Hints for Sorting and Organizing

Unorganized BoxOrganizing your memorabilia, documents photos and heirlooms does not have to be overwhelming. You’ll discover that when these items are properly scanned and able to be sorted via computer search that it becomes super easy to find that picture of you and your sister at the lake cabin when you were teens, or the images of your wedding gown you treasure. Having piles of seemingly organized bits of folders and boxes can never replace the ability to find things fast via computer sorting. So keep in mind when you are scanning – have great file extensions and dates to accurately save each scan. Take it a section a month and soon you will have everything sorted out. You can do it, and the Flip-Pal mobile scanner can help.

Not just stuff

First, think of your family memorabilia, old records, documents and photos as treasures, not just stuff. This isn’t just about compiling your genealogy research, but your collective family history. If it helps tell your story, it should be part of the archive.

Handle with care

Pay attention to the fragility of each item. It’s easy to start pulling boxes out of storage and nick, dent or tear something. Always keep your hands clean. Don’t allow food or drinks near where you’re working.

Archival BoxGroupings

Keep grouped items together. Store photos with photos, documents with documents, vital records and such together in like categories.


Within these grouped categories decide how you are going to group items into subcategories, such as size, shape, date, subject matter, significance and family names. Other subfolders could include stories, photos, birth/marriage/death certificates, military history, church history, census records, and career. For instance, you’re not going to store the original signed military records from the Civil War with a flag flown during the Persian Gulf War in the same box. Separate them. Note in your inventory, however, whether there is a connection on the same side of the family with these two items.

Stack of booksBackground notes

This is a subcategory where you file all the materials that help you understand other information in your archives. This is slightly different from the file of compiled family stories. For instance, I have a collection of out-of-print books on Italian sculpture from the turn of the 20th century that helps explain the marble industry in which my great grandfather worked when he immigrated to the United States. Background research on a period of time helps fill in the gap on imagined lives where no other information exists in your records.

The theater

Every family has little drama, whether it was a crisis or medical issues that wove themselves through the generations. Sometimes this explains how we’ve lived. It may be a subcategory you’d want to include.

Twice over, tenth time

As you develop your sorting strategy you will make several passes to decide if an item is significant. You may do this many times. This is part of the weeding out process. Be patient with yourself. Sometimes value judgments take time. Just don’t allow yourself to promote an attitude of benign neglect. This is where the family members from different generations come into play. They’ll help you decide whether something is worth keeping in the archive. The ripple effect promotes the understanding of family history as a community effort.


Identify what you want to do with each item and place it in an appropriate category. This may take several passes through a single collection. For instance, you may have already grouped a box of photos into a subcategory called travel photos. Now you’re sorting through decades of adventures near and far and realizing that you don’t need to keep every photo. Instead you’ll scan or photograph the entire collection, keep your favorites and pass on the rest. Now is a good time to sort the individual piles. This, too, may take several passes.


Check the condition of each item and make any notes necessary. If a book has an inscription in the front, note it. Check for damage caused by old staples, paper clips and rubber bands and remove them. It’s amazing how fast these handy office supplies cause problems.

Brush it off

Using a soft gentle brush, such as a sable paintbrush, gently brush away any loose dirt.

sketch kitNote to self

Don’t tape anything to an item or write directly on it.  Use the Sketch Kit to add notes to your scans.

The happy dance

It’s the thing you do when you find something you either didn’t know existed or forgot you owned. For instance, after years of searching unsuccessfully for information on my great grandfather’s childhood, I was reorganizing old papers and found a letter from my mother written 22 years ago, naming his entire family and the bits of information that passed down to my grandmother. My mother composed this history after dividing up my grandparents’ estate. I had it categorized incorrectly and found it before the rusted staples made it unreadable.

Big decisions

Decide what needs to be copied or duplicated for others. Assign this task to your family team members. If you have a large collection or need many copies, there may be a cost factor involved. Do what you can afford.

Buy a New House

We’re not suggesting you move, but rather rehouse your items into appropriate new storage containers. Lose the unsteady cardboard boxes. Now is a good time to invest in storage materials and watertight containers. Consider it to be a part of the disaster preparedness program for your home. Be careful where you store things. Keep them away from heat and water sources and off the basement floor.

Advantages of a digital preservation strategy

By scanning and photographing as much of your shared history as possible you can easily create a digital preservation strategy that is accessible to multiple generations in your family. It could be saved on the cloud and in a permanent online storage environment. It allows you to easily duplicate files to be shared among households and makes maintaining family history an ongoing family event. Remember, it’s easier to access a digital file of an old flag than it is to unfurl an item out of storage. By including digital preservation into your sorting strategy you will extend the life cycle of your family history for future generations.

Additional Resources

Smithsonian Institute Archives – The Bigger Picture blog
The Family Curator – Home Page

One Response to Hints for Sorting and Organizing

  1. Sam January 20, 2017 at 5:05 pm #

    Thank you for this insight into preserving family history……..I have been endeavouring to organise mine for some time…
    Presently it is held in folders in three, four drawer filing cabinets…………Still organising to my satisfaction……..

    Will keep your “advice” in mind…….

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