Develop a Sorting Strategy

Unorganized-Box-400wideMove the Pile – Develop a Sorting Strategy for Organizing Your Archive

by Mary V. Danielsen: Documented Legacy, LLC

If you’ve been following our suggestions, you’ve spent a few weeks brainstorming what you’d like to do, setting goals and making space. There’s been an equal amount of clearing out and pulling things out of hiding. You’ve begun accessing your home to compile your collective family history. While talking to family about joining this effort – it’s a journey, really – you’ve been on a great family memory road trip.

Your challenge now is to decide what to do with all the stuff you pulled out of hiding and the related items held by other family members? Yes, this seems overwhelming, but there’s a solution. The trick is to create a sorting strategy for organizing your family history archives.

This is an important step. If you, the keeper of the stories and team leader, don’t document and organize your family history, the next generation may not understand the value, whether real or sentimental, of certain items in your home. As such, once you’re gone and this information is supposed to pass to the next generation, it may not be maintained with the same level of interest or protection without your help. In other words, it might get tossed out.

If you have a system of sorting and archiving your family history that works for you but is not updated, then by all means stick with it.

Now is the right time to create an inventory, a catalog, of your documents, papers, collections, or anything that helps detail the family history. Inventories of family heirlooms or collections, for example, will take time to photograph and complete. So start at the beginning and keep it moving forward.Initially you may have so few items that you remember where everything is filed. Now is precisely the time to create an inventory because as your work evolves and grows in the coming years, you’ll acquire more.You’ll identify what exists, where it’s stored, who owns it, why it’s significant, how it relates to family history, does it have monetary value, is it digitized and its condition. Maintaining this archive is easier once you have a system established. At a later date we’ll discuss expanding the inventory as part of your estate plan.

Here are helpful tips for sorting and organizing your archives.

Not just stuff
First, think of your family treasures, old records, documents and photos as an archive, 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 or wear cotton archival gloves. Don’t allow food or drinks near where you’re working.

ArchivalBox-400wideKeep grouped items together. Store photos with photos, documents with documents, VHS tapes with VHS tapes, 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.


Background 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 through your archives 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. The same holds true for usable items such as old linens. You may decide that you don’t want to keep all eight dozen linen napkins embroidered by your grandmother when she was 16. 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 in the inventory. 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. Inspect for mold, pest infestation and other damage. Any finds may be fixable. Consult a professional conservator in your area, the Northeast Document Conservation Center or the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts are a couple in the Northeast.

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

Note to self
Don’t tape anything to an item or write directly on it. If you’d like to write a note that remains with an item, use a pencil and acid-free paper or index cards easily found at office supply stores. Back it up with a duplicate note in your inventory. You can always go back later and write a longer story about any particular item. Heirloom documentation is a fantastic way to recall family memories.

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, as some things may need to be scanned or photographed. Work grouping by grouping to get it done.
If you have a large collection or need many copies, there may be a cost factor involved. Discuss costs openly with others throughout the project and keep records. Do what you can afford.

Switch hitting
Naturally, in this digital age you will have some things that are physical materials and many in digital formats. This is where you’re inventory becomes critical. Maybe you don’t own an heirloom anymore, but have an audio file of your grandmother talking about it and photos of it in a digital folder called “Grandmas stuff.” When creating an inventory of your grandmother’s history include this folder and note its digital format and the labeled title.

Buy a New House
We’re not suggesting you move, but rather rehouse your archives into appropriate new storage containers. Lose the unsteady cardboard boxes. Now is a good time to invest in archival-grade storage materials and watertight containers. We’ve discussed creating a disaster preparedness program for your home before. 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.

Remember your legacy is the story of how you lived your life, and the lives of others before you. It’s worth preserving


Safeguarding Bundle

Tip #1
Keep these handy while you’re sorting: Your Flip-Pal mobile scanner, Photo Keeper 8 (PK8) flash drive, pencils, acid-free paper or index cards; your inventory and to-do list.

Tip #2
Store all books and media vertically as not to put pressure on bindings and edges.

Additional Resources

  • Smithsonian Institute Archives – The Bigger Picture blog
  • The Family Curator – Home Page
  • Society of Archival Consultants – Find a Consultant
  • Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts – Home Page
  • Northeast Document Conservation Center – Caring for Private Family Collections
  • Flip-Pal Disaster Preparedness – Backing Up Your Files Before a Disaster Happens

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