Saving Family Papers




What is Family History?

What to Keep

How to Organize Family Papers

Placing Family Records in a Repository




America's Bicentennial Celebration in 1976 coincided with the publication and subsequent television dramatization of Alex Haley's Roots. This book and program inspired the general public to search for family records. In the course of this research, materials which have continuing historical value in their own right were collected. Whether your ancestors landed at Plymouth Rock or Ellis Island, whether they were brought against their will or were native to this country, there are certain things you may wish to preserve in order to pass on to the succeeding generations the unique story of your family's part in American and local history.

Genealogists have long been working in archives and historical records repositories of the world. This is not a guide to genealogical research. Rather, it is intended to guide you in preserving the documents located and created during your research into your personal or family history. For an introduction to local records that might help you in tracing your family tree check in the RESOURCE section of this site.

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What is Family History?

Family history is more than birth, marriage and death dates. It is the story of personal interaction with a community and the impact of national, state and local events on generations of people. Sources for family histories can be written documents, photos, scrapbooks, diaries and other types of personal papers. Sources for family histories can be found in records of churches, schools, businesses, social clubs an other organizations whose archives document various activities engaged in by your ancestors. The records used to research family history can be an important part of our documentary heritage providing a direct link to our common past. All of the day to day materials document who we are, what we did and what was important to us.

Your family's history reaches back to your siblings and parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents; as far back as you or anyone in your family can remember. It also reaches forward to your siblings' and your own children and so on. This document offers an introduction to organizing the documentary history of your own family.

Your family history is of great interest not only to your own family, but to the larger community of historians, scholars and students from grade school to grad school. For example, a school essay written in the 1930s may reflect a time of great upheaval and change better than a textbook ever could. A photograph of your great-grandmother in her 1890s bicycling outfit may interest a costume designer as well as your daughter. Letters exchanged between husband and wife or parents and children may express what life was like more clearly than any history book. For instance, letters written during military conflicts or letters home from college or while on a trip can provide personal insights an opinions which are extremely helpful in understanding the humanity in historical events.

The story of our ancestors and ourselves is the story of our community, our country, our world. However, it only becomes history when it is organized and preserved for future generations.

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What to Keep?

What to keep depends on the breadth of the collection and the age of materials. As a rule of thumb, the older the material and the smaller the amount, the larger percentage you would keep. For example, if you had a small number of bills and receipts documenting the purchase of livestock from the early 1900s plus a few letters and a Bible listing births, deaths and marriages, you would keep them all. But, remember, old does not mean historical.

However, if you found massive folders of bills and receipts from the 1990s, folders and folders of letters, diaries, journals and income tax materials going back for years, you could be more selective in the material you retained. A trained archivist could help you select documents that most clearly reflect significant thoughts & activities of family members involved, and could direct you to potential repositories which might be interested in some materials you do not wish to retain.

Don't try to censor documents by throwing away anything that would show the family in a less than perfect light. Families are not perfect and often it is the imperfections that add color to family histories. Rather than destroying the historical record, consider placing a time restriction on those items you feel could embarrass individuals while they are still living. Seal those documents in some form -an acid free envelope for instance, indicates they may not be opened until a certain date.(Usually 25-50 years is long enough) If you place your family papers in an institution such as an historical society, library or university, they are obligated to uphold any restrictions you place on the collection has been established by you in writing through a donor agreement form.

What documentation of today should be kept for posterity? A receipt for the purchase of an everyday appliance in 1993 would probably not be of great interest to a researcher in 2093, since the purchase would be documented in other financial records. In general, think about whether a record is absolutely unique or whether it documents common activities. The following list is a guide to the sorts of records that usually have historical value. It is not inclusive and no one collection will contain all of the material listed.

* Audio & video materials such as tapes, slides, VCR film and motion pictures which are labeled

* Birth and/or Baptismal records, death and marriage certificates and other vital records

* Certificates of Confirmation, Bar/Bat Mitzvah and other religious rites of initiation, marriage and records of religious ceremonies

* Clippings - make sure they are dated and the publication is noted

* Correspondence- keep with the envelopes which may have dated and other information helpful to the researcher

* Creative work- paintings, drawings, prints, musical scores, folk art, etc.

* Diaries and journals; annotated calendars, datebooks, office organizers

* Newsletters - family and community

* Memorabilia, Ephemera; postcards, posters, programs from special events

* Military records

* Photographs and negatives - try to date them and identify people and place

* Records of homes and real estate transactions

* Records of membership such as unions, professional organizations community and fraternal organizations

* School records such as report cards, diplomas and written materials & art work

* Scrapbooks

* Wills and estate papers; legal documents

* Written materials (published & unpublished) such as articles, books, essays, poems, stories & plays 

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How to Organize Family Papers

Most family papers are scattered in many different locations. Begin by contacting as many family members as you can and ask them to send materials (originals or copies) to one location. This allows the papers to be organized according to an over all plan which will produce a family collection used by members and perhaps some day by a larger community of researchers. When you have collected all you can, go through the materials to receive an overall picture of what the collection contains and into what categories materials may fall. Sort them first according to the individual who compiled them or to whom they pertain. Remember, we are documenting the history of a family and its members, not compiling a list of types of records in your family. Do not organize all death, marriage, military and service records together. Instead, if Uncle Joe Smith has given you his and records of his parents, organize them as the "Smith Family Records" and under that, "Joe Smith Family" with a series for Joe Smith, a series for this parents and so on. Then arrange items chronologically within file folders under the overall categories you have chosen. By the time you have finished going through the collection it is likely you will know enough to revisit items you were unsure of, and be able to determine where they belong.

Finally, place all materials in acid-free folders and place folders into acid-free storage containers. For special preservation needs, i.e. photographs, tapes, etc. check the Resources section of this page.

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 Placing Family Records in a Repository

How can you insure the preservation and care of your family history? If you have an environmentally stable room in your home, where you can maintain a consistent temperature and humidity at the optimum 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 50% relative humidity, you may wish to maintain the collection there. Attics, basements or garages are not suitable for the long-term storage of historical documents. Or you can transfer the materials to an appropriate repository that will care for your collection and make it accessible for historical research. Repositories such as an historical society, college or university archives or public library are suitable.

Letting go of your family documents may seem a very difficult step to take. You may wish to make copies of some items to keep within the family. You should determine if the repository will keep your collection as safe from fire and water damage, theft, disarrangement and environmental degradation as is humanly possible. Any restrictions you place on access should be upheld. You and other family members will always know where to find them and future generations may wish to add their own documents at some point. You will know the work of historians will be enriched by your family's contribution.

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The following guide includes selected reliable sources with concise and practical advice for the person whose responsibilities include the care and arrangement of collections of family documents. Many of the resources include their own bibliographies.

Archival Supplies
Light Impressions

Gaylord Bros.


Cindy's List -- this is the ultimate genealogy source on the web!

Roots: Genealogy Resources in WNY


Carmack, Sharon DeBartolo. A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors. Cincinnati OH: Betterway Books, 1998.

Croom, Emily Anne. Unpuzzling Your Past: A Basic Guide to Genealogy. Cincinnati Ohio: Betterway Books, 1989.

Gouldrup, Lawrence P. Writing the Family Narrative. Salt Lake City UT: Ancestry, 1987.

Kammen, Carol. On Doing Local History. Walnut Creek CA: AltaMira Press (Sage Publications) , 1995.

Mace, O. Henry. Collector's Guide to Old Photographs. 2nd Edition. Iola WI: Krause Publications, 700 E. State St. (54990-0001). 1-800-258-0929.

Sperry, Kip. Reading Early American Handwriting. Baltimore MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. 101 N. Calvert St. (21202)


NOTE: The material on this page has been developed from a number of different sources and personal experience. Comments? Contact: Nancy Piatkowski

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