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Twila Van Leer: This trash was a real treasure

The old saying that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure came home to the Naisbitt family in a very real way.

The story began with Merma Grant Carlisle, a Salt Lake County resident who was a family historian in a very big way. Over many years, she faithfully recorded the details of her life. Such items as her first date, how she met her husband, her health history from birth, voluminous collections of pictures that included a photo of Merma as a child and one of her with the family dog, memories of the homes that she lived in — all were carefully preserved in Books of Remembrance binders and other books. One especially tender item was a lock of hair from the small daughter that Merma and her husband Winn Fields Carlisle lost to death.

Merma also had faithfully recorded genealogical data, with dozens of pedigree charts, family group sheets and other valuable records that placed the Carlisle family into an eternal context along with kin.

Then Merma died. Her children stepped in to tidy up her home and get it ready for the next owner. From the nooks and crannies, all the things that detailed family history were gathered. Then they were put into boxes and other containers and set on the curb for the trash collectors.

(I can hear you groaning out there! Hang on. Rescue is on its way!)

A neighbor saw the boxes and trash cans of Merma’s history on the curb and asked the family if she could have it. They were happy to turn it over, expressing several times that they had no interest. Neighbor or garbage collector, what’s the difference?

The neighbor then faced the next question: Now that she had it, what should she do with it? She consulted a stake directory and came up with the name of Melanie Barnhill, who had long been involved in family history work. The hefty pile, with its hefty load of family details, made another move.

Barnhill enlisted her mother, Jean Naisbitt, and a brother, Raymon Naisbitt, in the effort to search Merma’s collection to see if they could find clues as to who in Merma’s family might want permanent custody. They went to, a free public website sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to assist families in building, sharing and preserving their family histories.

The Naisbitts ultimately found the names of three persons who had entered information in Merma’s file. Three emails were soon on their way, explaining that they had Merma’s history collection and offering to send it to family members.

The next day, Jean had a reply from a woman living in Canada: “Hello. Merma was my cousin and we are most interested in those records and appreciate greatly that you have saved them. … We know the importance of these records and want them preserved. … Obviously, not everyone understands the value of them and the hours and money it took to collect them.” Her nephew, who lived only a few miles from the Naisbitts, picked them up to await the arrival of the Canadian relative later that year.

See? One person’s “trash” was preserved, almost miraculously, as a true family treasure. How many other jewels of family history end up at the nearest landfill is hard to calculate.

The major lesson, according to Barnhill, is, first of all, to interest children in the compilation of family histories. Fewer instances of neglected or discarded records would occur.

Experts in the field add a second lesson: Whenever possible, digitize your documents, papers, pictures, records, books, etc. (something you can do for free at a local family history center), and see that they are put into the archive for the individuals they apply to so they are preserved for future generations. But don’t throw the originals away.

We’ll be talking more about preservation as the flip side of collection.

Preservation Week

For centuries, libraries have been safe havens for human history. The week of April 24-29 is the American Library Association’s annual Preservation Week. Local libraries have been encouraged to do special events, create displays or sponsor talks to highlight the preservation message. Check to see if there will be something special in your neighborhood.

On an ongoing basis, a Davis County library director noted, the library is always a source of information. Books on genealogical research; national, state and local histories; individual biographies; how-tos on preserving information; and the gamut of useful information line the shelves. Many libraries have newspaper archives that are a valuable source of data. Visit your library and make it a resource as you gather and save your family history.

Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who has recently been called to serve as a family history missionary.