Help! I’m the Family Archivist!

Part III: Organizing Your Archive

By Rachel Smith

If your attic or basement is filled with boxes of photographs but you don’t know where to find any of them, organizing and creating an inventory of your collection is a good place to start. This blog entry will teach you how to evaluate the contents of your family collection and organize them into categories. We will be covering Steps 1 & 2 of the “Organize Your Archive Workflow” in this blog today, and Steps 3 & 4 will be covered in the following blogs.

Organize Your Archive Workflow:

  1. Organize
  2. Categorize
  3. Prioritize
  4. Store

As discussed in the previous blog, rather than organize all of the boxes you have all at once, you will be working container by container. But before you begin opening and dumping your Tupperware boxes, you will need to get some supplies and set up a space. You will need the following items:

  • A flat, undisturbed surface
  • Nitrile or cotton gloves
  • Old tablecloth or sheet
  • Pencil
  • Permanent marker
  • Stack of index or filing cards
  • Trash can
  • Camera or Smartphone that can take pictures
  • Something to take notes in: preferably a notepad, notebook, or Excel spreadsheet

You will need a flat surface that your pets or other family members won’t disturb so that you can safely lay out the items in each container. Cover that surface with an old tablecloth or sheet. Wash your hands, then put on the pair of gloves, which will protect your old documents and photographs from the oils on your hands.

You may want to be careful when handling your family’s collection as well, especially if there are some fragile items. It’s best practice to handle each photograph, album, and document one at a time with both hands so that you have greater control when holding them. If you want to handle a large item like a scrapbook or photograph album, support the base and spine. When viewing albums, use beanbags or other soft, weighted items for the album covers to rest on.

STEP 1: Organize

Having gathered all of your supplies, use your permanent marker to label the outside of each container or envelope that you want to organize. Start with the number “1” and work your way upwards. Take four index cards and write the numbers 1-4 on them. Lay them out in a row on your designated surface.

Since you are working box by box, begin with the container with the number 1 on it, and leave the rest for later. In your notebook or spreadsheet, create or use a new page and label it as “Container/Box/Envelope #1,” depending on what it is.

Open up the container and take a photograph of the interior as is. Take out the top layer of items inside (approximately 3”-4” worth of stuff) and place them under the index card labeled “1”. Return to the container and take a photograph of what the interior looks like now so that you can remember how this new layer is organized

Take out another layer of stuff and put it under the index card labeled “2”. You will repeat this process with the other layers until you’ve emptied the container. If you have more than 4 layers in the box, create more index cards.

Return to your inventory sheet. Dedicate a line per layer to describe in a general sense what’s in them, starting with Layer #1. Maybe it’s photographs from the 1930s and 1940s, or a collection of newspaper clippings of wedding announcements. But it’s very important at this point to not organize items or move things between layers yet. One of the principles that archivists uphold is to try to preserve the original order of collections as they are found. You might get lucky and find a container that is organized by decade or family line. Otherwise, you might find a box that seems like a bunch of items were shoved inside of it. However, what might seem random at first may have been your relative’s way to organize things! But at this point, until you have a wider scope of what is in your family archive, it is better to hold off on organizing your collection until the next step.

Once you have described the contents in each layer, repack them into the box, starting with the lowest number and work your way up to Layer #1. Depending on the condition of the original container, you may want to throw it away right now and temporarily store your items in a clean box until you’ve acquired your storage supplies. Then repeat the process with Container #2!

STEP 2: Categorize

After you have finished taking an inventory of all of your containers, you can decide whether you want to keep their contents in the order you found them, or whether you want to group them into different categories.

You might want to organize items by:

  • Decade (ex. 1890s, 1900s)
  • Family line
  • Family member
  • Type of document (ex. birth certificates, genealogical charts and materials)
  • Type of photograph (tintypes, cabinet cards, snapshots)

You might also want to do a combination of categories as well. For example, you could store together all of the albums you have of the Smith family from the 1950s – 1960s.

While reorganizing your items into categories, it is very important to write down what those categories are in your inventory! Within each category itself, take notes about the size and estimated quantity (so that you can get a storage container of the appropriate size), types of photographs or documents, dates, subjects, and their general condition.

As you are going through your family’s archive, you may be coming across some items that you wonder if you should hold onto. Deciding whether or not to dispose of something is a process you don’t want to rush through. It can even be difficult for yourself and your relatives.

If you do decide that you are going to give some heirlooms or photographs to other family members, be considerate and respectful as you go through the process. Your relatives may have special relationships with the objects and the people who once owned them!

Donating some items to a local history museum, archive, historic society, or other organization may also be a possibility. There will be another blog in this series about how to prepare your items for donation and find a new institution.

However, there are some general guidelines for items that you can dispose of and ones you will want to hold onto!

Photographs are one-of-a-kind primary sources that should be retained. However, photographs which are blurry or out of focus, snapshots of unidentified, anonymous landscapes, and duplicate copies are fine to dispose. You may want to send duplicate copies of photographs to other relatives rather than throwing them away.

Loose newspaper clippings are items that you will want to photocopy first, then recycle later. Newsprint is notoriously difficult to conserve and has a very short lifespan. You may find some of your clippings are yellowed and even brittle to the touch. Since most newsprint is made out of inexpensive wood pulp, the paper is very acidic and will leech acid onto other items in your family archive. Make photocopies or scan loose clippings before recycling them, then store the copies in a secure location with your family archive.

One of a kind documents like birth, marriage and death certificates; diplomas; diaries; letters; deeds and titles; and military records are ones that you will want to retain! These primary source documents contain valuable information and are often irreplaceable.

Miscellaneous documents like club and church newsletters, travel itineraries, receipts, bank balances, and medical records are items you may or may not want to keep. If you decide that you want to dispose of them, copy down the relevant information inside of them first. If you have newsletters from clubs or churches that you don’t want to hold onto, you may want to contact those organizations first and see if they are interested in receiving them.

Crumbling rubber bands and rusting paperclips should be disposed of immediately! They will only continue to harm your collection if they are left as is. If you need a temporary storage container for items formerly held together by a rubber band or paperclip, put them inside of an envelope of a suitable size. 

Family Archivist Series

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