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Keeping Chronicles – expert advice on caring for family memorabilia


In this special interview, Rosemary Sassoon offer her expert advice on caring for family memorabilia and deciding which items to keep for a family archive.

What does your collection of written memorabilia mean to you and what is its importance in your understanding of the past?

Much of the collection of written memorabilia was in my possession long before I planned to write my book, Keeping Chronicles. My interest in handwriting was longstanding, both from the educational and medical points of view. It expanded as I am also convinced of the need for people to understand from whom and where they come.

In addition to family trees, apart from the benefits of the content to families, local and national museums there is something more personal about written memorabilia in particular.

Do you have a favourite item or items from your collection?

Your handwriting is a product of an action of your body therefore it is the trace of yourself on paper. There is something special and emotive about handling something written a century ago by an ancestor. Think of the letter my grandfather received from his uncle just off to the Boer War, never to come back.

As I have written it has been a custom for several generations of my family to keep written memorabilia so I look in somewhat amazement at the letters written to my great grandfather from the siege of Paris and the way the whole fascinating story of how letters came out via balloons and once crashed the letters were rescued by a fisherman and forwarded with a request for a reward. These are some of my favourites.

Those are valuable historically, but personally children’s schoolbooks or grandparent’s recipe books are equally valued – the older they are the more interesting they might be for educational researchers. Where do I stop? Wills and property deeds have excited readers of this book, sketch books illustrate the interests of your ancestors, and drawings can reveal as much about their characters as handwriting.

Even travel records, sometimes written and sometimes just saved, can become. like so much else, history in your lifetime. My mother’s record of a trip with us, 60 years ago through the parks of the then Belgian Congo, chronicle places destroyed by the war a few years later, or my daughter’s remaining pieces of writing from Tibet when the monasteries were being destroyed 

I have often in the past, given talks to groups on this subject. I always ask that people bring their memorabilia along so we can have a discussion. Some objects fished out of attics and long disregarded should have been in museums years ago, but much sadder are those who confess to clearing out all their dusty letters form the past. A family history can disappear in a minute in a hasty clear up.

What top tip would you offer to someone wondering how to look after their family papers?

Well, I asked several of my colleagues who work in museums or elsewhere to give their professional advice in a section at the end of the book, about how deal with such matters. Their advice is much more use than anything I can say in matters of preservation and organising an archive. 

My advice would be to consider to whom you should leave the care of your family history. Basically you have two choices. Is there anyone in your own family interested enough to keep the valuable resource and eventual hand it on to the next generation? This is the course I have chosen with anything related to the family. 

My lifetime’s professional archive is in the care of two main university libraries which gives me great satisfaction when I realise that there will be much fewer written examples left for future generations to study in this age of computers. Otherwise you will choose what museum would be suitable and would value and care for your material.

Read Family Tree’s review of Keeping Chronicles in the October issue of Family Tree magazine.

Keeping Chronicles by Rosemary Sassoon is published by The Book Guild at £9.95.



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