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Living out the National Archives on a Personal Level

Somehow, I became the “archivist” for our family. Usually, it’s some older person in a family, cognizant of their years slipping away, who takes on the task of documenting family history, genealogy, photos, and videos. But for me, my interest in archiving my family history came while I was still young and without yet any wife or children to pass it on to. I believe it is no coincidence that this fascination with my roots emerged at the same time that I became a tour guide for our American History.


At the same time that I was leading America’s young people to important historical sights, saying “this is why we preserve these places, structures, and artifacts!” I started seeking out history and information of my own family. I traced my forefather’s name back through Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and into Germany. I searched through old albums and shoeboxes of photos tucked into closets and forgotten spaces. I compiled scattered home movies of 8mm reels and unlabeled VHS tapes. I scanned photos into digital form and burned home movies onto DVDs.


A few years ago, I came across an invaluable item that I feared had been lost. I saw it once years ago when I was little, however when I asked about it later, no one remembered where it had ended up. By happenstance, I found it in my Aunt and Uncle’s safe: my grandfather’s scrapbook and photo album. There was his graduation photo, his track badge, his World War I medal, the poem he wrote for his “yet unknown” wife, and many old pictures of relatives, including his grandparents who first moved the family to Kansas years before. It was like finding my grandfather’s Facebook profile from a time gone by.


Frederick Perry “Pappy” Mosteller was born in 1896 and died in 1959, well before I was born. His scrapbook is particularly fascinating because he created it in the 1910’s before he married, before he fathered 15 children and became forever known as “Pappy.” By the time that my dad (the twelfth child) was born in 1941, they say Pappy seemed more hardened and serious. But his youthful scrapbook shows a different side of him: romantic, humorous, and in touch with his extended family, even though he himself was orphaned at a young age.


When guiding groups in DC, I often compare the National Archives to a “safe” that students may have back home, where important family documents, such as birth certificates, are held. The Archives is where our nation preserves and protects our important documents, such as our national birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence. While we all agree upon the importance of such national documents, it’s too bad that our own family treasures are often lost to time and forgetfulness. To me, on a personal level, Pappy’s scrapbook is worth more, and says more about my life, than the Declaration of Independence. I would hate for it to be lost and forgotten again.


Fortunately, if Pappy’s scrapbook were to disappear again, it would not be completely lost this time because I scanned the entire book into digital form. Technology, no matter how quickly it changes, is a fantastic tool for preserving and sharing our family memories. The world needs more “archivists” who take an interest in seeking out, documenting, and preserving their own personal family history. I am convinced that is the young people who need to step up. Older people in your family may be the ones with the hard copy resources and knowledge and interest in preservation, but it is the young people who know how to put today’s technological resources to their best use.


If you are a student getting ready for one of our historical expeditions to the Eastern United States, consider scanning some of your old family photos and creating your own personal family archives. Print off an extra copy of a relative who served in war, and come ready to leave it at the appropriate memorial in DC. This will help attach your personal history to the broader history of our nation. Expanding your project can be a fantastic fundraiser – scan old photos into digital form for other people. You’d be doing them a great service, and they could help support your travels!


History is often called the “biography of great men” but there are many great men and women whose biographies never get told. They are the extensions of our family – our parents and our grandparents, and their grandparents. Their stories are every bit as dramatic and historic, and on a personal level, just as valuable as the Declaration of Independence.

Isaiah is the Director of Education, and frequent guide, for Academic Expeditions.

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