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Organizing / Triage
For photos and documents, remember the ABCs:
A: Your favorites which you definitely want saved, scanned, and shared.
B: The ones you want to keep but aren't your favorites.
C: The ones to throw away (duplicates, damaged beyond repair, unrecognizable, no sentimental value).
S: The ones that tell stories.
Before you get started, make sure you gather everything together, prepare a space to work, and get some basic supplies.
Labeling: There is no perfect method to labeling, only what works for you. As long as you pick one system and stick with it, that is already a big step forward. The two main methods are chronological (i.e. everything up until the kids left for college) and thematic (i.e. our vacations, everything from the Jones side of the family vs. the Smith side, and so on).
For folder and file names, I like "Last name, first name, date, occasion" (i.e. Jones, Elizabeth, 1942, graduation). If you have two people with the same name, just add their birth year.
Not up to scanning things yourself? Or have items (slides, film, tapes) that you can't scan?
For Philadelphians: The PhotoLounge on the 17th Street between Walnut & Sansom does all sorts of digitizing (VHS tapes, cassette tapes, photos, slides, negatives, etc.) They will give you a 20% discount if you tell them I sent you. The code for the discount is "clemencescouten". They also have a very convenient drop-off and pick-up delivery service.
Not in Philadelphia? There are local specialty stores that do scanning so you may want to check around your area. Or, consider Forever.com which has convenient, pre-paid boxes that you fill with your items and FedEx to Forever (here in the U.S.). Forever's scanning services are very convenient and efficient.
For those of you with reels of 8mm film lying around (or other outdated reels) try Pro8mm. They specialize in this kind of film and have been in business for close to 50 years.
There is an enormous amount of information on the internet. A good place to start is here with my beginners guide to archiving. If you want more information, the Library of Congress has terrific guides to download as well.
Pro tip: Archival storage materials are expensive. Make sure not to skip the triage steps above as you may not want to spend the money to scan or store your entire family history collection.
Archiving basics: Avoid glues, tapes, lamination. Remove items that damage other items, such as paper clips, staples, and newspaper clippings. Unfold items like correspondence when you can.
Storage: For physical materials, avoid damp places with no climate control such as attics, basements, and garages. For digital items keep several distinct copies to serve as back up. For example, you can keep one copy on your computer, one on your external hard drive, and one in the cloud.
There are many could services like iCloud, Google Photos, Amazon Photos, Dropbox, etc. They are all good at different things and in different ways.
My favorite is Forever.com. They are unique in providing permanent storage for a flat fee. They are obsessed with customer service and helping people preserve their photos/documents—it's all they do. There are also built in photobook-making, printing capabilities, and many other services available.
Hiring a professional:
Costs anywhere from $40 to $150/hr.
You can find one at The Association of Professional Genealogists, or by calling your local historical society (most offer this service at a reasonable fee, plus you're supporting a local institution).
I've worked with some very good genealogists including:
Denys Allen, who specializes in Pennsylvania research and has terrific podcasts on all sorts of subjects.
Renée Carl, who specializes in Jewish research.
Lynn Nelson, who specializes in Italian research.
If you plan to do genealogy research yourself remember to always check the privacy settings (if you care about this sort of thing) before you get started. The big four in the world of genealogy are:
Ancestry.com: They have about 25 billion records to sift through. Their fees range about $190-$390 annually, though monthly options are available. They also sell DNA tests.
Family Search: This is the only totally free service with such a big data set (7.25 billion records). They do not do DNA testing. You will need to sign up in order to use their service but no credit card is required.
Find My Past: This organization focuses on records of the UK, Australia, New Zealand, US, and Canada. Their annual fees range from about $130-$180 annually.
My Heritage: Here you will find a hybrid model where you can set up a tree for free but the ability to search documents is limited unless you are a paid subscriber. My Heritage has a specific focus on European records and Jewish records.
Don't forget the specialty sites! There are hundreds if not thousands of small websites with very local, specific data. Google is your friend here: don't be afraid to use it to search for your area of interest.
Now that you have organized and scanned your materials, and done a little research, you are in a perfect place to tie that all in with your stories.
Getting your stories and/or your family stories down on paper is a no small task. But it is the best way to preserve your family history and cement your legacy. Many life experiences are universal. Knowing how our parents, grandparents, and so on faced life's ups and downs creates the unifying connection that defines family.
Lots of people get sidetracked or discouraged because of these three myths. Don't let the false impression that writing your memoirs or your family history is some kind of ego trip. It's not! If any part of you is worried about that, please read my short blog post about that and the other myths which keep people from engaging in this task.
What kind of book should you work on? You have a lot of choices. You can:
Write a comprehensive memoir about your life
Write just about a specific point in time (i.e. my years in the Navy)
Write about your family history
Write about just one person in your family
Create a book of correspondence, recipes, traditions, or family trips
I know the idea of writing your memoir can seem daunting. If you need a place to start and useful tips for how to tackle such a project, try reading my Memoir Guide.
As far as printing your book goes, the online on-demand printers I use are:
I wish you the very best of luck as you take on the incredibly meaningful work to preserve you and your family's legacy. If you hit any bumps in the road, please don't hesitate to call 215-645-7766 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.