There are few things as overwhelming as the task of organizing and preserving all of your family history "stuff". As such, we wanted to put together a quick guide of Five Easy Steps to getting the job done...
Step 1: Get It All Out There
That's right. It may take over a room or potentially multiple rooms in your house, but you need to get everything out there in one place. The photos, the papers, the Bibles and yearbooks, the trinkets and keepsakes. One key note: If things are put in specific envelopes or boxes or folders, keep them just as they are at first.
While a small percentage of these "boxes" come without any organization, most seem to have some semblance of method. For instance, if you find three sets of photos in three different envelopes, they are likely that way for a reason. So the first step is to observe the contents of each one. Look at the dates, the places, and any writing and try to see what the meaning of the envelopes was.
In most cases, you'll likely encounter a code/system that is either half complete or simply got totally thrown in to chaos that one time the grandkids rifled through the photos. However the point remains: Look for a system and if you can decipher any of it, use that as your initial clues. Now hit "Next Page" to go to Step 2...
Step 2: Take Notes, Organize by Type, and then Scan
In the photo above, you'll see most of the non-small-photo items grouped in to "types" of things. From here, you can take notes (ideally in an online document that can be shared with family members) on the types of things you have, the years, any notes, etc. If you need help on figuring out dates of old photos, check out our story on How to Date Old Photos and How to Identify Mystery People in Family Photos
Next, we suggest you purchase a fairly sturdy scanner and then scan in anything and everything possible to backup all the photos and documents. You can get some good ideas for the best scanners at different price ranges here: Best Scanners for Old Family Photos.
Step 3: Pick Your Boxes, But Do it Carefully
This is the single most important step in the process: Picking out the right type of boxes and folders to place your now-organized stuff. Let's start with one very clear rule: All boxes are not the same, and there are very definitely some bad ones. While it may be cheap and easy to build out a bunch of bankers boxes, these will not appropriately preserve your valuable family treasures. Let's start with a few good resources to illustrate your decision, then we'll make our own recommendations.
- The Society of California Archivists. They have downloadable information on everything from preserving family paper and photographs to doing oral history. Check them out at http://www.calarchivists.org/Publications/Preserving_Your_History
- The American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works at Stanford University. They present guides in a section called “Caring for Your Treasures”. Guides include caring for and storing photographs, paper documents, videotapes, textiles, etc.
- Brodart, one of the commercial manufacturers and sellers of archival supplies, has a very good and concise set of hints for archiving paper, books and photos.
Now, here are our favorite archive boxes, all of which are available on Amazon:
- Gaylord Archival Boxes: These are our favorite boxes for documents.
- Pioneer Photo Storage: When it comes to photos, we've found these to be our most reliable boxes, especially when you use the included dividers and envelopes
- Logan Slide Boxes: Have tons of slides you'd like to protect - these do a great job!
- SentrySafe Fire Proof Box: For the really rare/valuable things, we recommend using one of the above products, and then putting them inside one of these!
Step 4: Pick WHERE You're Going to Put the Stuff
Now that we've preserved and organized, we need to be sure we put our boxes and bins in places where they are risk for as little damage ass possible. Here are the general rules to follow:
- Avoid both the attic and the basement
- Avoid closets or cabinets that have adjacent plumbing or sprinkler systems
- Avoid unheated garages or sheds
So what does that leave? Certain closets, cabinets, bookshelves, chests, dressers, under beds, or even safety deposit boxes at the bank. The main thing to remember is just to think about the worst case scenario wherever you store the stuff.
Great Local and Family History Resources