Your Advice for Organizing Family Archives

Your Advice for Organizing Family Archives

Last week, Allison fessed up about her so-far-untouched mountain of boxes inherited from her grandmother, full of genealogy records, pictures and news clippings, with some nongenealogical stuff thrown in for good measure. A bunch of you chimed in with advice, encouragement and stories that’ll benefit other overwhelmed family...

Last week, Allison fessed up about her so-far-untouched mountain of boxes inherited from her grandmother, full of genealogy records, pictures and news clippings, with some nongenealogical stuff thrown in for good measure.

A bunch of you chimed in with advice, encouragement and stories that’ll benefit other overwhelmed family archivists. The gist of your advice is:

  • Take your time. Baby steps!
  • Sort by family, people or place.
  • Digitize.
  • Archival storage.
  • Share.
  • Consider donating what won’t be kept.

Here are some more details from your suggestions and stories. To read the full comments, go to Allison’s “Organizing Grandma’s Archive” blog post and click Comments at the bottom.

  • Claire suggested making an inventory of the items: “Tackle one box a week. Label the first box 1, the second 2, etc. Go through the contents and list everything in a 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

“At some later date you might relocate everything to a better storage system,” Claire adds, “but at least for now you’ll know the contents of each box.”

  • Joseph Martin would allow more time: “I count 15 boxes in your stack. Give yourself two months to sort and organize one box. In less than three years, you will be done.”
  • Renee advises scheduling small chunks of time (30 to 50 minutes) a few times a week, so things don’t feel 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.”

She also recommends digitizing as you go. “If you re-create the folders and boxes digitally, you’ll always know the exact order they arrived in. 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.”

  • Patti McElligott describes her system of 3-inch binders for each family name, with each family member on a tabbed index sheet. Paper records for each person go inside clear sheet protectors behind his or her tab.

Patti’s tip for labeling photos: “Take a stack, and anytime you are sitting down, write on the back the who, what, where etc. There are pens made for this that will not damage the pictures.”

  • Cheryl Hughes was also left with an archive like Allison’s, but from several different relatives and families. She’s been working on it for 10 years. “I still get boxes, as I am thought of as the ‘picture person’ of all these families,” Cheryl says.

She separated papers from the pictures, and had some of the old photos and tintypes restored and copied. “I am copying all pictures to CDs or SD cards and having prints made to share with other family members … the originals are in safe, acid free boxes, with copies in albums.”

  • Micki Gilmore’s inherited archive is smaller. “I plan to digitize. There are some great scanners out there,” she says, and plans to tackle one box at a time.
  • Diane Hart has been digitizing photos all summer. “The photos are on discs, and then I view them on a slide show on my computer. They look so nice! … From photos I received from my 83-year-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 contact information. Then I drove miles to deliver this to her, and we watched the slideshow. She absolutely loved it! She is the only living child in my Dad’s family of 13.”
  • S. Lantz is using Clooz software to keep track of her archive. “[It] allows you to tag names in your genealogy name list with each item (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.”
  • Juanita Dean uses photo boxes and tabbed dividers to organize her photos by place, then event. “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.”
  • I love Ardith Hale’s words: “The Chinese say you can move a mountain one spoonful at a time.” She advises Allison catalog and digitize, then sort.

“I have been given a huge store of pictures, which we went through with my mother to assign names, then sort 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.”

  • Shasta says “Take your time, think of a plan, and execute it slowly, a little bit at a time … I managed to scan our family photos by doing a few each day, a little extra when I had time.”

If you’re looking for more advice, the January 2011 Family Tree Magazine has Denise Levenick’s (she’s the Family Curator blogger) guide to organizing a family archive like this one.

Feel free to keep sharing your stories about sorting through family collections—we love to hear ’em.

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  1. I think my reaction to the picture of the boxes is a little different from many of your readers. When I see the stack of boxes, I worry about all the family genealogists out there who DON’T have a specific person to continue the genealogy work. Unless you do have someone ready and waiting to take over, it would be a bad idea fill a room with genealogy papers.

    I think two things are important: to give out simple self-printed books or notebooks once in a while that your relatives will always have, and to organize any originals (especially the irreplaceable ones, like pictures, certificates, old letters) VERY well and safely, and have that section of your materials clearly marked and distinguishable. I worry how many families have encountered such a stack of boxes and NEVER done much with them, and eventually let them all go, or went through them quickly to try to pull out what seemed &quot;important&quot;.

    I think we owe it to ourselves and our families to clearly mark what is absolutely irreplaceable vs. what would only be valuable for genealogy addicts (I mean, enthusiasts) like ourselves. I also think it’s wise to tell the family what to do with our numerous books if they’re not wanted.

  2. Live Comment Preview
    In reading other readers’ comments, everyone is saying the same thing. Don’t rush, appreciate what you have received and try not to be overwhelmed by it. Make a plan. Find an organization system that works for you. My own view is to schedule time if your life allows you to do that but don’t fret about it. If you can manage the 30-60 minutes here and there, a few time during the week, you’re still making progress.

    However, I do recommend in investing in some legal pads and writing things down as you do along. Also, write down questions that pop into mind at the time, not later, when you may forget them or get side tracked. The answers may appear as you continue unpacking and then you can cross out the question. Some questions will remain for a long time and some may never be answered.

    Take your time with this gift you have received. Do NOT discard anything ANYTHING (I’m not shouting, just cannot do italics) until you are certain that it should leave your archives. Keep all postcards. They are not frivolous because they place people in specific time and locations. Keep all letters and envelopes. I store mine in chronological order (oldest first; in my case, the oldest is 1858 and all are in another language) according to recipient but you should know that I have only four primary recipients. Keep birthday and holiday cards until/unless you are CERTAIN that they have absolutely no value. You may not know that for several years. If you have folders, bags, boxes large or small or other containers, never assume that something is without value or that the container is empty. Before you discard a cardboard box, carefully examine under the folded pieces on the bottom to make sure nothing slipped underneath. Go through everything, one at a time. Observe. If there are books, leaf through the books, look for bookmarks (but leave in place) and look for notes in margins and elsewhere. Use sticky notes to mark notations you find. I use different colors for each person. An aunt gets one color, a grandfather another, etc. It is very cheerful to look at but also is an immediate visual aid if you are looking for something pertaining to your mother’s father, for example and, say, you have assigned him the color green, then anything with a green sticky note will indicate that the item is connected in some way to your maternal grandfather. If you have calendars with birthdays or anniversaries noted on them as reminders, KEEP the calendar. It will be very useful in confirming or learning about those dates as they apply to relatives (or maybe just family friends). Keep ALL address books; they will place people in specific locations making it easier for you to search local records including tax records, directories and newspapers. Keep all items written in other languages; you may not yet know about any connections but you don’t want to risk discarding something that could be of considerable help later on.

    Remember that many people have nicknames or perhaps diminutives are used instead of the full name. That can tie your brain into knots until you have learned which names apply to which person and if you have two people with different given names but similar nicknames, expect it to frazzle you a bit until you puzzle it out. That is another reason why calendars, letters, postcards, books and address books can be so handy. And speaking of names, remember that over time, the same name might be spelled differently. Anna might have preferred her spelling to be Anne but still pronounced Ann-eh not Anna-ah but the birth record might . . . well, you see.

    Save ALL photos. You do not yet know who is related and who is not although you will be able to distinguish known family friends. Even so, you might wonder who those other people are. Scan the photos and save them and if you have family interested in them, email them around so that the file is off site. Back up periodically and save all previous backups just in case. They take little space so it should not be an issue.

    If you have maps and/or newspaper articles, save them. Maps can be especially helpful because often enough, county or town boundaries were re-drawn over time and what is now in one county may have been in another at one time.

    Do you have family members who are interested in family history? If so, share your findings and encourage them to do some research on their own. Encourage genealogical interest within your own family (spouse and/or children if you’ve got them). Surely there must be the well known story about a parent or relative that has everyone laughing. That is one way to drawn them in.

    Try not to be overwhelmed by what you have received. Take your time and consider this a conversation with your ancestors.

    Keep your artifacts out of direct sunlight and away from heat. Do not store in attic, basement or garage.

    If you can afford it, use archival quality storage. Do not write in ink on the back of photos. Use pencil if you must write on the back of a photo and do not press heavily.

    If you have a camera, take pictures of your collection. As you open each box or container, remove the lid and take a picture of the contents as you find them BEFORE removing any items. It may seem pointless at the time but it could jog your memory later on as you try to recall which item was in what box/container/bag. After you remove the contents of each container, put them all on the table and take a picture of the group of items. You will be amazed at what a big help that can be sometimes. This will be especially helpful for you because your grandmother herself placed things in each container. She had a reason. That’s why taking pictures of the contents could provide clues.

    If you have family Bibles, check front and back for names and dates. Also leaf through them carefully.

    Back to books for a minute. If the books pre-date the 1930s, it is likely that at some point as you leaf through a book you will find a pressed flower. This was more common in the early 20th century and 19th and 18th centuries. The flower might well retain some original color. Perhaps the book was inscribed to or by someone so you know the giver and/or the owner. Observe where the pressed flower was found. It could mean it was placed in that location intentionally –or not. But if you move the flower you will never know. Ditto re bookmarks. Read the facing pages and try to figure out why the bookmark was placed there. Possibly that is where the person stopped reading and just never got back to it or maybe forgot the bookmark was there. Or possibly the text might suggest or reveal a clue.

    Research carefully. Sometimes names run in families but not everyone with the same name is connected. There is no need to rush this and besides, accuracy is vital.

    Genealogy lends itself to full employment of the Fluke Factor (you just never know where or how a clue or amazing connection will come to you). A few years ago I had been searching for other relatives in my paternal family in Europe. I already had quite a bit of information but just felt there was more to it. I kept encountering brick walls (think of them as challenges not obstacles) and I was pressed for time with other things going on in daily life. So, if I was on eternal hold (while being told how important my call was, for example), I would run a quick search. One day the search engine produced yet another set of pages of answers most of which did not apply to me. Still, I scrolled through several pages because you never know. As I scrolled down the third or fourth page, a family name caught my attention. A living descendant! She had commented in a blog to someone else’s comments about her ancestor. There was no doubt. I went to that website and found her entire comment in their blog section. I emailed her (&quot;Hello, Cousin!)&quot; I can tell you that I never would have had that contact but for the Fluke Factor —or maybe it was ancestral guidance. Who is to know with any certainty? The result is that not only did I find her family in North America but also extended family in Europe, with descendants of almost all the siblings of my great grandfather. So you see, you just never know. Even better, all of us are in touch!

    Another commentator expressed concern about what to do with your archives eventually. That is tricky and will require careful consideration over time. I am in the same position and since my archives are extensive (for me, anyway) I am thinking about libraries or other such institutions.

    Eventually you may find other relatives. I can promise you that in this day of email, it is a delight to be able to send a &quot;Hello, Cousin!&quot; email, starting off with how you are related to each other.

    You have an adventure with discoveries on the horizon and maybe some mysteries to be found and maybe solved. Savor it, and thank your grandmother for entrusting her treasures to you.


  3. Since I live in &quot;Tornado Alley&quot; (not to mention frequent wild fires) I keep photo negatives,old photos and documents and other valuables in a safety deposit box. Digitizing photos, documents, etc., whether genealogical or not, provides peace of mind if the cost and trouble of a safely deposit box is prohibitive. Also, this way, you can share your treasures with others and have access to them if something were to happen to your copies. Good Luck!