Sort, Scan, Share: How to NOT Drown in Family Memorabilia

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Sort, Scan, Share: How to NOT Drown in Family Memorabilia


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By Jodi Bash

Small piles of photos, letters, and other yellowed documents lined the living room walls. As I walked further into the house, I saw they also lined all available space in the kitchen and bedroom. “I want to throw it all away!”

My client was overwhelmed with her extensive genealogy collection. She had been the willing recipient of family documents for as long as she could remember. “Give it to Shelly, she’s the family history buff!” But now, Shelly was drowning. She needed to downsize her home. Her grown children were seemingly uninterested in genealogy and inheriting a massive collection, as were her siblings. She had no idea where to start with the heaps of family memorabilia that frankly she no longer wanted it cluttering up her space.

This could have easily been me.

My client was at a real loss for how to deal with this. But, working together for just 2 hours, we came up with a plan and a process that would keep much of this amazing family history (photos, letters, official military documents, written histories, etc.) at her fingertips but not in her home. Shelly was thrilled to have a path forward!

This is a process than can work for anyone on almost any de-cluttering project. No matter how organized or unorganized your material is you can start this process. It will take some space and piles and some hard decisions, but it will be well worth it.

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Next, and this was important for Shelly to hear, you are not responsible for bearing the burden of your family’s history. You can throw things away, you can give things away, you can make hard decisions. Definitely let your family know you are going through a process of elimination and would love their input and ideas on what they might want themselves. Don’t try to do this in a vacuum!

Step 1 – Sorting. Also known as, let-the-piles-begin! The first sorting you will do is based on where your family memorabilia will go. For each piece of family history answer one question first: Do I want to keep this? Don’t think about need, but want. Then follow this process…

  1. If yes – put it in a keep pile.
    • Sometime a piece of history is really a pile – Consider if you want to keep ALL of it, for example a collection of 150 letters written from your grandfather to your grandmother? Many of these may be boring, daily letters that don’t hold much meaning for you. If you don’t want to keep all the letters, pick 5-10 that you find very meaningful to hold on to. For the rest, follow the remainder of this process.
  2. If no – Does a family member want this?
  3. If yes – put in a give to family pile.
  4. If no – Is there a third party that might want it?
    • Local genealogy library or historical society
    • A school for things like yearbooks or class photos
    • Local or national museum or archives
    • Religious group or historical society/archives
    • Other families mentioned in or pictured in the documents you have.
      • If you have an account on places like Ancestry.com or MyHeritage.com (any site with public family trees online) you may be able to find and contact other people whose ancestors have been included in your family stuff. My grandparents mentioned a LOT of neighbors and friends in their diary, my grandmother’s high school memory book had loads of photos I could share digitally with other families. A simple email to offer the materials is easy. For many sites you don’t have to have a paying subscription to send emails, just an account.
  5. If yes – put in a give to 3rd party pile.
    • Make a separate pile for each group that will be taking something.
    • If you do end up donating family memorabilia to a museum or archive be sure to make a list of what organization took what and the location. That will help future generations who want to reference this material.
  6. If no – is this something you could sell? (i.e. ebay or antique store)
  7. If yes – put in a to-be-sold pile (you’ll be amazed and pleased with what folks will buy!)
  8.  If no – start a trash pile (Gasp!)

So you have 5 (maybe more) piles: keep, give to family, give to 3rd party, sell, and trash. Great!

Now what? Don’t give or throw anything away just yet.

Let’s talk about giving or selling family memorabilia to third parties. I will use my client’s materials as an example. She had been an organizer of class reunions for her high school and also had a lot of her mother’s yearbooks from the 1930s for the same high school. I suggested she contact the school to see if they wanted this information. They may already have the yearbooks, or not want the other information. If that’s the case Shelly moves on the to the next question – can it be sold?

To see what sells on places like eBay I suggest you browse through the site. Search for “old photographs,” “Yearbooks,” or “old letters.” There’s a lot out there! Check too with your local antique stores to see what they sell, what their terms are, and what costs you would incur if you wanted to sell something through them. Shelly had approximately 75 letters that her father wrote to his parents when he served in WWII. She loved them, but didn’t want to keep the crumbling papers in a large box forever. Would future generations even look at them before tossing them out? Shelly decided to contact museums that focused on WWII as well as county historical societies from where her father was from to see if the memorabilia would be of interest to them.

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There may be some information that can be kept online. For example, Shelly had a small pile of internment records. These have great information on them: the date a person died, was buried, their age, maybe what they died of, exact location of burial: plot/section/etc. All of that is extremely helpful in locating a grave. There are no real personal touches of a relative like a signature or photo. So rather than keep this pile of papers I suggested she add this information (noting the source of course) to her online or digital family tree as well as sites such as Findagrave.com or Billiongraves.com. That way the information is secure and shared and you don’t have to keep the records if you don’t want to. With that you are ready for Step 2.

Step 2 – Scanning. A cynical person would say that this step takes the physical piles and just turns them into digital ones, which technically is true. But it’s one of the most important things we can do with our family materials for so many reasons:

  1. It preserves the original material – looking at a reprint or online photo means no sticky fingers on grandpa’s crumbling letters. Opening and reopening letters, certificates, and the like can wear down the original material quickly.
  2. It save guards our family history from us! The box of family “stuff” that I got from my uncle’s house had a water stain down almost half of every document and photo. A computer failure, a flood, a fire; human errors and mother nature take their toll on the artifacts of our life.
  3. It becomes easier to share – digital files can be put on websites, sent in emails, downloaded from dropboxes – you name it! Having the one copy of something precious in one place increases the risk that future generations won’t see it at all.

Scanning, much like sorting, has multiple steps. And you will scan more than you will keep. All those family documents that are going to your siblings, your kids, your local historical society, even to eBay you will want to scan and ensure you have a copy of the material. The reasons you wouldn’t want to scan something are:

  1. You already have a digital copy.
  2. You have no idea who or what the document is related to in our family (and no way to find out), and even then you might want to keep it.
  3. You have multiple similar photos in which case you only want to pick the best few to scan. The same may be true for the 5-10 letters of the stack of 150 that you want to keep.

There is certainly more than one good process for scanning documents that can be followed. Here’s what I would recommend:

    1. Get a grouping of photos/documents that you want to scan at the same sitting. Maybe one pile or half a pile at a time. You can’t do it all at once, but you do want to gain some efficiency in what can be a boring and repetitive process. Enlist family help for this too!
    2. Scan at a relatively high resolution in color in case you want to make prints in the future.
    3. Use the photo software on your computer to crop the scan to its edges so there’s no wasted space.
    4. Title the scan something that will make sense when you go back and look at the file in a year. Avoid “Papa Bash1,” “Papa Bash2,” “Papa Bash3,” etc. You’ll be opening files all day to see what’s really there.
    5. Use the description or tagging options that are on most photo software. In the Mac’s Photos software you can add a title, description, key words, and even tag faces. If there is information on the back of a photo put it in the description. If you know the year, the place, or any other relevant information add that too!
This shows you how much detail about a photo can be added for easy searching and identification of your scanned documents.

This shows you how much detail about a photo can be added for easy searching and identification of your scanned documents.

6. Save the scan in a computer file that follows a logical order. You may choose to organize your digitized family history in any number of ways. Here’s one I like:

  • Create folders based on surname. I am typically looking for a person and having name be the primary folder title is more helpful than say a year or location.
  • Add the photos to the appropriate folder, putting women in the folder of their maiden name if the photos are pre-marriage, and in the folder of their married name if they are post-marriage.
  • You can sort within surnames by creating folders based on year or decade. It all depends on how much data you have and what level of detail is important to you.

If you’ve done all this you have come a LONG way to organizing your family history material. You’ve sorted, you’ve scanned, you’ve mailed things off, you’ve even thrown a few items in the trash…good work!

Editor’s Note: For easy to use tools that can help you scan your files check out this article.

Step 3 – Sharing. This is the fun part! Now that you have a LOT of digital data taking up space on your hard drive, it’s time to put it out in the cloud. Get it on websites, blogs, Facebook pages, etc. so that distant and close relatives can see it, download it, and get reconnected to their family history. You can create photo books and give them as gifts. I’ve done this for my kids and it was the first time I saw a glimmer of interest in genealogy. Sharing online does not mean you have to be technically savvy. You do need to know how much privacy you want – is this information just for known family, or can it be made public so that anyone who might have an interest can find it?

Here are just a few of the easiest and cheapest ways to share digital family media. There are many, many options out in the world wide web!

  1. Facebook – This application is good because everyone probably already has a Facebook page, knows how to use it, and its free. Privacy can be tricky, assume what you put there will be seen. You can even start a new page just for family stuff: The BASH Family page, or something like that.
  2. Blogs – Blogs can be free and they are usually drag and drop easy to set up. You can write about documents, family, etc. Post photos and really anything digital. I like WordPress, but there are lots of great options out there. Here’s a step by step guide for setting up a family history blog.
  3. Photo sharing sites – this huge category can be free or cost a bundle. Depending on what site security you desire, how much to you to post/share, needs will differ. Some I use are: SmugMug and Shutterfly.
  4. A simple Google search for “top photo sharing sites” or “best blogs for photos” or “good ways to share family history online” are great. Be aware of paid ads by one organization. Look for a site that reviews a number of options with multiple good recommendations. There’s no one right answer, there’s just a right answer for you.

This is a big task, but it doesn’t have to be a daunting one. The goal is to preserve as much as possible, in the hands of those who want it and will care for it. It is also important that our family history and the stuff that makes it up is not a burden for anyone. One step, or document, at a time. You can do this!

About Jodi Bash

Jodi Bash is a genealogist living in Houston, Texas with her husband and three children. She is founder of Family at Your Fingertips and is passionate about finding creative and tangible ways to connect with family history. She runs two blogs: Unclaimed Ancestors is an effort to connect old photos with descendants, and a way to scratch the ever-present research bug! A more personal blog at Family at Your Fingertips explores family heirlooms and the love of history. Jodi has been researching family history for over 15 years, and is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists. She holds a B.A. in History and English from the University of Texas at Austin, a Masters in American History from the University of Houston, and an M.B.A. from Rice University. You can reach Jodi at Jodi@familyatyourfingertips.com and follow her on twitter via @famatfingertips.

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3 Comments
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  • Denise Sassone
    June 10, 2016 at 1:26 pm

    So then what do we do after scanning? That’s the hardest part of downsizing.

  • Pat Tostevin
    May 7, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    Great article! Lots of good information and usable ideas. Thank you!

  • Deb Lindsley
    May 7, 2016 at 9:54 am

    This is a great blog Jodi! I hope it gives others with those boxes of memorabilia the incentive to spring clean. I’m in the process myself.

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