Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Organizing Family Papers and Photos

For many people, January and February are the months they spend the most time at home. The cold and snowy weather discourages them from venturing outside, or they feel like they need time to decompress from the excitement and stress of the winter holidays. With the recent increase in COVID cases, many people find comfort and safety in just staying home. If you're spending more time at home these days, this might be a good time to focus on organizing your family papers and photos. Like genealogy research, organizing your family papers will help you connect to your personal and local history, build relationships with your relatives and friends, and strengthen your memories. Here are some tips and resources to help you organize your family's papers and photo collections:

 Basic rules for organizing family archives:

  • Do what you can at your own pace. It's better to go slowly and give yourself time, especially if you're working with materials that bring up a lot of emotions or memories.
  • Don't be overwhelmed by the idea of doing it 'exactly right.'
  • Practice safe handling and incorporate good preservation practices into your process.
  • Label as much as you can, especially on the outside of enclosures (e.g. folders and boxes). Try to answer the five W questions (who, what, where, when, and why). Putting this information on a label will make it easier to organize your collection and reduce the amount of handling you'll need to do in the future.

Practice good personal records management for the paper you are creating or collecting today:

The day-to-day business of living generates a lot of paper: receipts, pamphlets, bills, napkins, free mailing labels, shopping lists, and scraps of reminders (just to name a few). Some of these things need to be saved for a specific period of time (e.g. tax returns) and some of these things should be saved indefinitely (e.g. wills and birth certificates). Most of the paper you create and collect should be discarded, but when you're busy and focused on living your life, it's easy to let it all accumulate and mix together. One of the best things you can do for yourself and the future generations who might inherit your papers is to set aside some time regularly (e.g. every month) to sort your papers, discard what is ready to be discarded, and file what needs to be saved. Labeling and filing what you need or want to keep will make it easier to figure out what should be kept indefinitely or passed on to future generations.

Figure out what's important to keep:

There's lots of information online about what people should keep and for how long, but a lot of this advice focuses on the practical or current use of personal papers. Tax returns, for example, should be saved for several years in case you are audited or you need to amend a past return. Receipts should be saved so you can reconcile your financial statements, return items, or make claims against a warranty. However, when thinking about your papers from a historical perspective, the value or reason for keeping something may change and no longer fit the original or practical purpose. Not everything is meant to be kept indefinitely, and the reasons for keeping something may be unique to you and your family!

What to save indefinitely as part of your family archives varies from person to person and family to family, but there are a few ways to help you determine what's best for your collection. First, ask yourself:

  • How much space do I have to store the collection properly? 
  • How much money do I have to invest in archival storage boxes or folders? 
  • How much time do I have to spend organizing and labeling the collection? 
  • How much energy do I have to spend organizing and labeling the collection?
  • Who is going to help organize or take care of this collection? 
  • What will happen to the collection when I can no longer care for it?
  • What resources do I have to save the content of something if the condition is deteriorating quickly? For example, newspapers deteriorate quickly and can harm the papers stored with them. Photocopying or scanning can help you save the information in a newspaper article or obituary and allow you to discard the damaged original.

The answers to these questions will help you determine how large your collection can be and which materials you should prioritize. It's alright if you can't keep something! 

There are some types of papers that are almost universally considered important enough to keep indefinitely, even if their practical purpose no longer exists:

  • Vital records: birth, adoption, death, marriage, and divorce certificates/records
  • Photos and home videos or recordings
  • Heirlooms and the documents that explain where they came from and how you inherited them
  • Land and building records: deeds, architectural drawings
  • Letters and diaries
  • Military records: enlistment cards, discharge papers, service awards

For other types of papers, consider these questions when trying to figure out whether to keep them indefinitely:

  • What does this document tell me about the person who created it? Does it help to make the person more real or relatable?
  • What does this document tell me about the time period it was created in? Is it an example of how everyday people experienced a significant historical event?
  • Is the information in this document unique or can I find it in some other part of the collection?
  • How does this document relate to other materials in the collection? Does it provide information that will make other documents easier to understand?
  • Is this something I care strongly about or that other people care strongly about? Ask your relatives and friends!
  • Is the item in good condition? Does it require special handling or preservation? Can the information be saved in another format that's easier to care for?

Keep like with like:

  • Find natural groups -- by type (e.g. all of the photos together), by topic (e.g. all of the family vacation photos and documents), by creator (e.g. all the letters/diaries/documents created by your grandmother), by date (e.g. everything created in 1995 together).
  • Keep existing groups together when possible -- e.g. one of your ancestors may have already organized a portion of the collection (e.g. a scrapbook). Their work may help you with figuring out how to organize new additions or give you insight into what they knew about the family history and how they thought about what to keep.
  • There will be groups within groups -- e.g. the folders for family vacations may include a folder or two just for photos.
  • Organize with preservation in mind -- some materials are more sensitive, deteriorate more quickly, or require special handling. You may want to organize these into their own boxes or folders, even if they connect with another group, so that they can be handled more carefully.
  • Ultimately, there is no 'exactly right' way to organize your collection -- some materials will fit into multiple categories. Do what makes sense to you and fits within your capabilities.
  • Don't forget about your digital files! You can organize these using similar systems or criteria you use for analog materials.

Further reading:

Preservation Resources for Paper and Photo Collections

Resources for Preserving Digital Family Archives

How to Organize Your Family Keepsakes and Collections by Denise May Levenick

Organize Old Family Photos with the Parking Lot System by Denise May Levenick

When to Keep and When to Throw Away Important Documents by Elizabeth Larkin

How Long to Keep Tax Records and Other Documents by Consumer Reports

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