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Posterity Project

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Do you have old family photos laying around your house? Maybe in a box passed down from your grandparents or parents? Have you ever taken them out and looked at them? Sat down with relatives and talked about the people in those photos and the memories associated with the scenes they depict? In the rare instance that you have, likely when helping a relative who was downsizing, I bet you enjoyed it and left the experience with some fun family lore and context. Alas, the opportunities for sharing and connection with our older loved ones are few and far between these days. Everyone has busy lives, free time is at a premium and the likeliest scenario is that you are going through those pictures by yourself after someone has passed away. Not as much fun.

During the pandemic The New York Times had a feature each week where readers emailed in to share things they were doing in quarantine. I was intrigued by one woman who hadn’t seen her elderly mother in months and to help them both keep busy and feel connection she emailed her mother a question about her life each week. Her plan was to take her mother’s answers and collate them, perhaps creating a keepsake book. I thought this idea was awesome and decided to put my own spin on it, of course incorporating pictures!

The book I created for my family, full of stories and pictures I gathered

Over the years I have gathered and digitized a lot of family pictures so I already had those at the ready. My dad is the youngest of four and I decided to focus on he and his siblings for this project. I emailed all of them to request their participation, then started sending out a question to each of them every week or two. This required an initial time investment of coming up with the questions but otherwise was pretty easy. Once I had a pretty good supply of material I matched each answer up as best I could chronologically with pictures I had and turned them into a Memory Book that I sent to my dad, bother, aunts, uncles and cousins for Christmas. It was well-received and now we have some family stories preserved for posterity and brought to life with photos. I thought I would share the fairly simple 3 step process I used to create this Family History Project because it wasn’t hard to do, created deeper connection with me and my aunts and uncles and brought so much pleasure to my extended family. You may want to try it!

gather photos

This is probably the most overwhelming part of this project for most people. If your old family photos are already digitized and organized you have a big head start, if you don’t you can either get going on that project (great place to start is my Digitizing Memories blog post) or you can just grab some photos from a box, album or drawer and focus on those as your starting place. You’ll need to scan them (most home printers have a flatbed scanner that will do nicely) and put them in loose chronological order. If you have any dates noted on the backs of photos pay attention to those but don’t worry about being precise, no one is grading you on this project! I chose to make my project a surprise gift so I didn’t share the photos I had gathered with my relatives, I just asked them if they would answer some questions for me. You also don’t need hundreds of photos, remember the pictures are just highlighting the stories and words that will be the main star of the project.

My dad (the little one about to drip his candle) with his siblings at Christmas in 1945

Gather Memories

You’ll first need to come up with a starting list of questions for your relatives and ask them if they would like to participate in your project. I didn’t actually tell my people what the project was, just that I was interested in things they remembered about their lives. If you don’t care about your project being a surprise you could include a specific photo in your email and ask them about the snapshot and what they remember. For my book I used the foundation of growing up in my grandparents’ family. What were they like as parents? What did the kids fight about? What pets did the family have and love? Did they remember where they were when major historical events happened? I asked them to describe being a kid in the 40’s, teenager in the 50’s, etc. Once you have your starter list of questions you are good to begin, more may come to you as you start hearing back. The key to making this part easy (for you and your relatives) is to only send out one question at a time, feed them questions in small bites. I sent out my questions every week or every-other-week, depending on how quickly they got back to me after each question. After a couple of months you should have plenty of material for your book!

I used dates on the back of pictures and guessing the ages of kids to get my photos in loose chronological order, this one dates to 1951 in Buffalo, New York

create the book

Now the fun part, matching up the pictures with the stories to create a book! There are any number of photo sites out there where you can create books, I prefer to use Shutterfly for this type of project because they have layouts that support lots of text and text + pictures and they have the best selection of book sizes to choose from. I didn’t worry too much about matching a picture directly to a story, rather I tried to align chronology as best I could and make sure the photos on the page with the story were of people who were in the story. If you sent pictures with your questions your matching is already done but you may have some supplementary photos to include as well. Copying and pasting the text from the emails is pretty easy, there may be some editing you need to do for the text to fit in some cases but other than that it’s a simple process!

I love this candid snapshot from 1955 when my dad’s family lived in London

And you’re done! This is such a satisfying way to preserve your family’s treasured pictures and capture memories that can now be passed down to future generations! If you like the idea of this project but are not interested in doing it yourself I’m happy to help, check out the services I offer for Photo Organizing on www.methodseattle.com!

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