As the days start getting shorter and the nights are longer we turn from outside activities to inside ones. One of the things you can do during the winter months is to organize your family archives. Holiday gatherings provide an opportunity to identify unidentified photographs and learn more of your family's history.
Most collections of family papers contain letters, photographs, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, memorabilia, and ephemera. You can begin by sorting the material into these basic groups or what archivists call series. As you sort through the material you will find that everything may be worth keeping. Everything old is not necessarily of value, and many recent items will become precious. Things usually discarded include: bills, receipts, cancelled checks, check stubs, and check registers. Letters should be arranged by the recipient first, then by either the sender or date. Scrapbooks and diaries should be organized by the creator. Newspaper clippings, ephemera, and official documents should be organized by the family member named in them. Photographs can be sorted into identified and unidentified photos.
After you have organized the papers, the next step is to properly house them. The two most important things to preserve documents are to limit the exposure to light and provide a stable environment. Exposure to light can be limited by storing items in a box. Framed items that are on display should be placed where exposure to direct light is limited. Papers should be stored in the same environmental conditions as your normal living quarters. This means temperature and humidity should be moderate and there should be protection from mice and bugs. The worst places to store items are attics, garages, basements, barns, and sheds.
The best way to store papers are in archival–quality folders and boxes. Archival-quality folders are acid and lignin free with alkaline buffering. Archival folders and metal file cabinets are an acceptable alternative. Folders should not be overfilled. The folders should be labeled with the person's actual name, such as John Smith correspondence, 1939. If nicknames or family relationships are used such as grandmother, Buba, Uncle Joe their given names should also be listed on the folder. Not all future generations will know who grandmother or Uncle Joe was. Scrapbooks should not be taken apart. Any loose photos should be reattached using photo corners. Do not try to repair damaged items. Most tapes and adhesives will eventually damage documents. Fragile documents can be stored individually in their own folder. You should never laminate an item. The heat from the lamination process will damage the document and the process is not reversible. Newspaper clippings should never be stored next to other items. Clippings are highly acidic and the acid will migrate to anything they are touching. Clippings also become brittle and deteriorate. The best way to preserve newspaper clippings is to photocopy them on acid free paper.
Photographs should be organized the same as documents. As I mentioned at the start holiday gatherings are an excellent time to get unidentified photographs identified and to learn more of your family's history. Instead of taking your actual photographs photocopy them and take the photocopies. This way the identification of individuals can be written on the photocopies, and you do not run the risk of damaging your original photographs.
If you have any questions about the preservation or organization of your family's archives contact Gary Spurr Collections Archivist at: firstname.lastname@example.org