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Preserving family history

Searching for old family photos was an important part of author Darcy Dougherty Maulsby's research for her recent book, "Calhoun County." Submitted photos

Now that winter has settle in, you have a prime opportunity to preserve your family history, 10 minutes at a time. Even better, did you know this history can help your children and grandchildren thrive?  

Preserving history doesn’t happen by accident. This became clear as I researched and wrote my new book, "Calhoun County," which showcases the stories of small-town and rural Iowa life through the eyes of those who lived it.

As I asked friends, neighbors and local museum volunteers to contribute vintage photos for my book, I heard, “I’d love to help, but we don’t have those photos.” Some images succumbed to fires, while others were destroyed in flooded basements. Sometimes photos and documents were thrown out in a house-cleaning frenzy years ago.

That’s why there’s something special about old photographs, letters and documents that survive. I’m grateful to the people who preserved stories of the February day in 1934 when the infamous gangsters Bonnie and Clyde robbed the Knierim bank.

I’m also thankful to the anonymous photographers who took pictures of major events in Calhoun County, such as President Taft’s 1911 visit to Rockwell City, and the time when Babe Ruth played golf at Twin Lakes Golf Club following a batting exhibition in 1940. 

I was able to include all this and more in Calhoun County. Along the way, I’ve also discovered how preserving a legacy, especially family history, offers surprising benefits for children.

This was proven by Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Duke’s studies with U.S. families confirmed that children who know more about their family narrative have higher self-esteem, a stronger sense of control over their lives, less anxiety and greater resilience, meaning they can moderate the effects of stress.

Sharing your family narrative can happen in as little as 10 minute at a time at holiday gatherings, dinnertime, family vacations and more. Here are some questions to start the conversation:
Do you know where and how your parents met?
Do you know some things that happened to your mom or dad when they were in school?
Do you know some of the jobs your parents or grandparents had when they were young?
Do you know some awards your parents received when they were young?
Do you know the source of your name?
Do you know some of the lessons your parents learned from good and bad experiences?

Here are five other things you can do to protect family history in as little as 10 minutes:
Exchange family photos and stories rather than gifts. During the holidays, have family members bring copies of family photos they think other relatives might not have. Then enjoy sharing the photos and the memories.

Protect photos from the sun. Display copies rather than originals. Also, store photos in acid-free boxes and acid-free albums with non-PVC plastic pockets and no adhesives.

Print your photos. Schedule 10-minute work sessions to select digital photos you’d like to print. Then make time to print them using high-quality inks and photo papers, not just a desktop printer and typing paper. Also, schedule 10-minute work sessions to begin scanning old photos you want to preserve. Use an external hard drive or cloud system to back up your digital files.

Document the details. When­ever possible, note who is pictured in each photo. Use a soft lead pencil or photo-archiving pen to also list where the photo was taken, the date and a bit about the event depicted.

Go high-tech. Download apps like StoryCorps to help collect your family history via smartphone. Also, use your phone’s voice recorder or video tool to record your family’s stories.

Remember, there’s no time like the present to capture the past and preserve it for future generations. All it takes it 10 minutes at a time.

Maulsby is a freelance writer, farmer and Calhoun County Farm Bureau president from Lake City.