Thursday, April 30, 2009

Project Overview

The general goal of this project is to collect and safely preserve the history of my family. In the beginning, this project will focus on previous generations however, it will be designed to be a living archive. Growing with the family as time goes on.

What do I mean by family history? The specifics of this project continue to change as it is executed but there are a few obvious starting points for this project:

1) A Media Archive
Sure, digital cameras have made it easier to take and enjoy family photos. They'll never degrade and if you're good about backing up your data, you can even be reasonably sure that they are safely stored for the long term.

As amazing as this sounds to all you kids Tweeting and swapping pics with cell phones, photos used to only come printed on paper. Sure, you got the negatives too, but those never seem to make it through spring cleaning. This leaves collections of prints stashed away in albums, boxes, envelopes, and bags. When not cared for, they often fade, scratch, crack, stick together, rip and generally self destruct over time. While there are steps that can be taken to safely store prints, it's usually a losing battle against time.

Then there is the unexpected forces of nature such as fires and floods. You almost want to keep your originals in a climate controlled vault to protect them. Of course they're of little use locked away from view.

The solution is to scan the originals into a digital format. Not only does it drastically increase the chances that the photos will survive, it also allows people to share them more easily. Since the digital versions of the images are so easily accessible and shareable, the originals can then be stored safely away.

At the beginning of this project I will focus on images but I have already done preliminary work capturing old home movies to a digital format as well.

2) A Family Tree
A media archive is one part of the preservation of family history. But, without knowing who the people are and how they are related, the images convey little meaning. A family tree represents this type of information nicely. And the act of building a family tree can be a family activity that teaches younger generations about the family's past.

Manuel Turlin, "Turlin family tree", June 21 2009 viaWikimedia Commons, Creative Commons License

But, a family tree by itself doesn't provide much of a connection to who the people are (or were). My goal is to integrate the Media Archive with the Family Tree. Imagine the following scenario:

You are browsing the Media Archive and run across an interesting picture of your grandfather as a young man. He's standing with someone you don't recognize so you check the image's metadata to find out who he is. He turns out to be a member of the family so his name links into the Family Tree where you see his relationship to your grandfather (and to you). You read about where he lived and maybe what he did for a living. From there, you click through to his gallery on the Media Archive and begin browsing other images depicting him.
Rinse, repeat.

You've moved back and forth between the two systems seamlessly. The person shown standing with your grandfather now feels like a real person to you.

3) The Stories
In the scenario described in the last section, a fairly significant chunk of information was conveyed. But even with images and biographic information, you still don't get the whole picture. What was really going on in that picture?

You MIGHT know where it was taken if the image was tagged with that information. But why was your grandfather there? Why was he standing with that other member of the family? Was it a family reunion or did they spend every summer together?

These types of information don't typically fit in categories of metadata. They make up the story that led up to the picture being taken. You might expect this kind of information to be in the caption of each picture. But, usually a caption is fairly short and after writing enough of them, they tend to take the form: "Jon and Jenn with their Grandparents." Not very helpful...

This is part of the project I have put the least amount of research into but I expect to be the hardest to implement. Even if I am able to find the right technology to support it (comment with suggestions), gathering the stories from those who remember them is going to be tough. They are likely to be sparse and require a lot of time to capture and I know we all have very busy lives.

The plan is to put together a system that allows information to be entered by many people over time. I can't possibly sit down with everybody to get pictures, biographic info, and stories. But, if the system allows everybody to contribute what they know, the whole idea becomes much more feasible.


  1. I am about to begin my project, and found some great ideas here.

    I found your site on Unclutterer.

  2. I just found your blog through a link in a comment on Unclutteer. I'm so happy to see you are writing about this. Earlier this year I started this EXACT kind of family history project for my own family. Thank you for creating this page to share information--I look forward to seeing what else you have to say!