The 2020 Ultimate Guide to Archiving Family Papers
Updated: Jul 9
Have you been thinking about getting your childhood photographs scanned or those VHS home videos in the attic digitized? Maybe you’d like to organize that box of your grandparents’ correspondence or are in the process of moving and aren’t sure if you can bring all of your family’s memories that you’ve accumulated over the years.
Like most people, it is hard to know what of your family’s “archives” to digitize, what to hold onto, what to get rid of, and more importantly, or even how to get started doing any of these things.
If you have been thinking about preserving your family’s precious documents and need a little guidance on how to get started, this guide is for you!
Like most people, going through family documents may bring back a lot of memories. Oftentimes, going through the collection of your family’s belongings may come at a time of great stress, sorrow, or otherwise difficult emotional period, making the task all the more challenging.
Whatever the circumstances may be, the ultimate purpose of this guide is to help you understand the practical aspects of the task. I always recommend taking a break if it becomes too difficult. Taking your time, or including other family members when deciding what to do with the physical collection, is key.
Before we get started, there are a few special terms and concepts that will be discussed in the guide. Don’t worry, the goal is to make this as straightforward as possible, so I hope that a little explanation of the terminology won’t slow things down!
The terms papers, records, and collection are used interchangeably when referring to the entirety of the physical materials of your family’s history. Your family’s papers may include letters, photographs, 8mm film, slides, audio cassettes, scrapbooks, computer files, recipes, class rings, sketchbooks, or any number of other physical things that have been kept over the years.
Maybe your entire family history is contained in one photo album. Maybe it is a combination of military badges, letters, and photographs. Virtually any combination of things is possible. When considered in its entirety, these are referred to as your family’s papers, records, or collection.
We will also discuss digitizing, scanning, and at-risk materials. To digitize, or scan, means to make a digital version of a physical item. Most of the time, we think about digitizing or scanning photographs, but you can also scan paper documents, digitize an audio or videocassette, or even photograph an object. At-risk refers to any item that may be in danger of becoming unreadable, unusable, or disintegrate over time. This can refer to physical media like paper and photographs, as well as computer devices and digital files.
Once you read through these key tips for tacking an archiving project, be sure to download the free Preservation Guide to learn how to do the actual archiving.
Six tips to start archiving your family papers
1. Identify the “extent” of your family history materials
The first step in determining how to proceed with your collection of family history materials is to get a grasp of the “extent” of the physical materials. Extent simply refers to the quantity, or the physical dimensions, of your family’s papers. It could just be three scrapbooks. Or maybe it’s a computer hard-drive, a box of memorabilia, and a diary. It very well may be a more complicated combination of things, but before you begin to go through items one-by-one, you absolutely must first determine how many boxes or albums of photographs you have.
An important part of step one is to have a notebook and pencil handy. You will want to write down information about the extent of your family history collection, box-by-box. Since you will likely have boxes in different places in your home, having notes will help you remember what is in each box, and where that box is. Ideally, you will be able to designate a convenient space to arrange all of the boxes together. Even if that is the case, these notes come in handy.
Once you are armed with your notebook and pen, open up each and every box to see what is in it. This is the time to determine whether or not anything is wet, moldy, contaminated or infested. Old boxes in attics and basements often get visits from bugs and mice, so keep a pair of gloves handy. If you do find that boxes have been compromised in any way, jump ahead to the next section (Discovering “at-risk” materials) to figure out what to do.
If you're tackling materials in your computer, a good first step in this case is to figure out what file-types and how many gigabytes of material are on that computer hard-drive before you start opening up files to see what’s inside. If you don’t think of yourself as a particularly tech-savvy person, it is a good idea to ask someone who is, either a professional or someone you trust, to help you determine the extent of your family’s records that are on the computer. It can get a little tricky, and it is always a good idea to take extra care and extra time to make sure you know what you are doing, especially with computers and computer files.
Remember, the extent of your family history may be a combination of different kinds of materials that may be located in different places in your attic or basement, apartment, storage unit, or any combination of these places.
2. Discover potentially "at-risk" materials
Once you have determined the extent of your family papers, you will know how much and what kinds of materials you have. As you start to go through each box, investigate each and every document or folder. This is how you will determine possible physical issues with any of the materials.
Water damage is very common and poses a great risk to most materials. If you find that anything is water damaged or moldy, you should separate those materials to contain the spread of moisture and mold. Let them dry out on their own by laying out each photograph, piece of paper, or other material one-by-one.
If you find evidence of insect or pest damage, investigate the area of damage to determine whether or not any live pests or eggs still remain in the box or area where the affected documents were housed. ("House" is the term archivists use for where an item is stored.)
Carefully remove all damaged documents, one-by-one, and rehouse them in a clean, new box, separate from all other records. If the original box contains live pests or eggs, contact your local pest control to determine what steps to take.
Essentially, the goal with at-risk materials is to contain the spread of any kind of contaminant or pest, and separate and stabilize all affected materials. Take notes on which records were damaged and what kind of damage they have suffered. You will later use the notes on the condition of these items to determine how to prioritize the preservation of your family history materials.
3. Locate a safe place to store your family papers
Depending on what kinds of materials you have in your collection, it is important to do a little research about how to best preserve them. For example, photographs are best kept in mylar sleeves, paper is best kept in acid free folders and boxes, and VHS tapes are best kept in archival boxes stored vertically. Explore the options at your local office supply store, or if you are prepared to invest in archival quality storage materials, visit the archival industry standard supply store: Gaylord Archival. You can find virtually every kind of folder, box, or other storage material here.
Generally speaking, the most important storage considerations are to keep your collection in a dark, dry, cool room with as little temperature and humidity fluctuation as possible. Keeping items from any kind of moisture is key.
Even in professional settings, archives are almost always stored in the attic or the basement, susceptible to the dangers of the outside world (did I mention water?). Consider keeping your materials somewhat elevated for protection in the event of a flood, and think about keeping them away from potentially leaky ceilings or pipes. Think outside the box on this issue, with an eye to keeping moisture and light away from your family’s papers.
4. Ask yourself, "what is the ultimate goal?"
Now that you have a clear picture of the physical contents of your family history and their condition, it is important to take a step back and ask yourself a few questions:
How much work you are willing to commit to the preservation of your family history?
How much time you have to realistically commit to the task?
What do you want you want to get out of this process?
It is very important to think carefully about what is most important to you before moving forward. Maybe you have family members who would like to weigh-in on the decision. Maybe you have family members who would like access to these records (whether they be the originals or digitized version). Maybe you would even like to make this collection available to family members who don’t yet exist!
Whatever your desired goal, it is important to be very clear about it before coming up with a plan of action. The goal determines what you will do with your collection. Knowing that at the start will save you time, money, and energy.
5. To give, sell, or toss
If your decision is that you don't want to keep your collection, the question becomes what to do with it.
Determining value: You may have found something you think is valuable. Do a quick internet search to see what kind of market there is for your item(s). Another option is to meet with an appraiser and understand both the possible value of the item and steps involved in selling it. Here in Philadelphia, two resources that may be able to help you are Kamelot Auctions or Freeman's.
Checking with family: How does your family feel about the family history collection? Is there a family historian who wants it, or does no one have the space for these items? If someone wants them and can take good care of them, terrific! If not, consider local historical institutions.
Donation: It is possible that your family’s papers might be of some value to a local historical society, museum, or other institution. If you feel as though the family papers provide important historical account of a particular locale AND you and your family aren’t interested in keeping and caring for the documents, there may be a chance that an institution would take on the responsibility of preserving your family’s papers. Keep in mind that if you decide to take this route, an institution that is willing to take your donation will likely want all of the records and generally have no budget for purchasing them from you.
Trash: As you open boxes and look through your collection, you will likely find things that can be thrown away. It's amazing how much stuff creeps into these boxes that aren't really part of family history. From items damaged beyond repair to unrelated junk, you will probably be able to cull your materials at least a little.
6. Come up with a work plan to preserve your family papers
By now you will know the following about your collection:
How much material you have.
What kinds of material you have.
Whether anything is damaged.
What your ultimate goals are with your collection.
Whether you plan to organize and rehouse the materials.
Where the collection is headed.
You may not have a lot to show for it, but knowing all this is the hardest part of personal archiving projects. The next phase, the actual preservation, is in many ways much easier.
Congratulations on getting this far!
Preserving these records for your individual and collective family happiness is a tremendous gift. It will help to remember loved ones, to ensure that the next generations of your family understand where they come from, and inspire them to continue to care for the very same records that you are in the process of caring for right now.
Download the free Preservation Guide to help you as you tackle the next step.
In the meanwhile, if you would like to know more about any aspect of the topics discussed here, below are some terrific resources to complement your learning.
There is an enormous amount of information about family history, archiving, and digital preservation available on the internet and in printed form, so the sky is the limit!
Library of Congress – How to Begin a Personal Archiving Project
National Archives – How to Preserve Family Archives (papers and photographs)
Library of Congress – Collections Care
Northeast Document Conservation Center – Preservation Leaflets
International Association of Audiovisual and Sound Archives – Publications
A few words on digitizing your materials
You may have considered digitizing some or all of your family papers, but are not sure how or are overwhelmed by the workload. It can be a fairly time consuming task, depending on how much material you want to digitize.
From an archival standpoint, when you digitize something, you should always hold onto the original. Contrary to popular belief, the original media is likely going to outlive the digitized version. Reason being, the digitized version is going to be a computer file and all computer files are reliant entirely on the stability of the storage drive where that file is being stored. Unlike the original, which may slowly deteriorate over time, the computer file can disappear from one day to the next if it is not backed up properly. This means that when you digitize your family papers, or have "born-digital" materials (meaning they started out as a digital file like a photo you took with your phone) in your collection, you must be diligent about storage.
In addition to keeping the originals, you should back-up your computer to an external hard drive AND to a cloud storage service. You should also consider keeping a copy of the external hard drive somewhere outside your house, like in a safety deposit box.
I recommend that you dedicate an entire storage device to your family papers, making sure that you have more than enough space on that device to store the digital files you are about to create. Like with scrapbooks, you will want to leave plenty of room for growth because your family history is being written at this very moment, not to mention all of the memories that are yet to come!
You may also be wondering if it matters how to name the files that get scanned into the computer. That is up to you but here's a quick summary of how to label your photos.
Before getting started, you have to decide whether you would like to do the digitizing yourself or if you would like for someone else to do it. Perhaps you have a family member who would be excited to help you, or maybe you would rather have a professional service ensure that it is done at the highest level. Again, you will need to consider how much material you would like digitized, how long it will take, and how much you are willing and able to pay for the service.
Long-term preservation vs. permanent preservation
As you might have gathered in the previous section, the longevity of your family papers are dependent on your effort to preserve them. Whatever form the materials may take (e.g. photographs, paper, computer files), it's your effort that keeps these objects away from moisture and light. It's your time that goes toward regularly migrating and backing up computer files to different storage devices. It's these actions that will ensure their continued existence as best as possible.
Professional archivists understand that it is best to think about preserving cherished historical documents from the standpoint that nothing is permanent. Archivists continually learn about how best to ensure the long-term existence of these records, and to think as far ahead as possible with regard to their continued existence.
If you are thinking about whether to archive your family collection, I'd love to work with you. Ensuring these documents are stored properly is critical in preserving family history.
Regardless of whether you have already started organizing and archiving your materials, please give me a call at 215-645-7766 or email me here to talk about how we can work together to get your family papers archived.