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  • Clémence R. Scouten

Top 5 family history artifacts collecting dust in the attic (and what to do with them)

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

“How did I end up with so much stuff? I'm not even sure what it all is!”

It’s the stuff we can’t get rid of. We love it. We hate it.

It’s the hard copy of our memories, it’s the trigger for more memories, it’s what reminds us of who we knew, who we loved, and where we’ve been.

And we all have it. I can’t tell you how family history stuff accumulates so quickly, but it’s there… lurking in attics, basements, closets, the garage, and anywhere else you store things.

So what do you think are the top five things in people’s attic are? Here's a list based on what I've seen with clients, friends, and myself!

(As you read this, you may find you want to properly archive materials you own. Be sure to check out my free archiving guide for all you need to know to do this right.)

#1: Family History Photos

Everyone has photos of family members they don't know!

Photos are the most common family history element I see in people’s homes. Everyone has them (and negatives, framed photos, photos in broken frames, slides, slide projectors, film of all sizes, and on and on.) The good news is, you’re not alone!

And don’t think the advent of the cell phone has changed anything. In fact, there are more print photos than ever. It’s estimated that about 38 billion print photos were produced worldwide in 2017. Thirty-eight billion!

The question is, what are you going to do with your family photos?

It does take time and patience to organize and preserve this important part of your family history collection. But it doesn’t have to be painful or frustrating. Family history can truly be fun, easy and meaningful.

The best way to tackle a photo organization project is to adopt a simple process and stick to it. If you care about these photos, and you want to be able to save and share them, finding the right process is key.

For some quick tips, try this article on how to label (name) photos and how to approach organizing photos.

#2: Souvenirs and ephemera

A close second are souvenirs and ephemera. Everyone has these too: little trinkets brought back from vacation, invitations, old menus, wedding/birth announcements, holiday cards, program books, paper clippings… you name it.

The common thread, and problem, with this category is that these are items were not made to last. A good example is newspaper clippings. I can’t count the number of people I meet who cling to a newspaper clipping like it was a valuable object.

Old newspapers are part of family archives.
A paper my mom saved by having it laminated. It's lasted since 1918, but the plastic laminate is deteriorating.

Newspaper paper is not durable. Not only that, its high acid content will actually damage other paper it touches. It’s also coveted building material for mouse nests, so the less of it you have the better!

Objects in this category are prime candidates for being photographed (objects), scanned (clippings, papers) and then thrown out. Most of these objects will not stand the test of time, so you are actually keeping something for no good outcome. If you love it, preserve it. If you don’t… toss it!

#3: Diaries, journals, letters

Diaries, journals, and letters can add real depth and meaning to any family history collection. The record of events they provide is completely unique to the author. It’s their voice and their life.

Diaries and letters are part of family history archives.

Some parts may be more interesting than others because they contain the mundane as well as the unusual. It’s more useful to look at diaries, journals, and letters as a window into the whole life of an ancestor.

Where and when did they travel? What did they see? How did it impact them? You may have to read a little while before you find some worthwhile information, but if you like to read, these can be great way to get to know an ancestor.

If you find a batch that are particularly interesting or reflect a special person, time, or place, consider scanning them. This is the first step in preserving those materials and stories. Once scanned, you can share this part of your family history with family members who may be interested.

#4: Diplomas, report cards, coursework, and trophies

We put so much work (and money) into our education, it seems normal to have something to show for it. But if that's the case, what’s it all doing in the attic?

I’ll admit I wasn’t the most dedicated student. But I have my college report cards. My mom kept my grade school report cards. I also have my diplomas, and some notebooks and homework assignments. They’re all in the basement, never seeing the light of day.

Oh, and my master’s thesis. No way I’m getting rid of that even though I haven’t read it since I handed it in twenty-plus years ago!

Depending where you are in life, you may need to keep originals of these materials. But if you’re trying to trim down the number of storage boxes you have, most of this stuff can be scanned and tossed.

As far as trophies go, that’s a photo waiting to happen. Trophies take up an enormous amount of room (and they’re hard to dust). A good photo of your win, accompanied by the story that goes with it, is a much better way to keep that memory alive, and make it part of your family history.

Or, use them as decoration. I put my only trophy on the top shelf along with other knick knacks I'm attached to.

Family history artifacts can serve as decoration
Diaries and letters are part of family history archives.

#5: Family artwork (of no value, kiddie, teen and older)

Last in the list of family things we keep is family artwork. This can range from kindergarten finger painting to the formal portrait of great-aunt Paige, a lovely woman who no one alive today actually ever met.

My recommendation here is the same as with items in the other categories. Artwork can be scanned or photographed if the goal is to preserve memories. If you have lots of artwork, consider publishing a book that represents a whole collection.

But don’t leave it unattended in a dark, dusty, damp space. It will just depress you and worry you. A quick google search will give you ideas on what to do with the kiddie artwork you don’t want to throw away.

And for the nicer stuff… Use it if you can. Put it on your walls, photograph it to share with family. If you really can’t stand the sight of it, that’s a good indication that you may be holding on to something for no reason.

My cousin and I sent an oil painting of our grandmom’s to consignment when she died. It was hard to see a thing she loved sit there, abandoned. But we disliked it so much, we didn’t even bother keeping a photo of it!

There you have it. Of course attics are filled with other goodies, like old furniture, old books, old suitcases, and just about everything else. I’ll let someone else tackle what to do with those things. (Getting a professional organizer is a good place to start.)

For me, it always comes down to the same thing: what artifacts relate to your family history, and how can you incorporate that artifact into the story you want to share with future generations.

And don't forget you can have your own archive of materials. Here's what you need to know to set that up.

If you have any suggestions about what to do with the top five family history items in attics, I’d love to hear them! Or if you like this list, please share it on your social media sites. This is one of my favorite topics and I’d love to know what others think.

And always feel free to reach out if you have questions. 215-645-7766 / clemence @

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