Preserving Old Documents 101
January 5, 2014 10:16 AM   Subscribe

I have inherited a box of old photos and documents from my grandfather's house. Not sure what/how to best share and preserve them.

The documents include stuff like his army card from the 1940s, the landing papers of my great-grandparents from when they immigrated here, birth certificates and marriage certificates of my grandparents and others of that era etc.

I want to scan all of them and make some sort of album with the documents and photos and any stories/lore of note which I can order multiple copies of for relatives. But then what? We don't have space to keep all of the paper indefinitely. But I recognize it us rare to have such old documents and it seems a shame to throw them out.

So what is worth keeping? How to best store it and preserve it? What do I do with all this stuff?
posted by JoannaC to Grab Bag (7 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Scanning them and making the album is a good start, but I want to strongly urge you to find a way to keep at least some of the original documents. Surely you have the space to store a shoebox-sized box of your family history? If you really can't store them, can another member of your family store them? Please don't throw away your history!

Things that are "worth" keeping: all documents and letters. Photos where you can identify at least one of the people. Photographs that clearly show something of your family history (ie: soldier in uniform, formal family portraits, etc.) even if you can't ID the people right now.

Here's a great link about preserving old documents. Note that one option for the documents is to use archival plastic sleeves (available on Amazon) and put them in a 3 ring binder, but they will really do better in a box so they can be stored flat.

Again, what you have is an important family heirloom. Even if you scan them and publish a book with images of the documents, nothing will ever replace having the originals. My grandparents bought a lot of box lots and odd auction lots, and for easily a decade after they had retired, they were still being contacted by family members who were hoping that we still had a family bible, or family photo album that was sold as part of an estate auction. Please do whatever you can to store these properly and preserve them for future generations.
posted by anastasiav at 10:36 AM on January 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you don't have room for them, then after scanning and sharing them, see if one of the relatives you are sharing with would like to hold on to the originals. Sometimes when you do this sort of thing you will uncover a relative who is serving as unofficial family archivist.
posted by fings at 1:18 PM on January 5, 2014

anastaslav is right - if there is any way to keep them, please do so. Reproductions can never really replace the originals. Do you have kids? Or do any of your relatives have kids? If they are younger, the kids might not want them now but it's very possible they will in the future.

If you can't keep them and no relatives want them, maybe contact your local historical society to see if they would want them. Or the history department of a nearby university. I think my university's library had a historical documents section.
posted by Beti at 1:58 PM on January 5, 2014

I'm a genealogist, and I agree with Anastasiav - nothing will ever equal these originals. Often, when I'm doing research, I'm looking at a document that was scanned. If I could look at it in different light, if I could bend the paper slightly, I could tell if the date was 1840 or 1850. I could tell if the name was Brown or Bowen. Having a scanned document is better than having no document, but nothing beats the original.

If you or your family has no use for the original, try to find a historical society that will take it and preserve it. And, if you scan the document, consider making it available to some of the many genealogy web sites. You never know who might be looking for what you have.
posted by clarkstonian at 2:03 PM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

You should definitely keep the originals, and to do so you need archival-quality photo storage.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 2:33 PM on January 5, 2014

Don't throw them out! In addition to their value as originals, there is a data migration problem with scanned documents. You need to keep migrating them to new file standards/display formats every 5-10 years. You might be willing to do that during your lifetime, but your descendants or other future owners may not, and then the information could become inaccessible.

Anastasiav's advice is great. If you do want to give them away, start with a local historical society or historic house museum in any municipalities related to the biography of your family members.
posted by Miko at 7:03 PM on January 5, 2014

Best answer: Nthing all the previous answers. As a genealogist and the "unofficial family archivist" (thanks fings, I'm going to use that from now on), I would be THRILLED to find such a box. Something deep inside me shudders when I even think about getting rid of so much valuable family history. T

So: 1. Scan, 2. Preserve the photos and documents in archival plastic or just flat in a box, 3. Keep everything. If it was important enough to save for 70 years, it's probably important enough to keep saving, and 4. Find a family member who has room to store them if you don't. You could join ancestry websites and see if there are any distant cousins also researching your family history who would love to have these items if no one in your family circle wants it.
posted by Nickel at 2:06 PM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

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