Spring Cleaning…Your Family Tree

Organizing and Archiving Family Histories at Home

This past weekend, my husband and I turned to that age-old practice of Spring Cleaning–purging all of those needless items that we convince ourselves we need, but know in reality we don’t. Of course, we came across many family items that really needed organizing rather than purging. Many people ask me how to begin the seemingly insurmountable task of organizing their family history and mementos. Everyone has their own methods, tips and tricks; here are a few of mine. There is not one correct way to go about completing this process but it is important to enjoy the experience. This is your family’s past and it should be an interesting and fun journey.

The best way to start is to gather everything in one place, if possible. Collect the boxes, the trunks, the old albums and the containers of photographs. Next, begin sorting everything– one piece at a time. My preferred method is to sort by family branch, especially if your intention is to take the next step and begin to trace your family’s genealogical roots. So, for my family I start with a pile for the Kuhlmanns, another for the Pellets, another for the Hoefer branch, etc. I then place documents in a notebook and photographs, certificates, objects, etc. into archival boxes, again by family branch. If you run across a photograph of an unknown family member, start an “unknown” pile. You’ll probably also want an “overall family” pile for items that relate to the entire family, like the family tree my mom handwrote on a huge sheet of butcher paper many years ago.

In this process it is important to use acid free materials. As you go through historic items, you’ll start to notice that glue, cellophane tape and acidic paper were the materials of the day. These supplies often caused damage over the years, leaving stains and discolored or brittle photographs. Once you have sorted your items, you can look online or at a photography store to find acid-free boxes and notebooks for storage. If you have really old items, you may even want to purchase a pair of cotton archival gloves, so the oils on your hands don’t leave a permanent impression.

What about all of those rolled-up photos and certificates?  I’m really not sure who thought that rolling an item was a good idea or in any way saved space, but most family collections have at least a few of these. Over time the paper has become brittle, so simply trying to open the roll won’t help and may cause further damage. The best thing to try is a process called rehumidifying, which involves allowing the document to sit in homemade humidifying chamber for several hours. Don’t worry, I’ve done it many times and it is easier than it sounds, but it is best to look up detailed instructions online by searching “rehumidify photos.”

Many organizing gurus will begin by telling you to throw out every useless sweater in your closet. This type of project is a bit different.  Despite my “clear the clutter” personality, I can’t tell you to purge sentimental family items because you never know when some little snippet written on a piece of paper will come in handy. However, I do suggest throwing away duplicate photographs, particularly those more recent ones. I say this following an afternoon of my mom and I simultaneously saying “look at this funny photo of our aunt,” while we each held the exact same photograph. Apparently “free duplicate copies” is a promotion that has been around nearly as long as the camera. Or better yet, if there is a family member who would like the rare, older studio shots of ancestors, offer the photographs to them—it may just spark their interest.

The next step, if you are so inclined, is to digitize your items. If you have a large quantity of items, take your time with this to avoid feeling overwhelmed. High resolution scanners are great and not overly expensive. If this doesn’t sound like something you can do on your own, ask a tech-savvy family member if they would be willing to help. It may even draw them into the fun and spawn some family storytelling. Remember, technology will continue to evolve so try to save digital archives in an easily transferable file format.

I save my digital files in the same way I organize my boxes and notebooks—by family branch. Digitizing also offers a way to identify people in the photographs without writing directly on them—use the person’s name in the file name or put it in the notes. Remember to make a backup of your work occasionally.

Once you have items digitized and stored appropriately, you can find a way to share or display them. I’m generally not a big fan of traditional albums that utilize every photograph. Instead, consider creating an album that uses a select group of photos that really tell a story. You can add quotations, receipts, documents or snippets from old postcards in more of a scrapbook style. If you are using original photographs, be sure to use photo corners, instead of tape or glue so you don’t ruin the original photograph. Or, once you have your photos and documents scanned, consider creating an online scrapbook through a website like Shutterfly.com or Picaboo.com that allows you to input your files and then have a printed scrapbook sent to you.

If you intend you use this organization project to delve further into your genealogy, I suggest contacting other family members next to gather some of the material they might have. On a recent visit to St. Louis, I descended on my Aunt Emily and Uncle Roy’s house, replete with my laptop and portable scanner. Conversations led to forgotten memories and items I had never seen before. Not only was I able to find new information about my dad’s side of the family, but it was a wonderful opportunity to touch base and enjoy a lunch with family.

In this process, don’t forget to scan some photos and information about yourself–someone down the line may want to know a thing or two about you!

Both the good news and the bad seems to be that there is usually more information to be discovered. Just as I thought we had uncovered nearly all of our family’s documents, I sit surrounded by two large boxes of “new” information: deeds, certificates, letters and postcards. The work of the family historian is never done, but it is a job worth doing.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in a future issue, where we’ll get you started on beginning or continuing your genealogy using these documents and other resources in the St. Louis area.