Organizing Grandma’s Archive

Organizing Grandma’s Archive

Speaking of organization challenges, in the November 2011 issue, I ask for readers’ help with a dilemma: how to sort and store the genealogy archive my grandmother passed on to me. I’m not one to make a mountain out of a molehill ... But this actually resembles a mountain:For her part...

Speaking of organization challenges, in the November 2011 issue, I ask for readers’ help with a dilemma: how to sort and store the genealogy archive my grandmother passed on to me. I’m not one to make a mountain out of a molehill … But this actually resembles a mountain:

For her part, Grandma did manage to loosely organize the collection into boxes for specific relatives or branches of the family.

She also sorted scores of family letters into binders.

Still, some material isn’t sorted or labeled. Along with the treasures are random non-genealogy-related items that need to be weeded out. And none of it is stored in what you could call an archivally friendly manner.

I’ll admit the prospect of reorganizing and digitizing this mountain of memories has overwhelmed me. So I’ll pose the same question to all of you family and professional archivists out there: What’s your advice for making this project manageable?

Can’t wait to hear your suggestions.

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  1. Yikes!!! What a haul 🙂 I just posted my August todo list with a goal of loading all my paper stacks into bins (unsorted) and cataloging them into a notebook called &quot;Index,&quot; with a manageable number of tabs. The tabs are based on general topics in the boxes (like surnames, or if there are a lot,then groups of surnames, say Anderson-Dugan, Ebert-Lincoln, and so on… )

    So here’s what I’d do with your boxes- tackle one a week. Label the first box 1, the second 2, etc.
    Go through the contents and list everything in the notebook under the appropriate tab. For example,
    in the Anderson-Dugan tab, you might have:
    John Dugan birth certificate, box 1
    Photo of Anderson family reunion 1930, box 1

    The Ebert-Lincoln tab might have:
    Johnson census record, 1900, box 1
    King-Smith marrige certificate, box 3
    Eventually your tabs will contain the index of everything in the boxes.
    At some later date you might relocate everything to a better storage system, but at least for now you’ll know the contents of each box!

  2. How I wish someone had left me all of those wonderful genealogical treasures!
    It looks like you have the basic breakdown by family already.
    I have sturdy 3&quot; notebooks for each family name. I then have each family member on large sized index sheet tabs and file them alphabetically. I have put all of the paper, birth certificates. letters. death certificates, census, etc for each family member inside clear sheet protectors.
    I have put family pictures inside of large mailing envelopes,labeled by name and sorted alphabetically, although accordian folders etc would also work, until I can get around to putting them into albums.I hope they are marked on the back of each picture. If not, take a stack, and anytime you are just sitting down, write on the back of them, the who, what, where etc. There are pens made just for this that will not damage the pictures.
    If you leave in Texas and are close to me, I would be more then happy to help you with this project. Free of course. Just the pleasure of helping someone else with their family history.

  3. Wow, that is a job! I would try to spend small chunks of time a few times a week – like 50-30 minutes, so that is doesn’t feel so overwhelming.

    I wouldn’t begin to move things around until you document how the documents appeared, since what folder they were in or what they were next to can have bearing on the meaning of the document. I would take photos of the box and each item in the box as you unpack them. A few snapshots won’t take very long.

    I’d also try to digitize them as I went, if possible. If you re-create the folders and boxes digitally, you’ll always know the exact order they arrived in. And you can then tag them or make digital copies and reorganize them according to your preference. It will make you familiar with what’s there and you won’t have to reorganize the actual papers. You can just store them (or toss, if needed) and work with the digital copies going forward. Of course, a large monitor and a safe backup system are key.

  4. I count 15 boxes in your stack. Give yourself two months to sort and organize one box. In less that three years you will be done!!!! The previous suggestion of one box each week is too ambitious for a busy person like you!!!

  5. I have a much smaller version of what you have. I don’t know about you, but I plan to digitize. There are some great scanners out there. I plan on buying one and adding one box or stack at a time. It will take a while, but if you are like me, I just don’t have the space to store it all forever. Best of Luck!!

  6. What a treasure trove! Going through boxes one by one and indexing will help. Then start digitizing boxes. I have started doing this this summer, and what fun it has been. The photos are put on discs, and then I view them on a slide show through my computer. They look so nice! I have a lot to do, but not nearly as much as you. I have also considered a free genealogy tree program online to post this information after I stop gathering information. Family can add to the information, and be counted. Also, I have always tried to have fun with my genealogy. From photos that I received from my 83 yr. old aunt, I made a disc for her with a very nice identifying label, printed a thumbnail photo gallery of disc contents, and included my name card for contact information. Then I drove miles to deliver this to her, and we watched this slide show. She absolutely loved it! She is the only living child in my Dad’s family of 13. Word is getting around about this gift, so maybe I’ll have a request or 2. Good luck and have fun! Diane Hart

  7. I have been trying to organize or find a good way to organize my items for years. I found some software that I really like. It is called Clooz. This software will allow you to tag names in your genealogy name list with each individual items (photos, census, documents, books, etc.). If you assign a unique number to each item, you can run an individual report that will list all of the items tied to that individual.

    There are some issues with this software. 1) The report function is rigid 2) it is not the most user fiendly and 3) it is very time consuming to enter the information. The original version was actually easier to use that the newest one. I have put 1500 to 2000 items in my database and now I can go right to each individual item.

  8. My suggestion is to buy photo boxes. Label each box with the name of the state that the event happened. Write the name of the event on each index card that comes with the box. Write the number and name of the event on labels and stick on back of each photo to keep track of your photos. Put photos pertaining to that event in the box. Buy an 8-1/2×11 or larger photo book for larger photos. Label it with the same state or city. If you look at the photos yearly put them in a larger box that is handy to share for reunions, otherwise use archival boxes to put them away. The numbers will help you keep track of the photos. Only one person should be in charge of the photos at a gathering. I hope this works for you; it works for me.

  9. The Chinese say you can move a mountain one spoonfull at a time. As you can you can catalog and digitize each file. Then sort. Consider whether you want to be a physical repository of the family record/photo collection or is there a genealogical society or archive/library that some or all of it could receive as a donation. I have been given a huge store of pictures which we went through with my mother to assign names, then sorted by family. Each family gets theirs. Older ones are being digitized, copied and spread around so that hopefully somewhere there will be a copy. Unidentifed ones are kept together in the hope that some reunion or gathering can attach a name.

    Since none of my children have the genealogy bug, I will be digitizing my collection of notes, trees, research, etc and will donate it to my local genealogical library and send copies to the most relevant genealogical societies in my family’s past. Then whoever else catchs the &quot;bug&quot; can enjoy and use what I have gathered.

  10. I can just echo what everyone else said – take your time, think of a plan, and execute it slowly – a little bit at a time. I really like the idea of digitizing it and thinking of a way to share the results with the relatives. I managed to scan our family photos by doing a few each day – a little extra when I had time.

  11. Carol Esselborn Fivecoat

    What a great discussion but I have a question. I see that a box is labeled Essel obits and later I see a envelope address to someone named Essel in Ohio. Is this the Esselborn Family?

    Please let me know as I am an Esselborn. My email is


    Carol Esselborn Fivecoat

  12. I have received boxes of photos from 2 different relatives from the same family. Most of the pictures were not labeled. So what I did was do a quick sort and scan before visiting another relative from that family and printed up copies of the pictures in question on 8.5 X 11 plain paper. I then showed the pictures to our aunt and she was able to write not only the names of the people but also stories about the event or person because there was plenty of room on each page. Then I was able to file the pictures with the family that it pertained to. Then when I get the time to work on that family I will have the information right there. I will be going thru more of the pictures before I see her again and will do the same thing again. I agree that you have to tackle these gifts a small bit at a time. Good Luck and enjoy the hunt thru what some people will think as trash when in reality it is a treasure and an introduction to your family.

  13. Scan one page at a time and file the originals as you go and as you file the originals set up your digital files the same way. I just began scanning my grandfather’s photos and have letters to do also. I uploaded the photos to Facebook to share with other family members.