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Former CIA Officer Tackles Genealogical Puzzles and Dead-Ends

Heather Nickerson, Artifcts
April 20, 2022

Since founding the company, Ellen and I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some extraordinary individuals—artists, creators, storytellers, fashion designers, and even map makers! That said, it’s not often we meet a fellow CIA analyst turned entrepreneur. 

Ellen and I met Lisa Maddox, Founder of Family History Intelligence (FHI) early on in our journey with Artifcts, and saw an immediate fit between Artifcts and FHI. We couldn’t help but think about all that family “stuff” as we listened to Lisa talk about the families she has worked with and the histories she has helped them uncover from decades—and sometimes even centuries—ago. 

Sure enough, families, “stuff,” and histories go hand in hand. Whether it is a collection of old letters from the turn of the century or long forgotten Civil War artifacts. Those objects all represent lives lived, histories told, and the very essence of what it is to be us, to be alive. 

I sat down with Lisa for a casual conversation last month and wanted to share with you more about what makes FHI unique as it helps families preserve their legacy.  

Heather Nickerson: What led you to make the leap from CIA analyst to entrepreneur? 

Lisa Maddox: I worked at the CIA because of its mission and the powerful, impactful contributions of that work. After a successful career there, I wanted to be my own boss, determine my own career path, apply those hard-earned skills, and continue to work on issues of value. Starting my own family history business encompassed all those desires. One additional influential factor was my mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The prospect of watching my mother lose her memories impressed upon me the importance of family and our histories.  

Nickerson: How have your analyst skills come into play with family history? 

Maddox: As an intelligence officer, I often analyzed issues with information gaps and misleading data. I applied rigorous analytical techniques to overcome information gaps and understand the context and environment surrounding the subject matter. When I lacked sufficient data, I came up with innovative ways to study the issue and collect additional information. This analysis and collection approach has enabled me to tackle genealogical puzzles and dead-ends. I go beyond what a traditional genealogist would do. My work in terrorism targeting also had direct application to finding and mapping out client’s ancestors. Finally, my attention to good versus bad sources has provided a natural advantage in my genealogy research.  

I go beyond what a traditional genealogist would do.

Nickerson: Respecting your client's privacy of course, could you share with us some favorite stories of things you've discovered in your research? 

Maddox: One of my favorite projects involved discovering information about my client's father’s arrest and brief placement in a Japanese internment camp after the Pearl Harbor attack. The research spanned numerous National Archives’ holdings, prompted me to ask friends throughout the country for help, and thankfully ended up uncovering the FBI case file!

Another memorable project included the discovery of a client’s ancestors in Hungary. We thought that we had hit a brick wall, because Hungarian records are not easily accessible and language barriers presented significant challenges. This was an important moment for my business, because I didn’t accept those limitations and found a way to proceed. Employing my intelligence officer skills, I established Hungary-based contacts and facilitated on-the-ground research, which uncovered data about several more generations for this client. It was amazing!   

Nickerson: What is most challenging about your work? 

Maddox: I have found marketing to be the most challenging aspect of running my own business. After a 15-year career where I sought to draw attention away from my job and work, I have struggled to feel comfortable talking about my work and selling my services. 

Nickerson: What do you wish people knew or better understood about genealogical research? 

Maddox: I wish people understood the limitations in discovering information about more recent ancestors and family members. Clients often ask for details about their parents or even grandparents, not understanding that privacy restrictions hinder availability of information; for example, 1950 census data just became publicly available. 

Nickerson: In your experience, what is the primary motivation for someone to contact you for help with their family history research? 

Maddox: There are two driving reasons most clients contact me. One, the client seeks to discover and then preserve the family legacy for generations to come. They want the family to ask questions and discuss their heritage before it’s too late and the elder generation’s input can no longer be accessed. Two, the client wants to give the ultimate sentimental gift to their loved one (spouse, parent, or grandparent). It’s the gift of knowledge and understanding your history.  

It’s the gift of knowledge and understanding your history

Nickerson: You know all about Artifcts. How do you think Artifcts could help you in your work with your clients? 

Maddox: Artifcts' approach to understanding and preserving the stories associated with sentimental objects and possessions is an interrelated service that could naturally be woven into FHI ancestor narratives. I’ve written stories about ancestors who fought in battles and then discovered that the client’s family still possesses that old weapon, uniform, or keepsake from a battle. Embedding an Artifct would enhance the story and our understanding of our ancestors and their experiences.   

< End of interview >

We know that when it comes to our personal lives and histories “someday” often turns into never or maybe simply too late. We hope you will think about those pieces of you that should be Artifcted and archived to pass to friends and family and future generations before it’s too late. Take it one object at a time. If you get stuck, see if some of our partners and membership organizations can help you!

Interested in uncovering the origins of your family history? You can reach out to Lisa at Family History Intelligence to start the conversation. 

Photos are provided by Family History Intelligence and designed by The Scout Guide in Alexandria, VA.

© 2022 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Collection Management Made Easy and Meaningful  

Artifcts thanks Sarah Reeder, Artifactual History Appraisal, for her contributions to the following article.

Reading time: 4 minutes

You may have one or many collections, intentional collections and accidental collections. Part of the fun of collecting is keeping track of it: Knowing what you have and what you’re still hunting for, what is sentimental vs. valuable, and what is okay to sell some day versus you’d prefer to pass down to someone special.

Short checklist about collections

 
 
We know a thing or to about accidental collections. Try out our free checklist available here.

If you were a professional archivist, librarian, or appraiser, you’d have a ready tool in your pocket to help manage your collections. It’s called a finding aid. But guess what? As you Artifct your collections, you are implicitly leveraging the best of finding aids, but in a friendly form that all can enjoy and benefit from. 

Here’s your peek inside the world of archivists where we show you how finding aids and collection management are made easy and meaningful with Artifcts!

What Is a Finding Aid, and Why Should You Care?

Unless you are a collections professional (archivist, librarian, appraiser…), the concept of a finding aid is likely foreign to you. For the longest time at Artifcts we even mistakenly referred to them as finding keys. Oops!

A finding aid is exactly what it sounds like: A tool that helps you locate items within a large collection in a fast and efficient way. A finding aid is a guide that describes the contents of an archival collection. A well-designed finding aid makes quick work of determining the topical relevance of any collection. After all, what good is a collection if discoverability hinders locating and using elements within the collection in the future.

Many of us have experienced the feelings of dread and being overwhelmed upon contemplating many boxes of inherited items that probably have something important contained in them but what and where? Imagine if you had a finding aid that told you exactly what was important and where you could locate it!

This is the magic of what finding aids do.

To a large degree, information within a finding aid is standardized per guidelines from the Society of American Archivists, “Describing Archives: A Content Standard,” better known simply as DACS. Standardization means a professional could work with or for any gallery, library, archive, or museum (aka GLAM) and their collections without much difficulty. They might simply display the information differently than one’s accustomed to.

A finding aid would have information such as: reference code, title, date, extent, name of creator, description, dates, and location. Does that list look familiar? If you Artifct, it should… 

For those of us who didn’t go to Library Science school, in our daily lives we probably do not want to think about taxonomies, metadata, bytes of storage, or even finding aids. We want to enjoy and share the meaning behind the items we’ve collected and ensure the stories and value behind them live on!

Enter Artifcts: Solving Age Old Problems of Finding Aids for Every-Day Collectors 

What we created at Artifcts is the solution to several age-old problems of finding aids in an individual and family-friendly fashion. And this means great things for you all!  While finding aids are brilliant tools for professionals, they are disconnected from how most of us describe and catalog the ‘why’ of our collections. We need more multitasking support in our lives.

Here’s how you can use Artifcts to preserve the history and the value of your collections beyond the constraints of traditional finding aids.

Use those QR codes.

If you were to work with a professional appraiser, archivist, or collections manager of any type, they will likely offer as part of their services a description of the collection and list organizing the inventory within your collection, a finding aid of some sort. But how do you link that list to your physical collection? At Artifcts, you can print a QR code or use Artifcts QR code stickers to link the physical and the digital.

music box with Artifcts QR code on the bottom of the base

 
 
An Artifcts QR code unlocks the story and value!

Record your stories.

Move beyond “scope notes” and “meta data” inherent to the archivist’s expertise – “This is a 19th-century {name of item}” – and breathe life, context, and personal meaning into the objects in your collection, e.g. “This is what Great Great Grandma brought from France when she moved to New York. And I’m giving it to you now.”  

Artifcts offers the options to share your story, indicate what you want to do with items in the future, and supply critical other information like where on earth you’ve stored the item in your home or elsewhere and the supporting documents (receipts, appraisals, and more). 

Connect the dots.

We typically describe each Artifct you create as connecting the dots, because only you know how photos of those specific items relate to shape a story or history. But we help you go a step further, too. You can use our @ feature to cross reference one Artifct with another, tying together pieces of a collection and pieces of a story that others may not otherwise realize relate.  

Description field on Artifcts with menu open showing options for linking with @

 
 
Simply type @ as you add the story or description to your Artifct to link to other Artifcts.

Leverage your community.

Let’s not forget the value in sharing and collaboration to learn more about items in your collections. Through Artifcts Circles and the option to give ‘Edit’ permission to other paid Artifcts members, you can crowdsource information from your loved ones and experts alike to capture important details about your collections that may add historical and family history information as well as increase the value, too. 

Preserve what is.

Add the photos, videos, and original documents you have to your Artifcts. There’s a spot dedicated to securely preserve each as is. No compression. No conversion. What you upload is what you can always download again, too.

 
 
 
 
In our spring 2024 series finale of Evenings with Artifcts, our expert guests shed light on the 'why' and 'what' of collections.

Ensure that if you work with an appraiser or other collections manager in the future, they provide documentary support through Artifcts, so that you can protect and share the value of your collections with friends and family as well as knock off those “to dos” with your insurance company, financial planner, and estate attorney. 

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You may also be interested in these ARTIcles by Artifcts:

What to Consider When You Plan to Donate Art and Other Collectibles

From Rare Art to Family Heirlooms: Tips From a Master as You Consider Selling Your 'Stuff'

Everything You Wanted to Know About Appraisals but Were Afraid to Ask

How to Artifct that Collection

© 2024 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Artifcts® Platform Now Supports Publishing to Custom-Designed Books with Partner Akin

Whether you think about photo books as unique and personalized gifts or dream of publishing a life memoir, we love our books! Today Artifcts announced a new partnership with Akin (https://akin.house/artifcts-books/) to offer simple, custom designed books to Arti Community members who wish to publish their Artifcts to books. 

You need only look at the explosive growth of photo book companies to support everything from build-your-own to instant print from Instagram or your phone to know how much we love to have and to hold books. 

Together, Artifcts and Akin have made it simple and affordable to publish a custom-designed, premium quality, personalized book of your Artifcts.  

“Not everyone enjoys spending hours combing through photos, uploading them into software, stressing over layouts, colors, and font choices,” commented Artifcts Co-founder Ellen Goodwin. “Our partnership with Akin means you can simply choose the Artifcts you want to publish, share them privately with Akin, and they’ll lay out the book in the template of your choice and ship it off to you! The whole process for our members takes minutes!” 

Artifcts excels in innovation that places the needs of its Arti Community members first. People expect to share their stories with meaningful context that includes photos, audio, and video. Artifcts has ensured this promise translates to printed books, too. Unlike a standard photo book, for every Artifct you publish, you can include a QR code that allows the viewer to scan and access additional photos and video tied to the story. Your book can come alive. 

“We don’t want our members to worry about the book creation process. We want people to enjoy spending time reliving their stories, and recording what they value most,” said Artifcts Co-founder Heather Nickerson. 

For more information, visit Concierge & Other Professional Services or review the FAQs available at Artifcts.com/FAQs. 

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© 2024 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 

Read more
Not Sure What to Write? Tips from Author Jeff Greenwald

He's authored 1000s of articles, several books, and what's maybe the first known travel blog. And during the Fall 2022 series of Evenings with Artifcts Jeff Greenwald shared with us simple but powerful tips, and a healthy dose of perspective, to help us craft our own stories behind the objects of our lives.  

Watch the full Evenings with Artifcts event here.

  • It is hard to write about an object with no personal meaning but even harder when it has tremendous personal meaning. Bear that in mind and go easy on yourself. 

  • Start with something true. This is the trick to writing anything nonfiction. For example, start with a little line about where you got the object: “I bought this in a street market in Istanbul.” And from there go on to describe the scene a little bit and what happened there that connects you with the object.  

Start with something true.

  • Other starters for your Artifcts:  

        • Where were you when you acquired the object? 
        • Was it a gift? Who gave it to you? Tell a bit about them. What was your relationship with them that they felt they should give you a gift like that? “The moon Rocket was a gift for my friend Dave Mccutcheon, and he and I have been friends for many years and share a love of robots and spaceships and dinosaurs... all those things we loved when we were kids.” 
        • Why is it important to you?
        • What feelings does it evoke in you?
  • If a story comes to mind, you can just start jotting it down anywhere. Let your thoughts go where they will. It can be a collection of random thoughts that you can look at later and put together into some sort of a story structure. 

  • We all have stories. Writers block comes from our internal critic. It challenges you with, “Why would anybody want to read it? What could you have to say? What makes you think you're so great that anyone should listen to anything you're telling them?” You have to tell yourself, “I have a right to do this because I’m a human being with a story, and the story deserves to be told whether or not you, my internal critic, thinks that it does.” Push the internal critic aside. 
I’m a human being with a story, and the story deserves to be told.
  • If you value the stories and need motivation to begin capturing and preserving those stories with Artifcts, make a deal with yourself like Jeff did. Jeff made a pact to give away the objects once their stories were told. Maybe you’ll choose to Artifct twice per week. Or perhaps you’ll start with those items that are most meaningful to you.  

  • A bit of advice Jeff shared from esteemed author Kurt Vonnegut: Write your stories as though you are writing them for one person, as if you are telling this person each of the stories. It gives all the stories a similar tone, a singular voice. 

  • Always include when and where the object was acquired. These are important details.

  • Struggling with a title? Write out 10 of them. It will help you to start to shape your story, too.

Our stuff, the objects that we collect, that inspire us, they are really not what's important. We do not need to keep them. The only thing that is important are the stories, and the only way to keep the stories is to tell them.

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© 2024 Artifcts, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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