Organization Tips

Organizing Your Collection

The thought of having to go through a box or boxes of stuff to see what is there and having to organize it may be what keeps most folks from even opening their family records to see what is inside.

Organizing your records gives them a permanent structure that makes them easy to access and use. It is the key to successfully archiving family records and it is not as hard as you think if you follow a few simple steps.

First, try to maintain the original structure by keeping the material from various sources together. In my case I inherited a steamer trunk from my maternal grandparents, a couple boxes of my mother’s material and several boxes of my father’s material. That proved to be a good start.

  1. The Walker Trunk
  2. Natalie’s Spartanburg Box
  3. Natalie’s Family Memories Box
  4. Bob’s Most Important Records Box
  5. Bob’s New Orleans Records Box
  6. Bob’s Family records Box

This maintains the provenance, or source, of the material in your collection.

Next, tackle them one at a time. I started with the Walker Trunk. First, hands clean or gloved to handle old paper or else skin oil will leave a permanent stain. I took the material out of the trunk, bit by bit and spread it out on a level surface. I quickly saw a few categories into which the material fell:

  1. Childhood and College Years
  2. Early Spartanburg years
  3. Wartime years
  4. 1945 and later

As I did this, I made notes as to what was there. This proved invaluable when creating the index later.

Arranging chronologically made sense to me in this case. In another example, it made sense to organize by family surnames because there were some records from over 30 families. If the items had a general order as given to me, I tried to maintain that order for the sake of understanding the donor’s thought process.

The point is that I didn’t disrupt the original organization that had been handed to me. I simply neatened what was there.

As I went through the material, I unfolded (for the last time, ever) all letters and documents. I flattened them and kept the original envelopes with the respective letters (some of the old stamps are interesting and perhaps valuable). Use caution when unfolding. Paper is made of natural fibers that are bent when folded and become more fragile over time. Un-bending them can cause breakage of these fibers which leads to tears. The documents that seem impossible to flatten can be humidified and relaxed and I’ll discuss that is a future blog.

Next, I copied or encapsulated all newsprint. Newsprint is very acidic and can damage other paper and fabric that it is stored with. Photocopies on modern paper will not cause the same damage and the newsprint can be tossed. If encapsulated, the newsprint will continue to deteriorate but will not affect other material. Clear polyester sleeves are available for this purpose.

You will find that when organized and stored properly, the material takes up far less shelf space than you originally thought.

The next step is to create an index of the records you have. I use a Word document because it formats well but a spreadsheet is another good format. This a companion document for your boxes and for your backup (I’ll have more on the backup later). I title the folders and the index exactly alike. The index helps me search for specific people, events, etc. It makes things much easier to find in a few years when I have forgotten where to look. I also add any personal notes, helpful instructions, comments, etc. to the index document.

Lastly, I put all the material in acid-free, lignin-free containers, that is folders, boxes, etc. This inhibits and prevents the damage caused by the acidic property in older paper. I use sturdy boxes especially made for archival storage that fit neatly on a shelf in a closet and not in an attic or basement. Remember it’s important to keep this material in a climate controlled area.

The goal is to think of our personal material as a source of information about our family and activities that were important to them. Organization highlights the information that tells our stories.

Adair Watters

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