I have agreed to begin helping with yet another project to preserve the memory of those who have gone before us so that they may not be forgotten and that others may find them in Internet databases. It is a labor of love born of gratitude for the gift I was given by one such database. I will do it gladly but in so doing I know I will discover names or facts that give me pause to think about that person who is now but a cipher on my computer screen.
So little to represent so much — a life compressed into one line in a database. Doesn’t seem adequate but it will begin to weave a trail for others to follow and, in so doing, find their own past and family connections they never knew existed. So much like “Who Do You Think You Are” the TV series that has proven so popular. Thank you, Lisa Kudrow, for bringing this to us.
Other databases to which I’ve contributed my skills have caused me to stop as I read about a body found at the foot of a pier in New York City or on the sidewalks of that same city. The sudden realization that someone had lost their identity gave me pause and I did stop many times to consider this person and their life.
I’ve seen the cruelty of staff at Ellis Island where they recorded incorrectly, on purpose I believe, the names of those seeking a better life here. Who would have the last name of “Bastard?” No, it wasn’t because of the accent, it was a cruel joke played by people who resented these poor immigrants and left them with a mark to bear that would cause humility and laughter at the bearer’s expense. I suspect the same was done to the Africans who were brought in chains to this country and given names that would be poor jokes.
One database I recently completed was for those who had been convicted of crimes that ranged from forging checks, operating stills to wearing military uniforms to which they were not entitled. Some had a line mentioning their involvement in prostitution or drug trafficking. A select few had so many aliases that it was hard to know where to put all of them. All of these names, however, were related to someone who would later come to search for a past they hadn’t known. Not everyone will be happy at the nuggets found in the files.
In an age of growing concerns with dementia and diminished capacity the internet database assumes new importance as the go-to resource when family sources fail. But who do you go to for the information? Therein lies a goldmine for some, a demanding labor of love for others. Not everyone who has accepted the challenge as unrelated, corporate keeper of the flame does it without compensation and it is a thriving business. A few of the services remind me of corner drug dealers who offer just a “taste” for free and then, just when you think you’re on to something, they hit you with a requirement for that good old credit card info.
Seekers of information, however, don’t always have to fork over the plastic for information, but it can be a daunting task with the paywalls that have been erected. Volunteers, however, all over the world are setting up databases that are free and I would advise you to ferret them out. Yes, Ancestry.com does a bang-up job, but not everyone can or wants to pay the monthly/yearly fee. Then, too, if you find European information you’d like to investigate, they want you to pay again for this international search service they have. Not quite fair to my mind.
Are you interested in your own family history? My advice would be to start immediately by collecting every scrap of paper, family Bibles, photos and whatever else lies in your or someone else’s home. Next, take your video-enabled devices and sit your older relatives down for a few sessions of “who are your relatives, where do they live or have they lived, and mention all the names you can.” Copy everything onto an external hard drive for your computer or use one of the cloud storage system that are either free or very reasonable. I don’t recommend any because I think you should make your own decisions here.
The videos are going to be one of your greatest means of keeping your family historians alive for you for decades to come when they’re gone. You will be glad you did it. We no longer need to depend on crumpled photo albums with missing identification for those photos they hold.
Scan everything and keep the albums if you must, but digitize everything. And Photo Shop can be a real help here in bringing those photos to better light than they’ve seen in years. I like both the Bridge raw feature as well as PS’s auto adjustment (three possibilities here) and Content Aware which allows you to fix features of photos. Don’t want to fork over that monthly subscription fee for PS? OK, try Photo Essentials or free photo editing software.
One final word here. Don’t believe that there’s absolutely nothing you can find. Sometimes the names or dates are incorrect and what one database doesn’t have, another will. The sources should all be explored and even city records shouldn’t be seen as sounding the death knell for info. Clerks and filing systems are fallible, so research more, my friend. I’ve seen it happen in my own case where the city told me they had no record and a free database found what I needed. Once I got the case number, the city was able to produce the material.
Take a note from the film “Still Alice” and don’t let the memories slip away before you can capture them for everyone.