Monuments to Lost Libraries

Authors photograph 2017, Charles H Moore

“Whenever an elder dies, a library burns down.”


Most of us have heard the above saying in one form or another. If there is any truth to this saying (I believe it holds much truth) then perhaps the above picture is of monuments to these lost libraries. If you are the family historian, genealogist, archivist, or family story teller, some responsibility falls on you to try and preserve some of the knowledge held in these libraries. Far too many people will only be known as a name and two dates on a gravestone, with their life story soon forgotten. Most family historians believe that family lore, if not preserved, will be lost within three generations. In the case of my family as my research has shown it happens much sooner.

We have many ways to save and pass on our family’s history. We can publish a book or an e-book or both. We can make a family scrapbook, better yet more than one and give them out to the family. Interview and record our family members. Create a family website. Update our photographs by digitizing and printing copies, making sure names, dates, and places marked. Make copies of your family tree in your computer software and pass them out to the family. Make sure historical societies and libraries in places your family lived have copies of your family tree and whatever else they may be interested in. We have many ways to do this, and I am sure all of us can think of many different ways to do this. You can make all of the above suggestions as simple or complex as you like. The main thing is to do something that will tell your family’s story to future generations.

“Heirlooms we don’t have in our family. But stories we’ve got.”

Rose Chernin

Cornell University Library
Photographed 1920

The principal lesson I have learned while researching my family is how events and family dynamics have echoed through many generations to influence myself and in turn my family today. This is something I think most of us who labor on their family history soon see for themselves. What better understanding could we have than the knowledge of how and perhaps why our families continue today? It comes down to nothing less than respect and honor for those who have come before us, to know and save their story. It does not matter if you have hundreds of years of family history to tell or only a few generations. You need to conserve and tell the story. Some people have told me they can only go back a few years and so they do not have much to say. I believe that not only is it easier to tell shall we say a short story but perhaps it is the story that needs to be told the most. Perhaps someone in a future generation will find it and will be able to build a much greater family story from this first small effort. Perhaps if someone had taken the effort the picture below would not have been sold at a flea market.


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66 Responses to Monuments to Lost Libraries

  1. Everyone’s story deserves to be told. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Susan Moore Lewis says:

    Last year at my daughter’s request I began keeping a notebook with stories of my childhood. I didn’t feel some of them were very interesting, but want some record of my parents and sisters and brothers for generations to come. Now bedtime stories for my 6 year old great granddaughter are about my childhood, her grandmother and great uncle and her father and his cousins. She loves these stories (for some reason). I told my daughter her granddaughter knows more about my life than she does.

  3. Peter Klopp says:

    Your picture of the tombstones makes your plea abundantly clear: record people’s lives, BEFORE they are gone.

  4. Kind of sad, those flea market pictures for sale. ‘Ordinary’ lives (I don’t really think anyone has an ordinary life) should be sung about from the rafters.

  5. You sure have it right in this post! Every little story counts.

  6. Pierre Lagacé says:

    A name and two dates on a tombstone…? My great-grandparents Dennis Lagasse and Henriette Alexandre didn’t even have a tombstone to be remembered by.

  7. KerryCan says:

    You make such excellent points, Charles! My problem is that I find the process of learning and recording the history so daunting–I’m not sure how I’d fit it in with all the other things I want to do . . .

  8. I did not think public libraries and local historical societies would be interested due to budget constraints and ability to store. Hard copies of fragile old documents. Please tell me if you have contacted any place or how to approach them.

    • chmjr2 says:

      The main Utica Library has a large genealogy room that is on limited open times as it is staffed by volunteers. But it has many books and even a computer for your use. It also has many family trees on file in filing cabinets. Many are hand written or typed and place in a file folder marked by the family name. Some of the bigger ones are in Binders. The local historical society also has genealogy files. I have found many of these places will gladly take a family tree or a printed book on your family. Most can’t pay for them as the money is very tight for these groups. It depends on the documents whether they will take them or not. But for example the Rockland County Genealogist Society has offered to archive and make available over 150 letters my father in-law wrote home during WW2. We may take them up on that offer. I hope I answered your question. It seems to me it never hurts to ask these groups

  9. Amy says:

    I started publishing my blog in hard copy four times a year so that there is a “permanent” hard copy. At some point I need to update the trees on the blog and print those out as well. The facts someone else can always rediscover, but I am hoping the work I’ve done to tell the stories beyond the names and dates will survive. Great post!

    • chmjr2 says:

      Sometime in the near future I will ask you for a lesson in how to publish my blog post. You have made sure that so much of your family story will never be lost. Many of us know and understand the hard work and effort that is needed to tell the story in the way you do. If you ever feel that you have finished you can work on my family. 🙂

      • Jan says:

        When I saw the heading I immediately thought of my 93 year old aunt. There is so much I still want to ask her – she is our ‘library’ and if we lose her, we lose an entire generation of memories as she is the last. I have made several audio recordings of her talking about her childhood but I keep thinking of more questions.
        Thanks for the extra nudge to get moving again!

      • chmjr2 says:

        You have done so well. Your family will have a history to past down for generations.

      • Amy says:

        LOL! Thanks, but I think my husband’s family is next in line. And do we ever think we are finished?? But seriously, I’d be happy to tell you how I get the blog published in book form. It’s easy and free! (Except for buying the finished product, which is still quite reasonable.)

      • chmjr2 says:

        I like the free part until you buy the book. We will have to talked this over in more detail in the future. As far as being finished I think perhaps I have a hundred or so years to go. 🙂

      • Amy says:

        LOL! Don’t we all!

  10. Elizabeth says:

    I am also interested in how to make a hard copy from blog posts. As it has turned out, lately I am writing a great deal about the “olden days” when I was a kid since my grandchildren are very interested in these tales.

    • chmjr2 says:

      It is funny how a blog sort of takes a life of its’ own. Then you realize what you are writing should be saved for future generations of your family.

  11. Omaeagle says:

    Yes, Yes, I Love your caption: “Whenever an elder dies, a library burns down.”

    It is so profound, it hurts my heart and saddens me.
    This is all our Nation’s history and the roles our families have played in it.

    This is why I tell everyone: ‘Reach out and touch your Elders, talk to them and take many notes, even if what they say doesn’t make sense to you. Where did they, their parent, grandparents live, work, etc. Ask about customs, foods, trades, don’t forget to include the hearsay (it might come in handy). Write everything they say down, it may come into play later.’
    and Have Fun with it.

    on another note:
    I have arranged at least 6 different ‘Family Cousins’ meetings, from various lines.
    I handed out pocket packets full of page and synopsis’ of our Ancestors Histories,
    plus copies of scanned photo they have never seen
    Had a get time, meeting up and catching up with them, say after perhaps 30, 40 or 50 years.
    They loved all the info. They knew none of it and were very surprised about their own ancestors information. (some did not even really know their grandparents)
    I asked them to fill in any missing info. from their lines into the tree pages.

    In the ensuing years, I have sent out follow up surveys, and have heard only Crickets.
    Some have requested more, but I never shared anything more back,
    because I am waiting to see some effort on their part, until I feed them anymore… so sad. 😦

    • chmjr2 says:

      Thank you for your comment and reading my blog. The only thing I can say is to keep sharing information every chance you get. You never know when or with who this information will prove to be a genealogy gift. I feel the information is not mind to keep but to share as much as possible.

      • Omaeagle says:

        Yes, I agree.
        have been sharing for over 30 years.
        sending updates and questionnaires in my Christmas cards. many lines back to at least the mid 1700’s. However I do not receive back info. on their descendants, etc. Saddens me, and it does get ‘old’… 😀

  12. Great article…our stories are so important!

  13. Jan says:

    I saw the questions about hard copy of blog posts and offer this up as something to consider – it is what I am doing. I create stories offline and most of them are not for the blog. As each story is finished, I save it as a PDF and then add it to a growing master PDF file which is basically an electronic book. From there I can print-publish it or share it as an e-book.

    • chmjr2 says:

      That is a great idea. Something I will look into. I have much that I will not put into the blog, but should go into a family history.

  14. Enjoyed your post. I am always so saddened to see photo’s at flea markets and the like.

  15. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Reblogged this on Our Ancestors and commented:
    One of the reasons I will never stop writing…

  16. I wholeheartedly agree Charles – the shortest trees need their stories told the most. Orphan photos break my heart. One cool thing in my local cemetery is a kiosk at the entrance. There is a screen, you select the person and if the family has chosen to share one, you can watch a 3 minute video about their life. It can be actual video or just a slideshow. I’m not sure how long this type of tech can hold up in our Utah weather, but I applaud the effort. A nice companion piece would be a website with the videos as well, to view from home.

    • chmjr2 says:

      I like what your local cemetery is doing. I to wonder how it will hold up in the weather. The weather in central N.Y. can get pretty rough also. Perhaps the answer would be to put this service on their website as you suggest. We have so many different ways to tell these stories, now we just need to do it.

  17. Jim McKeever says:

    Charles, this is great. I’ve fallen behind on my own family history research, and this has inspired me to get back to it. You said it all with this: “It comes down to nothing less than respect and honor for those who have come before us, to know and save their story.”

  18. Hello, new follower here! First of all, thank you for your like on my blog, MAMA. I love this article. This is something that is overwhelming to me, as I have thousands of pictures of my mom and dad. My daddy called my three siblings several years ago when mama was diagnosed with Alzheimers. We began to go home, and I living closer and having a little more money, was able to visit mama and daddy numerous times…often for weeks. My husband would drive down and spend a few days and then we would drive home together. During those times, I took hundreds of pictures and video’s, my family and relatives often did not understand. I have a Youtube Channel with a lot of video’s, which I need to update, and I have a personal FB filled with entries I wrote to keep family and friends informed of what was happening up until the last few weeks of mama’s life. (tears here). I have a FB page called the Crawdad Hole, my daddy is professional quality Mandolin player, and plays bluegrass at many venues. Always been in my heart to share…scenes and pictures of my childhood, my parents and so forth and so on. My daddy is the story teller, and relatively self taught
    having gone to only the 8th grade, and then took courses through the mail when I was a child. He writes for a couple local newspapers an opinion piece called ‘Bottom of the Rung,’ often telling stories growing up, and how different it was, and also some political. I’ve tried to capture some of his stories. I am planning a trip to Arkansas in the fall, and hoping to record (video) and ask him questions…how it was when he was growing up in the hills of Arkansas, how it was back then. I also have lot’s of bluegrass video’s. Sorry this is so LONG, but when I read your article it really ENCOURAGED me! My own kids don’t seem to care…but I hope one day they do. God bless you!

    • chmjr2 says:

      It seems to me that you are well off and running with your family’s story. I would not worry about your children’s lack of interest, that may well change years from now. Also you never know if the records and stories you keep may well be of great interest to some other relative. Do you have your father’s “Bottom of the Rung” articles? They would make a great book even if PDF form or placed in a binder. Best of luck also with your blog.

  19. Reblogged this on The Shadows of My Mind and commented:
    I was GREATLY encouraged as I read this article. I think for many bloggers this would be of great interest. Some great ideas in here!

  20. Beautifully written and an inspiration for all of us to tell our ancestors’ stories and preserve their photographs and keepsakes for generations to come. I will reblogg and tweet this post because it’s SO important and you have great ideas for everyone to do so, whether it’s big stories or small.

  21. Barb Knowles says:

    Great photos and I agree about the stories. It takes me longer than usual to research because I get caught up in the stories.

  22. Averyl says:

    I’ve been to many estate sales where the family photos are tossed into the garbage! At first i couldn’t understand why and it saddened me. I figured they must have mistakenly put them in the dumpster. However, I’ve come to understand that in some cases there are family rifts, abuse and other unpleasantries that the children wish to leave behind them. I’ve overheard this kind of family sharing at numerous sales.

    • chmjr2 says:

      There is much to what you say. I also have been to many such sales and have heard the same type of story. But that does not explain why generations of letters and pictures are tossed. Many times the family is no longer in the area and do not have time to sort out items or are just too lazy to do so. I know several people who run estate sales and from what I am told this is the more common reason that these items are left behind. Also sometimes the family does not even know what is there. In a three part post I wrote a while back called “Mail Call” this was the case. I am happy to say this had a happy ending. I guess we can wonder why these things happen but the fact is it does way to often. I do thank you for taking the time to read my blog and your comment. I do enjoy your blog very much.

  23. Katoomba21 says:

    Doing my family tree has given me a greater appreciation for the objects I currently have and made me realise how important it is to ask the older members of my family questions before its too late. There are questions I wish I could have asked and now I’m sorry I never will. I do think the quote you put at the beginning of the post is accurate. Thanks for giving one or two of my posts a like, I’m still new to the world of blogging.

    • chmjr2 says:

      Thank you for reading my blog and your comment. I agree that we should make it a point to speak with and learn from the older generation in our family. In my family it looks like soon I will be the “old man”. That is why I try to tell stories when I can and write them down. You have a fine blog and it has been fun reading. Just keep at it as people tend to give up writing as it is a hard disciplined.

  24. elusiveancestor says:

    Great post. Amazing that 3 generations is enough for these connections and stories to be lost…not many folks can even tell you the names of their great grandparents.

    • chmjr2 says:

      Our family stories can be lost very easily if we do not take care of them. The fact is that we are where we are in great part due to our ancestors.

  25. It is so important for us to tell our ancestors stories! Thank you

    • chmjr2 says:

      I agree if we do not save and tell these stories future generations will have no idea how they got where they are. Our family stories give us a grounding on which we can build.

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