In a box among footage of my childhood Sheltie, I have a movie of my maternal grandmother holding me on my first birthday. It’s a precious piece of family history—she died shortly after. It doesn’t have sound, but it doesn’t matter. My mother would play the clip for us, emotion flickering over her face as she relived those moments.
1. Take stock.
2. Look for a label.
3. Check the format.
4. Preserve the footage.
Film shrinks and becomes brittle over time, and color film fades. If you must handle the film itself, touch only the edges, wearing nonlatex, powder-free medical gloves or white cotton gloves. Look for cracks, tears, brittleness and other deterioration. Your best bet is to copy the film onto a digital format, such as MPG. This gives you an easy-to-share copy to watch on your computer—no special equipment needed. Search Google or ask fellow genealogists to find a transfer service near you. Large-scale services that work by mail include YESvideo and ScanDigital.
Don’t dispose of the original, though—film actually is a relatively stable medium. Instead, store it in an archival-quality box or metal film storage can at a stable temperature and humidity. Don’t put other material, such as paper, inside the can or box with the film. The ideal storage environment is 50 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent relative humidity, but that’s not realistic for most homes, so aim for an area where the temperature and humidity are stable.
Once your movies are digitized, you can edit them together and add narration with movie-editing apps such as iMovie (Mac), Movie Maker (Windows) or Pinnacle (Mac or Windows). Today’s family history software and most family tree websites, such as MyHeritage, let you upload movies to your tree.
5. Find clues.
6. Share and discuss.
7. Put the story together.
Ancestry.com: Historic Catalog of the Sears, Roebuck Co. 1896-1993
A Brief History of the Movie Camera
Home Movie Legacy
Home Movies: The Family Historian’s Perspective
Library of Congress: National Film Preservation Board
Northeast Historic Film
Digitization Options for Family Photos: Including Slides, Film Negatives and Home Movies by Thomas MacEntee (self-published)
Fashion Since 1900: The Complete Sourcebook, 2nd edition by John Peacock (Thames and Hudson)
Home Movies: A History of the American Industry, 1897-1979 by Alan Kattelle (self-published)
Men’s Fashions: The Complete Sourcebook by John Peacock (Thames and Hudson)
Enhance your family history with video
Preserving audio and video
Troubleshooting home movie transfers
Quick Guide: Film and Video Conversion Services
How to Archive Family Keepsakes
Family Photo Detective