Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Cleaning the Genealogy Junk Drawer

We all have it: the handy drawer we pull out to capture those odds and ends of life we encounter. We're not ready to toss them, but we're not ready to do anything else with them at the time, either. What starts out as a drawer with just one tiny item eventually gets filled to the brim. And then it's time for some serious cleaning.

Being part of a genealogy society founded in 1952, I've discovered organizations can encounter a lot of odds and ends within their tenure, as well. Some parts are important to preserve—not only the books and research resources we store on the shelves of our library collection, but the history of the organization, itself, as it grows and evolves. What starts out small eventually flourishes—and witnesses changes along the way.

Recently, our board experienced the sad change of losing one of our members who had, in the past, been tasked with overseeing our reference collection and coordinating the volunteers we provide as a public service at our downtown library's genealogy section. Since we had been amassing resources since the year one, you can imagine how many odds and ends might have found their way into a box set up for just that purpose. Call it our genealogy junk drawer.

The box included blank forms to give to patrons wishing to start their family history journey—only over the years, while the methodology might have remained basically the same, the look of subsequent versions of the forms definitely obtained more up-to-date appearances. The older ones—the ones not yet used, but saved with good intentions of thriftiness, or conservation, or wise stewardship—got set aside in the box. One here, one there, over the years adding up to a file folder full of stuff.

There were printed resources, as well. One-page listings of website addresses now gone defunct, mixed in with more up-to-date—or at least more long-lasting—references. Clippings of articles once thought pertinent. Brochures that might help someone—if that someone seeking this obscure resource ever showed up to ask just the right question.

It's a melancholy task to go through this genealogy junk drawer. For one thing, these items simply cannot be viewed without remembering the person—and the one serving in this capacity even before she did—whose hands had placed them there, and whose mind had decided to save, rather than toss, in hopes of further usefulness.

Why is it that paper is not always just paper? That would make a job like this so much easier to complete. Perhaps, now that I'm experiencing this process, I'm only sensing the same feelings experienced by the one who last was tasked with that duty—charged with handling the paper, but seeing beyond the paper to the intentions of a fellow board member who once cared very much, while she was still here with us, for the assignment she was given to fulfill.

Perhaps the worst person to assign to the charge of cleaning out the genealogy junk drawer is a genealogist. We are built to remember. And it is paper we use to carry those memories into the future.

Above: "Paysage de labour" ("Landscape of the plow"), 1929 oil on canvas by Swiss artist Fran├žois Barraud; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. You should have been at my DAR meeting last week. We could have split the gazillion copies of blank census forms, group sheets, family charts, and ancestor trees that a nice lady brought in. She was cleaning out after working on her genealogy for 50 years. As Registrar, I was the "lucky" recipient. I didn't want to embarrass her by pointing out the wonders of online forms so I took the file box and tossed it all in the recycle bin once I got home.

    1. True...we get that sort of offering from time to time, as well, though we actually do use some, especially for first-time drop-ins who want to know how to get started. I guess it all depends on where a person is in their journey.

      Didn't realize you are registrar for your chapter. Impressive, Wendy!

  2. I know the feeling, what to keep and what to save? I am sorry to hear you lost a valuable volunteer :(

    1. Thank you, Far Side. It's always hard to lose a friend like that. Perhaps doubly so, since it happened so quickly, and on the heels of the loss of her predecessor.


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