How to Save Your Family Treasures Before It’s Too Late

What do you do when you go down to the basement and discover a box filled with family papers that has been down there for years? How do you save those family papers and photos, as well as use them for genealogy? That’s the situation I found myself in a few weeks ago.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 31

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: 24 minutes.

Finding a box filled with family papers is every genealogist’s dream. Honestly, I had given up on that dream. But, lo and behold, a box that had been in my parents’ basement for 35 years turned out to be filled with letters, newspaper clippings, greeting cards, and report cards from the 1930s. (It turns out that my dad really was a good student!)

My daughter and I went through everything in the box and made some wonderful discoveries. (We did it as a Facebook Live video, which you can watch here.)

What to Do With All This Family History “Stuff”?

Where to begin? As tempting as it is to start “organizing” right away, there are some things you need to take care of first.

Get Context for the Materials

Papers often have an order to them. Keep them together so you can get a sense of context.

For example, one sympathy card might not have a postmark, but if it’s together with several other sympathy cards that are postmarked, you can get a sense of when that card was sent.

There were some postcards that my great-grandmother sent to my dad and his siblings. I will want to keep those postcards together, as the dates on the postmarks indicate they were all from the same trip. Some were from New Orleans and at least one was postmarked in Missouri. If I separate the Missouri postcard, I would lose the context of the different places she went on that trip.

Look Out for Nasty, Harmful Things

Keep an eye out for things that can damage the materials. Mold, mildew, insects, food (yes, food). I was fortunate that there wasn’t anything harmful in the papers that were in the box.

Keeping It Safe for the Future

After going through all of the materials and making sure that there wasn’t anything like mold or insects, then it’s time to do some preservation work.

I’m going to invest in some archival folders and sleeves to put the flat papers in (such as letters, report cards, etc.)

The letters will be taken out of the envelopes and opened up so that they’re flat. They will then go in clear archival sleeves along with the envelope. (The envelope has information that will be useful for identification later.)

There was one envelope that had four different letters in it. My great-great-grandparents and one of their daughters each wrote a letter to my grandmother and a letter to my great-grandparents when my grandmother’s little brother died in the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1919. Because they were all sent together in one envelope, I will keep all four of those letters together in one sleeve (or folder, if they won’t all fit in the same sleeve.)

There were some bulkier items, such as diplomas and a graduation cap tassel that won’t fit in either a sleeve or a folder. For those, I will get some small archival boxes to store them in.

Next Steps: Research and Sharing

After I get everything stored safely in archival boxes and folders, then I will start digging more into the materials to pull out genealogical information. Because I will have gone through everything in the box already, I’ll have a better idea of where to start. (Spoiler: I’ll be starting with the series of letters that my grandparents sent to each other when they were courting!)

With the letters, I’ll digitize and transcribe them, and then distribute copies to my sisters and cousins. Not everything will be both digitized and transcribed; it will depend upon what it is.

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  • Be mindful of hurtful comments in the letters as well. In the trove of material I acquired from my late uncle were letters/email written to and from him. Some were incredibly racist but some involved people trash-talking relatives (some of whom I would be sharing the digitized info with!)

    • Gotta love the trash-talking relatives (not). Situations like this remind me of the adage, “First, do no harm.” Sometimes we need to ask ourselves, “What is to be gained from sharing this information (or sharing it right now with this specific person)?” There aren’t any clear-cut, easy answers.

  • My find was a cigar box filled with letters and documents from my great great grandfather. The problem is they are all written in German. They are dated 1886 and 1888. Working on getting them transcribed and translated but not an easy task. The letters from family dated in the 1800’s is especially of interest to see what life for my family was like during that time. A lot of unrest in Germany then. Any suggestions from you would be great.

    • I would digitize them first, and then work on transcribing/translating. It’s tough work, to be sure. One suggestion I have is to work with the letters and documents in some order. For example, if you have a group of letters from the same person in the same general time period, work with those as a group. Try not to work on a letter from Johann, then a certificate from a church, then a letter from Barbara. When you work with documents from the same person, you’ll get a better handle on their handwriting, making the transcribing easier.

    • @ Nancy: You can try the APG website and search for transcribers. Katherine Schrober has a business of transcribing German.

  • I would love to have a teaching session on archival preservation paper, boxes, etc. Why they are considered archival, which ones are used for what. What does archival mean and are all archival preservation supplies the same. I see a lot of these supplies on the internet but I never know which ones to buy. They seem fairly expensive.

  • I really like Kindex for sharing family ephemera with relatives. It’s easier than emailing large files and people can go to it when they want. You can easily transcribe information and search for it. And it gives me cloud storage of family history in a place that I can organize.

    So far, it’s been a win-win. I’m hoping using it will encourage others in my extended family to share their treasures.

  • What a treasure trove you have on your hands there, Amy! So lucky. I was lucky, too, when I found a box of ancestor photos in my Mom’s basement that she didn’t know was down there. Evidently my dad brought them home after my grandma went into a nursing home and stuck them in the basement. They made the move when my mom sold the house, but she didn’t know what was in the box. At some point in the past, she had sat both of my grandmothers down and said, “If you will tell me who they are, I will write the names on the backs of all these photos.” I made copies of all the photos and scrapbooks for my uncles, my mother, and my niece and nephew. Thank goodness I did because I had a catastrophe at my home and lost the originals. But because these pictures were in other residences, I am able to recreate the images for my future blog. Talk about “cousin bait”! I just wish I had the original cabinet cards, though.