aam_2012Fall is here! That time of year when we start thinking about warm sweaters, colorful leaves, and pumpkin spice. If you get a little nostalgic like I do, being in the North Carolina Room surrounded by old maps, books, and documents is the place to be! October is American Archives Month and I thought it would be a great time to share information about starting a family archive.

While professional archives are a great source of information for genealogists, researchers and history buffs, so too are personal family archives. Each family has a wealth of information that tells the history of family members and can be organized and preserved for future generations. Check those attic spaces, desk drawers, garages, and closets. You never know what papers, photos, or other materials you might find. Important concepts to consider when starting a family archive include deciding what materials are important to keep, storage options, and how to organize the material so that it can be easily located. It may be hard to part with some materials but you need to think carefully about what items you will store in your family archive. There are resources available in the library to help you organize your family history and to start a family archive.

How to Archive Family Keepsakes by Denise May Levenick

How to Archive Family Keepsakes
by Denise May Levenick
Call number NC929.1 L657H

If you have decided to take on the role of family archivist, you might want to start with resources on archiving basics. One great resource is How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn how to preserve family photos, memorabilia, & genealogy records by Denise May Levenick, available in the North Carolina Room and for checkout in Adult Non-Fiction. Mainly, you want to preserve materials that show family members identity, establish lineage, and provide information useful to understanding your ancestors and current family members. Think of the future, you and your current family will be ancestors to future generations. Archive materials include birth, death, and marriage certificates, known as vital records, photographs, wills, deeds, and family pedigree charts.  If you have family heirlooms, such as a grandfather’s WWII medal, those can be included. Other useful materials include letters, graduation announcements, diplomas, awards, military records, immigration records, obituaries and other newspaper stories. It’s important to note that when saving newspaper articles that it’s best to photocopy the story or scan a digital copy for preservation. Newspaper is very acidic and will discolor and become brittle, making it a poor format for preserving.

Often family members pass along boxes of papers, that may include vital records but also items like bills, tax forms, and receipts that are generally not important to an archive. They may be interesting because of old letterhead, or because they show the cost of items in the past compared to now, but they don’t provide genealogical information or provide insight into your ancestors personality as do letters, for instance. It’s important not to be overly sentimental when developing a family archive. As with professional archives, space is limited and you have to choose what you are going to preserve carefully. If keeping tax records and the like are important to you, you can store them separately from the archives.


The Organized Family Historian
by Ann Fleming
Call number 929.107 F

In considering where to store your family archives it’s important to remember the three D’s; dark, dry, and dust-free. You want to keep your archives inside where the temperature and humidity can be controlled. Storing materials in an attic, garage, basement or outside shed are not optimal because very hot or very cold temperatures and damp conditions can damage your precious papers and photographs. Sunlight can fade them, too.  Pests can get into the boxes. Inside closets are the best choice for storage and for space issues that is why it’s necessary to focus on just the materials that show ancestry, provide vital information, or are precious family heirlooms. Acid-free folders, boxes, tissue paper, and photograph sleeves are essential. These items can be obtained from archival suppliers and some crafts stores.

Think about future use when organizing your materials. You don’t want to have to search through all of your boxes in order to find that one document or picture you’ve got to put your hands on. Start by determining what items you have and how they best make sense. If you have a lot of photographs, consider organizing them in acid-free albums by subject, family groups, or time periods. If you have a lot of documents, consider organizing them by subject, or person, alphabetically, or chronologically. Label each folder with a title that describes its contents and make a list of folders, with a brief description of what is in each folder to place inside the front of each box. That way you just have to open the box and read the list to know if what you’re looking for is inside.

Of course if you’re looking for ideas or just want to talk about getting a family archive started, we have resources to help. The library has books on starting family archives and we have genealogy experts and staff that can answer questions. This is a very brief and simple introduction to starting a family archive and I hope it inspires you to organize and preserve your family history. Happy archiving!