Everyone has a story to tell, and many lives are interesting beyond family confines. At a minimum, your descendants would very much like to meet you, so why not on your own terms?
Or shall it be a marble tombstone visited every few decades, or forgotten as corny or morbid? What kind of time capsule are you going to leave?
And, there is such a thing as a tale-well-told, which is where Private Biographer can provide objectivity, scholarship, and lively prose.
The favorite room for visitors to our house has always been the one crammed with generations of family photos. We call it the "Great Wall of the Ancestors" though we are not Chinese. We joke that one has to be dead to get onto our wall, though that's not strictly true.
No, rather than vanity, one needs some humility to venture an organization and presentation of one’s history. A look at wedding pictures on the Great Wall proves that: outrageous floral tie, Earth Shoes, powder-blue suit, bad hair – and that’s just the Biographer. We have to be willing to be seen 100, 200, 300 years from now, in the words penned on a century-old photo of Private Biographer's Great-Uncle Walter: "Me, just as I am."
What if I want to preserve every detail of family history?
If you really wanted every detail buttoned-down, here's the list. In all cases going back as far as possible in time, you’d have:
• A comprehensive family tree researched and drawn
• All family crests/shields/coats-of-arms found and drawn
• Digitized, identified copies of photos of each family member
• Digitized, identified copies of movies, video, and audio recordings
• Digitized, identified copies of any documents likely to be of interest to future family members: wills, contracts, birth certificates, passenger manifests, handwritten family trees, letters, etc.
Private Biographer can accomplish these things (or guide you to specialists in some areas), but always starts with the basics: archival copying of the materials for safety and damage-free manipulability. Every time an old daguerrotype or silver print is handled, skin oils accumulate on the object and shorten its life and perhaps reduce its clarity. Far better to get the images into a computer hard-drive, back them up, and arrange and caption items using thumbnail versions on a "virtual desktop."
You will sleep better at night knowing that the things you’d grab first – were a firestorm approaching as in California, 2008 – are all safely digitized in high-resolution DVDs spread around to various grateful relatives.
What of preservation of non-documentary objects – furniture, wedding clothing, iron toys, cornhusk dolls, stamps/coins? See below.
It is true that the digital records must be refreshed or "migrated" periodically as technology marches forward. Computer punch-cards were a fairly sturdy and stable way to save digital code in the 1970s, but would be preposterous for saving photo data nowadays. So a continuing requirement of your preserved, easily viewable collection after Private Biographer service is to keep rolling the bits-n-bytes forward. Since storage media are getting ever-more-compact, this means less-and-less space taken in boxes as the originals inevitably fade and crumble.
At what point do I need a conservator?
What is Ralph Lauren up to? He’s been studied and disparaged for decades, not least for his birth-name (Ralph Lipschitz), but also for his appropriation of the tattered elegance of Anglo-American elites. Through packaging, he enables the most rootless among us to have some patina, some "look" other than just-off-the-jumbo-jet.
Yet the real thing – authentic family continuity and connectedness – exists in many an attic shoebox, waiting for sense to be made of it. In a sense, there is a movie to be made about your life and those before you and around you. The frames are the thousands of photos most people have and will never meaningfully organize.
Librarians and conservators are important stewards of culture, and spend part of their lives safeguarding our public cultural heritage. They dote on the objects, and how they might be kept intact for as long as possible. There are conservators for paintings, sculpture, furniture, textiles, metal-works, etc., and clients may want to use such expertise for certain objects. These are best left to specialists, and Private Biographer will be happy to guide you to workers who are reliable and talented. The same applies to preservation of original photos and negatives.
Be aware, however, that once an image has been digitized, enlarged, perhaps color-corrected or otherwise restored, then preserved on multiple disks… the original may be of less interest! Some clients hire Private Biographer to gain objective "permission" to dispose of bulky items with no e-Bay value and which are actually easier to maintain and enjoy as images made by Private Biographer.
Why would anyone want to see his own obituary?
When you read the newspaper, have you ever wondered who will be writing your obituary? Did you know the New York Times builds obits ten, twenty years in advance?
Will your relatives scramble to get the facts of your life together, round-up the obvious, emphasize the wrong accomplishments, priorities, etc., in their loving haste and grief?
Happens every day.
So then, take control of this task – do it as professionally as you’ve led (or wish you had led) your life.
See samples of short, medium, and long-ish obits which are anything but pro-forma. Choose among Private Biographer's services as prompter, interviewer, recordist, writer, editor, outliner, biographer, collator, etc.
Private Biographer's wide experience in writing, ease with all sorts of personalities, and forty-five years’ interest in short biography. See the "About" section of this website for details.
The word "hagiography" is unusual, and it’s not what Private Biographer does nor what clients seek. Who would want to inflate Richard Daley into Abraham Lincoln? Or Madonna into Mother Theresa?
Whatever your age, Private Biographer's collaboration with you Gets It Right, and can be quite self-revealing. If you are at an introspective stage, job-seeking, or change-making, a fair portrait of you in words and ideas can be very useful and exciting to you and those who matter most in your life.
But this is not psychology – this is fun with a purpose.