Trying to organize the family archive box...
April 18, 2014 12:35 PM   Subscribe

Mu aunt has agreed to store all my grandpa's old photos and documents, if someone else can 'do something with it' first. That someone is me. Where do I start?

I posted previously about a large box of old photographs and documents I inherited from my grandfather's house. The good news is, we found a relative to store them once 'something's been done' with them. The bad news is, I am the someone who has to make something be 'done' with them and I am am overwhelmed.

I know we want to scan them and make some sort of digital book so we can order multiple copies for everyone. But I don't know how to organize the book because Grandpa was a packrat and kept everything. So we have things like...

- Photographs (lots of these), both loose and in albums
- Copies of lectures and presentations he gave on the subject of stamp collecting
- Art work and report cards from the school days of my mother and aunts
- And also from the era of the grandchildren, myself included
- An organized collection of letters all involving a dispute with his rabbi over a bottle of schnapps
- A hidden compartment in a wall which had several hundred love letters my Grandma wrote him

And on and on it goes :) At first, I thought the best way to do it would be to spend a weekend sorting everything by date and mixing it all up into some kind of digital history. But this would involve picking and choosing amongst the materials and I don't know how to do that. Would it be better to have a 'just photos' album and then a second 'just documents' album too? Do I OCR the love letters to improve readability, even if that means losing Grandma's handwriting? How can I best get all this stuff organized and then present it meaningfully?
posted by JoannaC to Grab Bag (7 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Sorry, it's a big project and I just have advice on one small portion. I think for the art work and report cards... Separate that out and return it to each individual. I don't think the whole family has interest in Aunt Ethel's first grade report card. We had a similar organizing project when my grandparents died and that was the consensus in our family.

For photos, we did some separating and distributing to individuals, and the ones we thought everyone would want, we sent to a scanning service and everyone got CDs. You could do the same with the documents. Making a good book would ideally include some photos and some documents. Maybe once everyone has the digitized material someone else would take on that task. Curating it would be time consuming I'd imagine.
posted by JenMarie at 12:59 PM on April 18, 2014

I did this after my grandfather died, and put it together in a book (at blurb, using their "booksmart" program). I went through and organized groups of the "best" and most meaningful things by date -- or, really, by "major life phase," which were childhood, high school years, military service, courtship and marriage, raising children, and retirement/grandchildren. Some of these categories overlapped -- he and my grandmother were courting while he was in the military, for example -- but it allowed me to "tell" more coherent stories about a particular time in his life, and not spend a lot of time worrying over whether something was from 1929 or 1931. I did like textbook editors do and made some "special sections" with a collection of report cards, or several Christmas cards together, or whatever, which OBVIOUSLY needs to happen with The Schnapps Dispute.

Where the CONTENT of documents was interesting, I just typed up (I didn't have an OCR scanner :P) the contents and used them as text for the book. Where the emotional resonance of the document was important -- love letters and things -- I both typed up the content so the words were easily readable AND scanned the document, and then generally put the text underneath the visual of the document.

One reason I did it by date/life phase was that it allowed me look at 20 identical Christmas pictures of the children in front of the tree, and pick the three or four that I thought were representative and interesting, where people were making nice faces and not blinking, the picture was in focus, you could see the kids grow significantly in each picture, etc. Similarly I went through all his military pictures and picked the ones that were in focus and not totally washed out, and where there were six similar ones of him smiling with two buddies, I picked the best of those six. When it came down to it and I wasn't sure whether to include something or not, I just followed my own preference, since (after all) *I* was the one putting in all this effort to make something cool, so other people could just deal with the fact that I had to make decisions. (Nobody cared, everyone was just delighted by the book.)

You might create some kind of index, particularly of the individual documents, that are going to go into storage, rather than reproducing them all, especially if there's a lot of repetition. Then you can put the best, most interesting and meaningful ones in your book, and have an index in the back and with the boxes listing that there are six additional love letters in addition to the two you printed. I'm not sure I would catalog each picture, but you could summarize each photo album's contents or something.

Doing this project was really rewarding for me (and really helped me cope with my grief), and extremely interesting w/r/t family history and learning more about my relatives. However, it was also sometimes emotionally exhausting, and it took me considerably longer than I thought it would (even with experience with similar sorts of projects) -- the emotional attachment I had to the material made it difficult to go through anything quickly or efficiently. I was constantly stopping to reflect. If you think sorting it all will take a weekend, plan on two. If you think scanning it all will take four weeks, plan on eight. You might be quicker, but it really took me much longer than I expected.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:05 PM on April 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh wow, what an amazing and daunting task.

My grandparents were both packrats. What I finally came to terms with is that we are going to miss some parts of their history in clearing out, and that is okay.

I think you need to think of what your goal is, and set limits. If your goal is to make a family history book, then your set-up would be a bit different than if your goal is to document your grandfather's life. You could spend years on telling any story.

If I were to receive a book from a relative, here is what I would want to see:

photos from different periods of my grandfather's life, with at least one photo of each relative and photos that tell me something about my grandfather (here was his house, his car, his pet, etc)

interspersed with a copy of one of his letters, for his handwriting

a few copies of the letters from my grandmother (I would just try to pick some from different eras, and accept that you can't read them all)

A page each for his kids, with a piece of artwork, or writing, or a report card if it was telling

I would leave out your generation, and let your grandkids deal with making a book, ha.

Then, if people want more information, they can look at the scans.
posted by umwhat at 1:05 PM on April 18, 2014

First off, check to see if a local city or state archives have any personal archiving classes or presentations. It helps put you in touch with folks who are trained with these things and allows you to have some exposure to techniques.

If it were me, I'd organize them based on type. So the lectures go together, photos, letters, artwork, etc. Then within the groups sort them by date. As you go through, you can make notes about who is involved or pictured. One thing that is really important for later on is to write the file name of the digital version on the paper version in pencil. That way, you know where you stopped and later on if someone wants to see the originals they don't have to look through all of them.
posted by teleri025 at 4:46 PM on April 18, 2014

If the items do end up scanned then put them into folders with simple titles/dates/?? and then within each folder put a short cut to the other titles and let the viewer of the files, either on a disk or drive, be in command of what peaks their interest and still leaves things in some sort of clear division as to type. The retired file clerk in me wants to do more but if I had to create a simple way, without software designed to do anything else, for many people to view many images I would use this plan.

Free Wiki effect.
posted by Freedomboy at 10:27 PM on April 18, 2014

Joanna, I'm an archivist who's been teaching non-archivists how to do this kind of work since the 1990s. One of my organizer friends tipped me off about this post. First, I want to say that you've already received some great advice (as expected on MeFi) especially about reuniting objects and papers with their original owners. The way I like to phrase it is: YOU DON'T HAVE TO KEEP EVERYTHING!

Here are links to a couple online articles of mine about *levels of organization* Basically, I don't want you to worry that you have to catalog each individual item. The focus is on photographs, but the advice is just as applicable to letters, diaries, clippings, etc.

How to Organize Photos Like an Archivist, Part 1: Levels of Description
How to Organize Photos Like an Archivist, Part 2: 3 Examples of Minimal Level Description

I can talk more about scanning and digital preservation, too -- but first I want to establish that you don't have to scan every single piece of paper or photograph to be a good Family Archivist.

I've subscribed to this thread in m'RSS reader (because I'm Old School like that) so please feel free to post more specific questions. My responses will only to be early in the morning or after dinner, so I apologize in advance for the lag time.

Keep up the good work and thank you on behalf of descendants you may never meet in person!

-Sally J. (Practical Archivist)
posted by sally_j at 6:00 AM on April 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Sally, thank you so much for the links. I appreciate hearing that I don't have to include everything and that I can return stuff to owners later. I guess my only big questions remaining are about the letters. Do I need to keep the envelopes when I repack the box, or can I save the letters and discard the envelopes? Also, if I include one in original scanned handwriting so people can see it, can I transcribe the rest so people can read it better?

I am also thinking of using the love letters as an overall narrative and sprinkling them throughout. Can I use quotes from the letters on this way to sprinkle throughout, even if the letter covers a period not congruous with the photographs? For instance, if a letter describes an event with my uncle, can I use it to sort of caption a photograph of him even if the photograph is from a later period than the letter?
posted by JoannaC at 8:39 AM on April 24, 2014

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