collections

New Year and New Projects!

Box of photos

You guys, what a whirlwind 2018 was!  The last couple of months of the year were especially hectic for me with Thanksgiving, special event scheduling at work, Christmas with families (including travel), and to top it all off, I got sick right as my time off for the holidays began and this bug is still hanging around!  Needless to say, getting back on track for the start of 2019 hasn’t been the easiest.

But here we are, at the start of a brand new year!  A time full of fresh starts, exciting possibilities, and resolutions for the best year yet.  I know many have mixed feelings about New Year’s resolutions: do I make them? Not make them?  Aim high or take smaller steps to new things? One of the most often heard resolutions is to get organized, so I thought, “what better topic to kick off 2019 than about trying to organize your archival items!”  And normally when I talk with people, their “archival items” are family photos, documents, and various heirloom artifacts (clothing, jewelry, etc.), so that’s what we’ll focus on in this post.

Ok, so let’s get started!

A good first step is to decide what you really want to accomplish from getting yourself organized.  Are you working on a bigger project that would benefit from having everything sorted? Do you just want to not have sentimental things haphazardly thrown into a box?  Is this an inherited collection of items that is in no particular order? Is there a big family reunion or anniversary coming up? Once you have a clear idea on why you’re trying to get everything in order, it will help you stay focused on the end product.

Alright, you’ve [hopefully] come to a clearer conclusion about why, now let’s get to the how.  

First, you want to try and get an idea of what you’re working with.  Do an inventory of the items in your collection; does it contain photos, scrapbooks, slides, papers, clothes?  All of the above? Once you have a list of what you’re working with, it is usually easier to get a handle on how much you’ve really got and how long it may take to get this process completed.

Next, you need to decide what to keep and what to toss.  This can be a hard process if it’s a family collection with a lot of sentimental value and you may very well end up keeping everything; this is your project!  But it’s also important to remain realistic and keep your end goal in mind.  I mean, is there any real value to a grocery store receipt that your great-great grandma wrote the phone message “call Bob” on the back?  Probably not. But no need to turn into some heartless, collection-clearing robot, just be judicious. One of the most reassuring things I ever heard during graduate school was, “no one is going to die because of a collections decision you made”.  And if you’re in doubt about a particular item, start a separate stack and return to it at a later time.  Sometimes if you walk away for a bit and then come back to it, you’ll look at it in a totally different way.  

Once you have sorted through everything and decided what you are going to keep, it’s time to put everything back in a nice, neat, archival-friendly way.  Companies like Gaylord Archival, Hollinger Metal Edge, and Print File all sell archival quality products that will help ensure the longevity of your family’s history.  Yes, I know you can buy file folders at Staples that claim to be “acid-free”, but there are concerns about the validity of those claims as most big box stores do not carry truly acid-free items.  

So, re-sleeve photos, folder important documents, and then figure out a logical order sequence.  Personally, I am a fan of chronological order, but you can choose alphabetical, or whatever works best for you and the purpose of your collection.   A word of caution here though: there is an archival principle called “original order”, this is the order that records were created in and in most cases, this should be maintained if at all possible; it helps give context and meaning to the collection.  However, like I mentioned earlier, a lot of folks I talk to are asking about their own personal items and I’ve found that original order is not present or was lost long ago. Inevitably, things have been sort of thrown together, or things have been taken out of their original order by someone and then not put back in the proper place, or things have been misplaced and just gone wonky.  So, it might be a good idea to sort of gauge the state of things before really diving in.

And as with most resolutions, they can start off strong but then fizzle out, so keep your end goal in mind and be realistic about the timeline you’re working with to get this project done.  I find judging the time needed to complete a project so tricky, and not just because I am bad at math!  You think that you will be able to devote more time than may be accurate or there are more items than you realized or sometimes life just gets in the way!  I hope this crash course in archival organization provided some good basic tips to get you started on your journey to an organized 2019. Just stay focused, do what you can, and before you know it, you will have a perfectly organized collection of family heirlooms to treasure!