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
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.