As a filmmaker, one of the aspects of projects that has always brought me the greatest joy is capturing the interesting stories of people before they are no longer able to tell them. About four years ago, I started Storied Legacy for this very purpose – to chronicle families’ life stories. We focus on capturing, preserving, and presenting the narratives and values that are most important in our communities and that expand the domain of what will be remembered.
We’ve recognized that many families have boxes—if not entire closets or basements—full of old tapes, film reels, paper photographs, certificates, and letters, which tell the stories of our lives. And most of us do not know what to do with these relics of our past (which are often too important just to discard or bequeath to someone else to deal with). Sure, we can transfer them to digital formats, but are we any more likely to look back at them after that? We can store them in “the cloud” indefinitely, but what will happen to all these treasures once the people who know what they are and what they mean are gone? Storied Legacy started with the goal of putting these “legacy assets” into videos and putting those videos into archival websites, beginning with digital transfers. One public-facing example we can share is gergenfamily.com, about the family of David Gergen, an advisor to several U.S. presidents.
Even I procrastinated about doing a project for my own family until this year! I get it. Dealing with one’s own family dynamics is not always fun or easy, but I found it to be super rewarding. My father has stories from Vietnam and his own childhood as a Methodist preacher’s son that I have never heard and having this focused goal is helping us both with the unraveling of these stories. We’ve transferred old film reels that had started smelling like vinegar and are doing interviews with lots of family members. When my parents moved out of the house they’d lived in for 41 years last summer, we took 360-degree photos of all the rooms before the packing had commenced in earnest. At some point, these photos will be stitched together to form a virtual tour of the house in which I grew up. All of this, eventually, will find its home on a Storied Legacy website. We will continue to weave memories and stories into the site over time.
The hardest part is getting started — the whole process can seem daunting with so many possibilities. So, here are a few pointers on ways to get started and how to make this more fun than it might seem at first:
1. Open Pandora’s Box!
You have to dig in to know what’s there before you can do anything else. Take a pad of paper and start making a list of what you have, even if it’s not a complete list. Make notes of anything else that comes to mind, generally. What do you think would be fun to do with all this stuff?
Since the first big step should be getting things transferred to digital formats, you might want to know what is most valuable to get transferred. Maybe everything is high priority and that’s okay.
Go ahead and find a service (or two) that will transfer your assets. Make sure it’s someone who will stand by their work, so that your important stuff is not lost forever if they make a mistake. There are a ton of cheap services, but you generally get what you pay for.
4. Have a family party!
We’ve found that the most difficult aspect of all this is curation — figuring out what is what and identifying all these people who keep cropping up (so that others will know who they are, when those who knew them best are not around to tell the stories). What are the events being chronicled in all these tapes and photos? Why was something so important at the time and why did you save it? If you have a family party and have someone else record that event, the identification process becomes much more fun and you don’t have to do the hard part of telling the stories laboriously on your own.
Once you’ve gotten this far, you’ve tackled most of the hard work. Then you can hand everything off to someone else to help you turn your Legacy Assets into videos or slideshows or books you can easily share. Or you can think of where you want to store all this great stuff so that people will be able to make sense of some of your life’s most important memories.