Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Telling Your Story: Organizing Personal Papers

The methods and theories we use to appraise, organize and preserve materials in professional repositories can be simplified for use with personal papers in the home. It is beneficial for organizations to work together with individuals to ensure that all aspects of society are documented. As noted in our last newsletter, the collections found in repositories often come from individual family papers. Historical societies in particular are built upon such personal collections. This newsletter aims to make some of the theories of archives management more accessible to non-archivists so that they can better see their family papers as part of a larger historical record that documents American history.

Our personal records are important for the information that they provide about our families and our traditions. They help us retain and pass down our memories to future generations. Personal papers found in individual’s homes can also be rich sources of information related to the times in which we live and the activities of our communities. When brought together, individual family collections can weave together to document the many aspects that make up a community and tell a complete story about a society. Archivists can do much to promote the documentation of their communities by helping individuals understand our methods and purpose. By creating an understanding, we can better encourage families to donate appropriate materials and / or care for unique historical items that we do not want to be lost to time.

Recently, I have had the opportunity to step out of archives and museum to work with individuals interested in preserving their family histories. I have found that the following simple tips have been helpful for individuals trying to move ahead with caring for their own items.

1. View your materials with an eye towards creating a collection that tells a life story. Think about creating a collection that reflects the personality, interests, and activities of your family or individual persons within the family. If certain material doesn't add to the story, it is a likely candidate for discard. Determine if material is repetitive and can be found elsewhere to help decide if an item should be thrown away. For example, old newspapers related to a national event of importance can be found easily in libraries across the country and do not necessarily tell us much about the person who thought it important to keep the material in the first place. If something is unique or unusual, such as an old local map, but doesn’t relate directly to your family, consider donating it to an appropriate repository separate from your family collection. Figure out what to keep before you start to organize. Not everything needs to be saved. In the archives world, we call the process of determining what to keep “appraisal.”

2. Detach yourself from the sentimentality of your personal items. Organize without reading every interesting bit or the project may continue indefinitely. Look forward to reading your materials once you have organized and preserved them. Consider it a reward for your hard work. Many people cannot get through archives projects simply because they spend too much time reviewing their items and not enough time processing them.

3. Do not spend a lot of time re-organizing collections. If papers were passed down to you with some organizational system, retain that structure. Sometimes the way items are organized can tell us something about the person who filed and kept them that way.

4. Organize materials in groupings by the person who created them, types of materials, and dates. For example, put all of mom’s correspondence together. Place her childhood letters in one folder, her love letters in another, and the letters you wrote to her when you were in a college in another. Label each folder with her name, the type of materials within and the dates of the materials.

5. Record information about the materials that is not already written. Identify individuals in photos. Write about why a document is important if it is not obvious. If you are ambitious, write a short biography or keep brief notes about the person and his papers.

6. After your materials are organized and placed in safe storage supplies, consider what is missing from the story that you are trying to tell. Find out if any family members have materials to add to the story. If not, consider performing oral histories to get information from people’s heads onto paper or in audio or video format.


  1. Thank you for this blog it is just what i was looking for since my father passed away and i am executrix and keeper of all the papers. I have several questions maybe you can direct me to specific pksts in your blog or contact me privately tk answer them.
    1. Do you have suggestions for what to save and how to save things that arent documents or photos? Memorabilia like trinkets, medals , favorite or significant, sentimental things, are items i dont just want to toss in a box in the attic, i want it to tell the story like you suggest.
    2 i kept my diary in the daily squares of my desk-blotter- calendar for my teenage years. I have between 4-6 years of them in the attic. How should i save that, if at all? The desk blotters are big, difficult to keep nice but the thought of cutting it up into 365 days x 4-6 years churns my stomach. Do you thjnk i should scan it, photo it? There are so many memories just in my doodles in the margins i hate to toss them.
    My 3rd question has to do with perspective, 3. When i go back to preserve the generations of photos my mother in law gave me, my fathers 82 years of history or finger paint drawings and reprt cards of my children, what narrative do you recommend i write from and to. This is something i have always imagined doing, it is just a bit overwhelming. Thank you for your help.

  2. Hi Jackie, Thank you for your questions. I'll answer the desk blotter question first because that's the easiest. I would purchase an archival box of the appropriate size. Purchase a box from a reputable archival supplier such as Gaylord. They will have one of the appropriate size.

    Your other two questions require more detailed answers because there isn't a right or wrong way to tell your story. My book "The Unofficial Family Archivist" dedicates a few chapters to this subject and may be helpful to you. I am also available for consulting to tailor a solution to your needs. Feel free to email me at melissa at mannon dot org if you want more information about this. Best wishes, Melissa