Personal Archiving

In my quest to learn more about how to manage a personal family history collection, I’m going right to the top – archivists for the Library of College. They are tasked with organizing and preserving collections of all types. The collections typically include many of the same things we have in our family history collections – journals, letters, photos, home movies, papers, mementos, and the remnants of one’s life work. We can learn a lot from the archivist’s expertise, and apply it to the smaller scale of our personal collections.


A “clump” of organized chaos

To get started, I read Your Personal Archiving Project: Where Do You Start?, by Mike Ashenfelder. He interviewed Library of Congress archivists, Laura Kells and Meg McAleer, summarizes his findings:

  • Work top down. Don’t dwell on the details at first, rather survey the whole collection and sort into clumps, using the categories that you choose. For example, you might decide to organize by year, or holidays, or types (such as photos, letters, planners and journals), trips, or big events. During the process, don’t get into the details too soon, or you may become overwhelmed and give up.
  • Dedicated workspace. If possible, set aside a dedicated room or corner of a room for the project. If that’s not possible, then decide how you’ll tackle it. For example, after the initial “clumping” process, you might unpack an individual box in one setting to survey the details of its contents, and then repack and store it.
  • Contain it. After sorting into clumps, place the items into envelopes or boxes based on these categories, and label them. This gives an intellectual order to the project, and provides a good place to start when you’re ready to get into the details.
  • Throw it out. Discard the items that you know you won’t need. For example, you do not need receipts for every purchase ever made, such as groceries, rent, or car payments. You might want to save a few, such as the receipt for a guitar purchased early in the life of a musician, or an occasional receipt to show the cost of living at various intervals in the person’s life.
  • Preservation. You may need to preserve some items before they deteriorate. For example scan newspaper clippings, letters and photos that are disintegrating, or transfer files that are stored on electronic media before they decline. Enlist the help of a professional service if needed, and develop a strategy.
  • Story arc. You are archiving a life story, so consider the person’s whole life when deciding what to keep in the collection. Rather than keeping everything needed to recreate the person’s life and times, focus on what made that person unique.

This article gave me some great ideas for organizing my personal history collection (and some assurance that I’m on the right track in other areas)! I already have several “clumps” identified, as I listed in Personal Collections. Within each clump or category, there is quite a spectrum from organization to disarray, and many strays and loose ends that need attention. But it is a start!

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