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Creating Your Family Archive


Children's art work lasts for
years when protected with
archival-quality drop-front boxes

Creating a family archive is one of the most rewarding projects you and your family can undertake. In fact, an archiving project brings family members together. But to make it enjoyable for everyone involved, you'll need to approach the project with specific goals and a methodology. You'll also need to be prepared to make an investment of time and money.

First Steps:

  1. Set Your Goals

  2. Decide What to Keep and What NOT to Keep

  3. Conduct Research

1 Set Your Goals

Deciding on a goal or mission for your family archive will make the decisions about your archive much easier. When your purpose is clear, you'll be able to decide what to keep, what not to keep, what kind of archival materials you need and where to store your archive, all based on what you want to accomplish.

Your goal for your family archiving project might be to:

  • Organize your family materials so they're accessible and easy to enjoy

  • Create a collection of photographs and mementos that illustrates and complements your genealogy research or other family history writing project

  • Share your archive with other family members

  • Bequeath your archive to a family member(s)

  • Donate your archive to a local historical society, library, museum or school

It might be useful to create a written mission statement for your family archive, based on the goals you choose. You can print it out and add it to your family archive or frame it near the place in your home or storage facility where you'll store your archive.

Here are a few sample mission statements:

"The mission of the Smith Family Archive is to gather and preserve documents, pictures and items that represent the important moments in the lives of our immediate family: John, Jane, Joe and Jill."

"The Smith Family Archive will preserve important documents and photographs that record our family's history for the purpose of educating future generations of our family."

"Our mission is to create a professional-quality archive that documents the history of the Smith family from 1801 (our family arrival in America) to the present that is suitable for donation to a historical society or museum."

Keep in mind that museums and historical societies often have very specific rules about what kinds of donations they can accept. If you're interested in making a donation to a specific organization, talk with them at the beginning of your project to clarify your goals.

2 Decide What to Keep and What NOT to Keep

Once your project goals are clear, review all the materials you have — both old and new — in your home. Start with a quick look around. Then make a detailed, room-by-room inventory of everything you might include in your archive. Then go over your inventory and decide what to keep and what NOT to keep in your family archive.

Don't forget to include items that are out of sight, like materials in boxes, cupboards, dressers and other storage areas.


What Do You Want To Archive?


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  • Artwork

  • Audio recordings (e.g. vinyl records, cassettes, CDs)

  • Books

  • Clothing (e.g. baby clothes, wedding dress, uniforms)

  • Collectibles (e.g. baseball cards, figurines, stamps)

  • Correspondence (e.g. letters, postcards, notes)

  • Digital files (e.g. diskettes, digital photos)

  • Documents related to birth, marriage, and other important events

  • Film and video recordings (VHS, Beta, DVD)

  • Financial files and legal documents

  • Furniture

  • Glassware, dishes and pottery

  • Jewelry

  • Journals or diaries

  • Magazines

  • Mementos (e.g. ticket stubs, postcards)

  • Musical instruments

  • News clippings and newspapers

  • Pamphlets and advertisements

  • Photographs, slides and negatives

  • Posters and paper or cardboard signs

  • Religious papers (baptism, confirmation, bar/bat mitzvah)

  • School documents, awards

  • Silver and metal ware

  • Sports-related items

  • Toys

Take detailed notes while creating your inventory so when it's complete, you can determine what types of archival folders, sleeves, boxes and other supplies you'll need. For documents, the average size will most likely be a piece of 8.5"x 11" paper or smaller, but take notes about any items bigger than that. For video, note the type of recording (8mm, VHS, DVD). For photos, note the size (4x6, 8x10, etc.) and type (slides, photo prints, photo copies). Also, remember to include an estimated quantity of items (example – three shoeboxes filled with 4x6 photos, 35 VHS tapes).

When building your family archive, it's important to select the items you most want to preserve. This may need to be done in stages, or as a starting point to think about what NOT to keep.

Tips for deciding what NOT to keep:

  • When you're deciding whether or not to include an item in your family archive, ask yourself, "Will preserving this item help my archive reach my goal?"

  • Imagine that it's ten years in the future. Is the item you're considering still meaningful and important in this future?

  • Use the rule of three. Instead of keeping every memento and scrap of paper pertaining to a certain event or memory, pick the best three to preserve. For example, don't save all the baby clothes. Pick the three most representative outfits.

For more information about what to keep and what not to keep in your family archive, check out the "What to Keep" sections under Documents, Mementos, Photos, Film & Video, and Digital Files.

3 Conduct Research

While the first round of your family archiving efforts will involve identifying materials in your own home, you may want to talk to family members or friends to augment or even complete your family archive. Professional archivists refer to this process as an outreach project.

An outreach project can be as simple as asking others for photos pertaining to a particular person or event or as complex as collecting the complete archival materials of a family member. For example, a grandparent may have a large collection of family materials that he/she is willing to bequeath to you.

You can also talk to family members about developing an inventory of items that are currently not in your possession so that a record of these items exists. In addition, you can take photographs, make photocopies or digital scans to add to your archive, too.

If you've conducted any genealogy research, you already know that libraries, archives and historical societies have materials relevant to your family archive, not just records of historical figures and events. You can also use sites like ancestry.com or genealogy.com that collect publicly available information to help you find files that have information relating to your family members.

Organizations that may hold archival materials related to your family, other than libraries, archives or historical societies are:

  • Companies and corporations

  • Immigration or ethnic groups (e.g. the Hibernian Society)

  • Social clubs and sports organizations (e.g. country clubs)

  • Social service groups (e.g. Kiwanis or Lion's Clubs)

  • Professional or fraternal organizations

  • Industry-related organizations/associations (e.g. unions)

  • Military organizations

  • Churches or religious groups

If the organization or company still exists, submit a research request that includes some information about why you think they may have information about your family. If your relative was a member or employee, be sure to include your relative's full name and information about his/her role in the organization.

Helpful Hint: You might not be able to add original, archival materials to your archive through research outside your family, but high-quality scans, photos or photocopies can add valuable information to your family archive.


Archival Tools & Techniques



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Keep your memories safe and sound with the same materials used by professionally-trained archivists, including:

  1. Document Boxes and File Folders
  2. Drop-Front Boxes
  3. Triangular Roll Storage Boxes
  4. Newspaper Boxes
  5. Bulk Storage Boxes
  6. Sheet Music Sleeves and Boxes
  7. Melinex Sleeves
  8. Map and Print Folders
  9. Poster Folders
  10. Archival Interleaving Paper
  11. Permalife Bond paper
  12. Bamboo Hake Brushes
  13. All-Stabilo Pencils
Drop-Front Boxes

Drop-Front Boxes

Provide easy slide-in, slide-out long-term flat storage for documents, photographs, prints and art work.

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