When thinking about a personal or family history project, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. Where do you start? What do you do? Professional archivists like myself often feel similarly! To conquer this feeling, I’ve collected guidelines about how to kick off a family history project.
Gather everything together. Bring out the boxes, bins, and bags filled with your memories. Find a spot where you can spread out your work, like a dining room table. You’ll want to see the breadth of what you own so you can begin to make choices.
Look for groups with a unifying theme, such as your grandmother’s scrapbooks, letters between your parents, or photographs you took in college. Archivists evaluate materials in groups because they provide more context than individual items. A record’s value lies in being part of a larger body of materials.
Evaluate and select the materials to keep. Archivists call this activity appraisal, and it ensures that you keep only significant materials. Consider the following:
Cherished artifacts should become part of your archives. They hold sentimental, personal, or historical value. Some items, such as love letters, are held close to the heart. Others, like business records, contain information about an individual’s or group’s transactions. Types of family records to preserve include:
Scan newsletters for family news, clip the articles, and throw away the rest. Sort through bills, receipts, canceled checks, bank statements, and check registers. You may wish to keep items documenting heirloom purchases or cost-of-living expenses, but the rest may be thrown away.
Look for birthdays, anniversaries, and other events on calendars; once noted, throw them away unless they’re informative about your ancestors’ lives.
Toss random newspaper and magazine clippings, old paperwork, brochures, and flyers. Throw away blurry, insignificant, or poorly framed photographs.
You may find items that you no longer want. Feel guiltless about letting them go; they may bring joy to someone else. You may decide to sell items or give them to relatives. You may wish to contact a local or consulting archivist to determine if your collections belong in an archival repository.
When a collection is sentimental, divide it among your relatives to share good memories. However, keep a collection intact when it’s collectable or holds historical or artistic values. These values may be reduced if you separate the objects.
If you’re unsure what to keep, revisit the materials later. Be gentle with yourself. If necessary, keep sensitive heirlooms stored until you’re ready to decide.
When you’ve finished grouping and appraising your materials, you’re left with a collection of the most significant artifacts. You’ve distinguished the records of continuing value to your family to preserve for your loved ones. You may then think about organizing them further, creating an inventory, or storing them properly.
Who created the materials? Is there a system to how they’re organized? Are their labels? Are they accurate? What type of records are they? What’s their physical condition? What are their date ranges? Are the collections complete, or are parts missing?
When you rehouse your items into archival-quality enclosures and containers, what folders and boxes will you need? How much? What sizes? Are special containers required? Gaylord published several resources to aid you in choosing proper archival supplies.
As we age, we hope that others will remember us for something we accomplished during our lifetimes. It doesn’t have to be profound, but it should be meaningful to those closest to us. If you choose to create family archives, you’ll feel the peace of mind that comes with knowing that you’ve preserved what’s important for future generations.
Check out Creating Family Archives: A Step-by-Step Guide for Saving Your Memories for Future Generations, written by Margot Note and published by the Society for American Archivists, available at Gaylord.com: