By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
7 tips for curating historical family documents
There is more to preserving your familys history than tossing it into a box and handing it down to the next generation. Without context and curation, your history can be lost to confusion or apathy as easily as it can succumb to dust or mold. - photo by Tom and Alison Taylor
There is more to preserving your familys history than tossing it into a cardboard box and handing it down to the next generation. Without context and curation the careful gathering, sifting, selection and preservation that takes place in any worthwhile collection your familys history can be lost to confusion or apathy as easily as it can succumb to dust or mold.

As personal historians, we see many clients who are keenly aware of the importance of this legacy, yet who are overwhelmed and weighed down by the responsibility of caring for mounds of family history stuff. Having a method of curating your own historical collection is important not just for your posterity, but for your sanity.

A curator of a museum or art collection follows a prescribed set of steps to care for a collection: gathering material, sifting through (determining what is of value) and categorizing, preserving and selecting for presentation.

These same steps can be followed when curating our own collection of family history documents.

1. Gather and inventory your assets. Take a rough inventory of everything you have. Walk around your home and jot down a quick list of everything that might contain important assets. Travel slides, garage shelf, box of Grandmas stuff, hall closet, Sarahs school papers, basement is sufficient detail at this point.

2. Loosely categorize and sort into piles. Devise some loose categories for your assets such as by decade or life milestones such as childhood, college, etc. (You can also divide by family member or family if you are sorting generational stuff.) These divisions only have to make sense to you, and dont make your divisions too small or complicated. While in this first pass, throw anything away that is obvious garbage. If you cant decide, keep it for now.

3. Attack one pile at a time. This can be done over time; setting a goal to tackle one pile a day or week will keep you moving.

As you look at each item, here are some questions to ask:

Do I know what this is? If you dont know what it is, toss it. If you dont remember now, chances are youll never remember. And you didnt know you were missing it.

Do I care about this any more? Will my children ever care about it? As I was sorting through a pile of my high school memorabilia, I realized that my fondest memories of high school had nothing to do with the papers Id written, fliers for school dances, smashed corsages, etc. What remains important to me are the people I knew. So I kept photographs, a few cards and letters from friends, my diploma, and the yearbooks on my bookshelf. Thats it. (Your results may vary.)

Would I want to include this in a book of my life stories someday? If it helps tell the story of your life or if it would be interesting to future generations, keep it for now.

Is it a duplicate? You only need one. Pick the best quality copy and pitch the rest.

Is it large and bulky? Snap a photo of your kid's dog-eared second-grade science project and then let it go. (Especially if your child is now in college.)

Is it accessible online? This especially applies to old printed genealogical data, like pedigree charts from your Great Aunt Martha circa 1973. If that data is stored on your computer, or now resides in Family Search or Ancestry, pitch it! Someone has probably done research on that person since 1973 that is more accurate anyway.

Once you have determined which originals you will keep and pass down, make sure they are stored properly in archival, acid free containers. Store your originals away from heat, light, moisture and chemicals and make sure you keep a record where to find them.

4. Assess, refine and label. Once you have gone through a first pass on each pile, look more closely to identify, store and label or caption each piece. Captions and labels are crucial for identifying each asset for others who will use this archive.

5. Digitize. Properly scan your photos and documents, and have film digitized by a reputable vendor. Photograph memorabilia that will not fit on a scanner. And dont forget to back up and preserve your existing digital assets including emails, blogs, photos, videos and social media content.) Digital assets are vulnerable to loss and damage just as much as paper, if not more so.

6. Create a digital and physical archive. Consider the best methods for backing up your data on archival disks or other storage media. Store in the cloud or share online as well as on physical media. Make and share multiple copies of your archive; redundancy is the key to safety of digital assets.

7. Display highlights of your collection in a form that can easily be enjoyed and shared, whether online or in a family history book or both. Books will never become obsolete and need no device or electricity to view.

While curating, dont forget to back up and preserve your digital assets such as emails, blogs, photos, videos, and social media content.

Many of our clients have found that the idea of organizing all their stuff is more intimidating than the actual doing of it, and that it took less time than they thought it would. Taking the time to curate your family history assets will be well worth the effort.
Sign up for our E-Newsletters