Help! I’m the Family Archivist!

Part II: Evaluating Your Strategy

By Rachel Smith

As a Family Archivist, you may already know what you’d like to do with your family collection. You might want to find new storage containers, scan photographs, or reorganize documents. But you might not know where or how to begin your project. If you have a large collection, even the idea of beginning to organize it can be discouraging.

While it might not seem like it, you don’t have to go into your project alone! There are resources and people who can help you with your family archive. By assessing which resources you have or need to obtain, you can see how you can complete your project:

  • Time: How much time can you spend per week or month? It might be a single day of the week or several times per month when you work on your project. If you plan on staying home during the upcoming winter and spring months, you can always dedicate more time then.
  • Information: This includes historic and genealogical information which will help you bring out the stories behind your collection. Local archives and historic societies are good resources for filling in details of your family history. Even items already in your family’s archive like diaries and letters can be helpful.
  • Funds: How much money would you like to spend on your project? Archival supplies will do the best job at preserving your collection, but they are usually expensive. There are some archival alternatives, which will be discussed in a later post. If you’d like to digitize your collection, you might need to buy a digital scanner or other equipment.
  • People: While contact with relatives who live outside of your household is not always safe during the pandemic, your family can still share stories, documents, and other information about your ancestors by phone, email, or letters. If you like to use video chat software like Zoom or FaceTime, you can show off photographs or other heirlooms. They’re a good way to get a conversation going!

Once you have an idea of which resources you have, setting a schedule and a deadline will help you stay focused on your project. Your project might already have a set deadline. For example, if you want to create a scrapbook with copies of family photos for your sister’s birthday, your deadline will be the latest day you can send it her so it arrives on time.

If you have a large project, such as organizing seven boxes’ worth of documents and photographs, it can be hard to picture a deadline. But it’s fair to anticipate that projects like scanning your family’s photo collection may take a year or longer. Breaking up larger projects into smaller steps can take some of the stress away and keep you motivated as well.

However, when you set a deadline, it does not have to be permanent. There may be occasions or emergencies in the future where you need to take a break from your family archive. If you’re afraid of losing track of your project, you can adjust your deadline to include some wiggle room. A 2-3 year deadline on a project you think will take 1.5 years to complete is wise, but a 5 year deadline on that same project won’t keep you motivated.

When you’re planning your project, setting up a workflow can help you figure out the necessary steps you need to take. A workflow is a step-by-step cyclical process often used by professional photographers, archivists, data analysts, and other professionals who are used to working with large quantities of objects or data.

Using a workflow process can ensure that you have properly accounted for all of the items in your collection. Rather than try to organize 10,000 photographs all at once, you will process them in batches. Working box by box or envelope by envelope is much easier on your end, and you are less likely to make mistakes when you’re not overwhelmed.

Future blogs in the “Help I’m a Family Archivist!” series will discuss the steps of these processes in greater detail, but here are some samples to give you an idea of what a family archive project can look like. Depending on what you want to do and the state of your collection, you might want to add or take away some of these steps:

  • Sample Organize Your Archive Workflow:
    1. Organize (your collection and figure out what is there)
    2. Categorize (your collection into groups)
    3. Prioritize (which contents require immediate rehousing)
    4. Store (your collection in new containers)
  • Sample Digitize Your Archive Workflow
    1. Capture (using digital technology)
    2. Import (your pictures to your computer)
    3. Rename (your picture files)
    4. Back Up (your files onto a secondary storage device or cloud)
    5. Archive (make an archival copy of your files)
    6. Edit, Export, Share (Optional)

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