Making a Family Archive
February 1987

“Making a Family Archive,” Ensign, Feb. 1987, 66–67

Making a Family Archive

My memories of my grandparents are dim. I can visualize them in my mind in only general terms—older and physically inactive, but full of love and strong in the Church.

Grandmother’s passing was an emotional occasion. Shortly afterward, the family gathered at her home. Grandmother’s room was neatly decorated with the work of her hands: crocheted doilies, curtains, and bedspreads she had lovingly created. It must have been difficult for my father and aunt to sort her belongings, kneeling over boxes of letters, old bills, reminiscences, and other paraphernalia. Some were given to relatives and friends; others were thrown out.

Today all of the papers are gone. I cannot help but wonder, with the disposal of their belongings, how many of my grandparents’ experiences were lost—and with them, how much of the personality and character of those who made my life possible.

A couple of summers ago, my father and I decided to make sure that such a loss of family records would not be repeated. After our family reunion, we sorted through fifteen apple-box-size crates of unorganized family history. The contents spanned a period of eighty years. They were mostly records from Dad’s retail business, but they also included personal files on each child who had worked at the store and other family information that my mother had gathered.

In deciding what to preserve and how to preserve it, we followed several steps that may help others organize and preserve their histories:

  1. Make a list—an inventory—of the contents of the boxes. Diaries, scrapbooks, letters, and copies of speeches will yield more information about your relatives than a lock of hair, a handcrafted item, or a personal belonging. But don’t disregard such personal artifacts! They evoke a love and emotion more informational items cannot reproduce. Such artifacts can also contribute photographic and emotional substance to a compiled personal history. If some of the “collectors” are still alive, visit them and use a tape recorder to review your findings with them.

  2. Organize the materials. No two collections are alike, and there are no precise rules for organization. Scholars and archivists have different views about the best method of organization—chronological or alphabetical. Historians and biographers favor the chronological arrangement because it provides a natural framework for their efforts.

    In organizing our family records, my father and I decided to combine chronological organization with organization by subject. During his life, father was the patriarch of our family, a small-town retail merchant, and a community leader. Under these major headings, we organized the material chronologically.

    As we began organizing the material, we found that many artifacts did not fit the headings we had decided upon. These included a walking cane from a pioneer grandfather, a handmade jewel box, a silk-screened “mayor” shirt, rubber stamps and unused letterhead from the business, and annotated spiritual texts. Though these did not fit any of the headings, they are nevertheless valuable “records.” We carefully labeled each artifact and distributed them to members of the family.

    Local museums may have an interest in acquiring such items. In our case, we gave each item to someone whom my father felt would appreciate it. We then made copies of the inventory of materials and their distribution (who received what), filed one copy with the informational manuscripts, and gave each recipient of a keepsake a copy.

    We then began to organize the informational items. Our general list evolved into a carefully organized inventory, with organizational categories refined to present a logical sequence of materials.

  3. Evaluate the materials. Break the collection down into manageable units so you can sort and evaluate it. Examples of items you may not consider valuable include duplicates of letters, speeches, cancelled checks, and records important to daily household activity. Although these may be of little lasting historical value, before you discard anything, consider possible family distribution along with the artifacts.

  4. Preserve the materials you decide to keep. Preservation may include protection, storage, and restoration. Protect the organized materials by placing them in acid-free, dustproof containers. Include an organized table of contents with each unit so others can easily locate the information. Be sure to check the acidity of the paper; the life of any piece of paper is shortened by its acid content. The most common sign of acid is paper’s yellowing with age. To protect accompanying documents, separate the acid-content papers from the other materials with acid-free folders. If you don’t do this, the acid may bleed onto adjacent papers.

    Folders and storage containers can be found at an office supply outlet. They are inexpensive and will add years of life to manuscripts. I use “D-T Letter” files, which, when placed on a shelf, look like large books.

    Restoring a document may include fumigating, cleaning, flattening, and repairing it. Do not attempt to restore materials without the help of a professional archivist; consult the archives and manuscripts division of your local library or museum for assistance. If they cannot help you, they may be able to recommend someone who can.

    The work of a family archivist is rarely finished. Use of the material and review by other family members may reveal errors and indicate necessary organizational changes. Welcome such refinements, additions, and updates. If you have organized effectively, your work may attract even more contributions.

For further information about how to care for manuscripts, refer to Lucile M. Kane, A Guide to the Care and Administration of Manuscripts, 2d ed. (Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1981). It is a short pamphlet with many helpful ideas and examples.—Donald G. Godfrey, Cedar City, Utah