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Organizing & Maintaining Your Family Archive

Keep photos safe in archival-
quality photo albums

After you've decided what to keep and what NOT to keep, your family archive needs an organizational system. Being organized will make your archive easy to use and enjoy in the years to come.

You'll also need to establish guidelines for what you want to add to your archive in the future, to keep it up-to-date and in great shape.

Taking Care of Your Archive:

  1. Organizing & Labeling Your Family Archive

  2. Establishing Guidelines for the Future

1 Organizing & Labeling Your Family Archive

It's important to organize your documents, photos and other objects into an accessible and usable archive, with a labeling structure that can grow and adapt with your archive over time. While the type and volume of materials will vary from family to family, part of the fun of creating a family archive is developing an organizational structure that's personal and relevant to your family and your family archive goals.

Your family archive might have labels for:

  • Each person

  • Eras (1960, 1970, 1980)

  • Events (vacations, birthdays, graduations)

  • Activities (schools, jobs, organizations)

  • Collectibles (stamps, baseball cards, artworks)

  • Financial documents (such as mortgage, investment and retirement documents, insurance policies, bills or financial documents)

  • Personal documents (such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, passport and/or immigration documents, medical information, wills and other legal documents)

From this list, you see that there are a lot of ways to arrange your family archive as well as a lot of flexibility within the naming structure. For example, you may want to combine terms, like organizing your archive by person and date, instead of just by person or just by date.

Only you know which of these categories is important to your family archive and goals. The best way to get started is to look over the inventory of materials you've decided to keep and see where the natural groupings occur. Then, map out how things should be organized by setting a few high level categories and filling in the rest with as few subcategories as possible.

For some categories, you may have objects of various types — photos, documents, mementos, digital files — from the same event, person or time period. Group the items by type first, but use your labels to connect items that belong together. For example, your photo files might have a "Wedding" box, and you might also have a "Wedding" box or two in your document files or with your mementos and clothing boxes.

Helpful Hint: The key to establishing a naming structure is to use "high level" category descriptions that can be flexible over time. For example, if you label one file or box "financial documents", you can include mortgage papers, investment and retirement documents, insurance policies and bills in that section of your archive, instead of having separate labels for each of those types of papers. This enables you to add or delete documents within the financial documents section of your archive at any time, without having to change the name of the section.

Once the materials have been boxed, they need to be stored in a safe place within your home or a storage facility. Visit Storing Your Archive for tips and advice about choosing a location for your family archive and ensuring that your materials will be safe there.

2 Establishing Guidelines for the Future

After your family archive is organized and safely stored, it's time to think about what to add to your family archive in the future. Soon there will be new photographs, mementos, documents and digital files.

How will you keep track of what you should add to your family archive in the future?

A professional archive, whether it belongs to a museum, a corporation or a library, establishes a set of collection priorities (sometimes called a "Collection Policy") to determine what kind of items they want to add to their archive in the future and what kinds of items they won't accept. You can establish the same kind of priorities for your family archive.

Helpful Hint: Remember — guidelines can change. If, in a few years, your priorities or goals for your family archive are different, rewrite your guidelines to include new materials you'd like to add to your archive. You can also keep running notes on questions about what to keep, what not to keep and what you've decided to help make consistent decisions.

When writing your family archive guidelines, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is my collection missing?

  • Which parts of my collection are complete as they are for the present?

  • What new additions could help me reach my goals?

What is my collection missing?
Perhaps you have no photographs of a particular family member or event. There may be a branch of the family about whom you want to know more. You can establish some specific collection goals, such as "Collect documents and photographs about a certain branch of my family" or "Gather materials about the family from before immigration to the U.S."

You can simply establish these priorities and then use them to determine whether you'll accept contributions or gifts from family members into the collection, or you can establish a research agenda for yourself to actively try to fill these holes in your collection.

Which parts of my collection are complete as they are today?
Knowing which collections are complete (or are as big as practical) will help you in the future when you're deciding what not to keep.

For example, you may have as much of your children's schoolwork as you can possibly store or you may have as many photographs from your high school prom as you'll ever want to keep. If new materials in any of these categories are found, you can decide to replace the items you already have in your family archive or you can give the new items to someone else and preserve what you already have in your family archive.

Keep in mind the rule of three — if you already have three great examples of a particular item, or from a group or era, don't add more to your family archive.

What new additions could help me reach my goals?
If your goals are to create a complete collection of materials from a certain group, person, place or time, then collecting new materials that support that goal will be an important part of your Family Archive Guidelines.

If your goal is to create an archive that you can leave to a particular family member or to a historical society or library, then your guidelines should somehow take into account what the people who will receive your family archive will wish you to keep. You can ask for input as you're establishing your guidelines.

Frequently Asked Questions