Downsizing and Family History

How do you downsize or declutter and yet keep those things that are important to your family history? It’s an issue that many of us are facing. Professional organizer and genealogist Janine Adams shares how to approach it.


Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 35

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.)
Length: 36 minutes.

Downsizing and Family History

Downsizing can be easy. Just rent a dumpster and toss everything out. However, I don’t think that’s what we want to do, especially when it comes to our family history. So how do we get rid of things and not destroy our own history in the process?

Why You Can’t Save Everything

Not only is it a matter of space, but it’s also a matter of preservation. It seems counter-intuitive, but the more you have of any one thing, the less special any of it is.

Janine gave the example of having Grandma’s collection of 24 teacups and saucers. Most of us don’t have room to display all of them, so what happens? We box them up and put them in the closet to keep them “safe.” Then when the next generations comes along, they open up the box but they have no connection to the teacups. They don’t necessarily know that they were your Grandma’s. Even if they do, they don’t have any special memories around them…  so the teacups likely end up being disposed of.

A better solution would be to give some of the teacups to other family members (including cousins) and displaying —and even using — one of the teacups. That way, it’s visible. Not only can you enjoy it (and the memories it brings back), but younger family members can see it and start to form their own connection to it. (Making connections with these items is a vital part of preservation with younger generations. Check out the interview I did with my daughter on how millennials feel about family history.)

Keeping everything isn't a good long-term preservation strategy for your family history. Click to Tweet

What Do You Keep?

Since you can’t keep everything, you’ll have to make decisions. My mom saved what seems like every painting that my sisters and I brought home from school. Do we need all of them? No. A few will do.

There is no clear-cut rule for what to save. The first cut would be anything that isn’t safe to preserve, such as macaroni art. (Please tell me I’m not the only one whose mother saved the pasta necklaces we brought home from school!)

What are the items that you have a connection to? What items truly give you a connection to the past? Only you can decide that.

Approaching Downsizing

Whether you are downsizing to a smaller residence or “just” decluttering your own house, downsizing is exhausting work. As Janine points out, making so many decisions leads to fatigue, even if you aren’t physically moving things. It isn’t unusual to only be able to do this work for a couple of hours at a time.

This is emotional work, especially if you’re helping a family member. (Downsizing your own possessions is one thing. Working on a family member’s possessions also brings along the dynamic of that relationship.)

Make it an enjoyable process. If you’re able to start early, allow time for reminiscing.

If you’re in a situation where time is not on your side, consider having a “to go through later” pile. Of course, the trick is to not put everything in that pile!

Downsizing Doesn’t Have to Mean Throwing Away

Janine recommends reaching out to other family members to find homes for family history items. She was on the receiving end of such a family history gift. Janine hadn’t been given any of the landscapes that her grandmother painted. However, two of her cousins had some of the paintings in their closets and gave two to her. Janine hung the paintings and enjoys them everyday. Her cousins gained some space in their closet — a win for everyone.

In her downsizing and organizing work, Janine has noticed that many people feel better about getting rid of things if they know someone else will get use out of them. Finding a charity that will put the items to good use can be a way to approach it.

Keys to Successful Downsizing:

  • Don’t wait to start. This isn’t something you’re going to do in a weekend.
  • If you’re helping a family member, put yourself in their shoes and have empathy for what they’re going through.
  • Be patient.
  • If possible, make it an enjoyable process rather than a chore.
  • Get rid of the guilt of getting rid of things. Remember: you cannot save everything.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

(Disclaimer: the links to the two books are Amazon affiliate links, meaning that I might be paid a small commission when you purchase using those links.)

What has been your experience with downsizing?


Posted: October 3, 2019.

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  • I just moved!!! I brought boxes and boxes of notebooks filled with family histories—most probably are repeats, but I’m afraid to lose any of it since it took years to find it. I’d like to find a way to preserve them that didn’t take up so much room.

    • I have been conducting a years’ long project (never-ending really) of digitizing all the old photographs. If you have the ability to do that whatever happens to the originals at least would not be a total loss. And I am making a point to do this before I forget, or no longer have, the information that is vital to the history of those photographs. Also, if you are referring to actual writings regarding family history, consider putting the information into publishing a small booklet. There may be businesses that would do this for you. My husband has a nice booklet of old family members that has a photo of each of them, where they lived, and a short description of who they were. It is a treasure to us and is only about 12 pages. It really was quite enough to be passed down for this family.

      • Scan scan scan, papers can yellow of time or can get lost in fires or floods (I hope it never happens but it does to anyone but…) what I have done is get a small flash drive and save all the important documents and pictures to it, may need a few, every 6 months or as needed I update it and then put it in my fire safe, it taken up little room in there and I still have to scans and/or the originals

  • My husband and I received so many things from both our parents’ homes after their passing! Most of it is china and glassware, and various figurines. None of which we desire to keep! So I think I have a line on an auctioneer that is willing to do an ‘online garage sale’. Wondering if anyone else has done this? I don’t expect lots of money, but a little is better than none and we can use it to help our children’s finances.

  • Something I find helpful is to take pictures of items and create digital photo albums with stories of specific topics or eras before donating or selling. One example, my father-in-law went to college in Canada and had memorabilia and papers from the 1930s. Another exampIe, I digitized my parents’ papers when they bought their home, one electrical bill, and one water bill to show what cost of living was like in 1959 and added photos of building the house and what it looked like when completed.

  • I always enjoy hearing Janine Adams on podcasts — yesterday was the perfect storm. She was on Amy’s podcast, her own podcast, and I was listening to last night, and there she was, too! I have downloaded her Paperless Genealogy Guide from her Web site and have found it very helpful.

  • I have one son who is somewhat interested in genealogy but I know he won’t be interested in old documents or memorabilia so I am scanning everything into my computer, backing it up 3 ways and then disposing of the originals. I even took a picture of my mother’s Eastern Star gavel with all it’s ribbons and have saved it that way. So I either have pictures or scans of everything and that’s how I am downsizing. I do have a set of dishes that belonged to my grandmother in Germany and don’t know what to do with them – have pictures of course, but hate to just trash them. Still thinking on that one.

  • As a homeschooling mom, I saved ALL the kids’ schoolwork, in case the state DOE came knocking for proof that I’d educated them. When they got their high school (not homeschooled) and college diplomas, I figured I was “in the clear.” I culled the boxes (4/kid) down to 2 each–getting rid of workbooks, math papers–anything that wasn’t “creative” on their part. So the letter they copied to practice format & punctuation got tossed, the one they wrote to their favorite author got saved. I had enough sense, though, NOT to give them their boxes upon graduation–they were moving around and didn’t have the room. I figured they’d toss it all. I waited until they had settled more permanently, and even had kids. That gave them the distance and perspective to consider which items were “keepers” and which weren’t. At age 22 or 23, it would have just been “kid stuff” and been gone. I don’t know what was kept by the ones who have gone through their boxes–that’s their business, and I don’t worry about it.

  • My mom’s “antiques” (mostly china & glassware) have been plaguing me since she moved from her house in 2010. They were boxed & living at MY house. I’d photographed everything, and described it on spreadsheets, hoping antique dealers might be interested . . . no luck. I shared the photos & spreadsheets with siblings, her grandchildren, and my cousins, trying to rehome the items. I pulled out and packed up for people anything they wanted so it could get to them (no shipping!). It still left boxes. I sold some teacups and luncheon plates to the local tea room–they will be well-loved, there! The day before Thanksgiving, I looked through the boxes one last time to pull anything that “sparked joy” or I thought might have a market on ebay, and dropped the rest at Goodwill–without an ounce of regret or guilt. It was like a millstone off my neck! Janine is right–you can’t feel guilty, and you sometimes have to cast a wider net.

  • Where I like we have a local historical society or a library that may take in some of the old family items that you just might not have the room for, or you would like to have them passed, yet no one to pass them to this way you can see them anytime, the place open, yet they are out of your space and you may help someone else find a missing key. And they take care and persevere them. It’s a win win.

    • It’s a win-win IF the society will accept them. Space is at a premium, as is the money and manpower it takes to process and manage items and papers.

      If you’re wanting items to go to a historical society, archive, or museum, it is imperative that you talk with them about what they will and will not accept and what condition it needs to be in. Please don’t just load up the car with a bunch of stuff, whether it’s 3D items or paper, and assume that they’ll take it.

    • Yes, donating can be a wonderful option… with time and planning. We’ve both seen too many instances of people just assuming that the local historical society, genealogy society, or library will take everything, only to be disappointed that they can’t/won’t accept them. (Doesn’t fit the collection policy, material poorly organized, minimal research value, etc.)

  • I think that giving the teacups to other family members is a good idea. If you don’t have or know the cousins and continue storing in the closet put in with them that it was Grandma Such and such. You can even include stories about Grandma using the tea cups.

  • Get comfy with the fact that it will not be possible, and will eat up months if not years of your life, to find homes for things you decide no longer get a home with you. How to do? Rather than saying “What can I do without?” my compass heading is “If I were moving to France, what must I take?” and put the number at …say 10 things per room… It frames the question totally differently.

    Also… When I was thinning my mother’s home from a 2 bedroom apartment to a one bedroom in a tending community, my guiding principle was to take the things that would make the place feel like her house — hence wall art, furniture, display made the cut and traveled 700 miles to her new place. It helped her make the move.

  • When my dad passed, we had decades of things to go through from both his family and my mom’s family. I offered some of the items to my kids, cousins, and a few items to close friends. We made the hard decision to get rid of certain items. Still, kept too much, but will work on it. The biggest thing is paper. My parents kept lots of newspaper articles, cards, and papers about all sorts of things. I am sorting through them, scanning those whose information I want to keep, and getting rid of all, but the most important ones. Working to organize all my scanned documents and photos for future generations.

  • I have thought about this topic a lot lately, even having a conversation with my youngest daughter and son-in-law who feel that everything should be digital with originals thrown out. I am in the process of writing up the stories and who the item belonged to, along with why it was important for me to put with the physical heirlooms I keep. Also, with any I pass along to other relatives. I am also trying to take photos of heirlooms and then uploading them onto FamilySearch and tagging the deceased relatives the item belonged to. Thinking about even making this part into a business.