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December 18, 2013

Preserving Paper Treasures: Step 2 Sorting & Organizing

Preserving Paper Treasures: Step 2 Sorting & Organizing
Yesterday I talked about Step 1 of preserving your paper treasures as well as digitizing them.  Or as Eric commented on the post yesterday "Digitize it, but don't trash it!" If you missed the first post, please see Preserving Paper Treasures: What's New Today is Obsolete Tomorrow

Today I'm going to show you how to handle all those tubs, filing cabinets and blanket boxes full of unsorted miscellaneous ephemera. Because you and I both know that we genealogists are savers. We save copies of documents we find. We save great-grandma's bill for flowers dated 1889. We save Grandpa's love letter to Grandma from WW1.

Let me preface this blog post with saying that I am not including photos in this tutorial. That's a different subject with it's own issues but I'll talk about preserving your most precious photos in a future blog post. 

The problem is that it is extremely unlikely that anyone in the future will want to digitize all those papers. So we must do that now. But if we want to maximize the chances that the originals will still be in the family 100 years from now we have to go beyond digitization. 

Trust me, no one will want to keep a huge blanket box full of papers. It will be used for some other purpose or sold and the contents tossed out. But I have a few suggestions for how best to ensure that your family papers survive for many more generations to come. 

First you must scan and digitize all of these papers. Save the scans to your computer, to a cloud service (or several cloud services), burn them to a CD ROM, put copies on a flash drive or an external hard drive and share them with family members. 


Preserving Paper Treasures: Step 2 Sorting & Organizing
Now you must sort those papers. If you're like me that is difficult. They are all treasures to me. But sorting is necessary and you will need to make 3 piles based on the importance or value of each document. The criteria for creating these 3 piles will differ from person to person but let me quickly define my criteria. 

For me personally I determine a document's "value" or importance based on:

a) the age of the document. The older the document is, the more valuable it is to me. My great-great-grandmother's receipt for bolts of cloth she bought in 1857 is a valuable document in my mind

b) the amount of information or story the document holds. The story it holds is not the same as the number of words, it is the detail within and how it sets my ancestor in history. For example a military discharge certificate tells a huge story about my  grandfather even though there are very few words on it.

c) how unique the document is. In other words if I have my mother's report card from 1922 that might be difficult or impossible to get from any other source. It is a one-of-a-kind document and is thus valuable.

Preserving Paper Treasures: Step 2 Sorting & Organizing
Determine your criteria for prioritizing your documents and then you're ready to sort into your 3 piles.

Pile #1 consists of your most valuable ORIGINAL documents that you are not ever going to throw out or see ruined. I stressed original because this is not where you put copies of images of census records that you found online. Instead these would be such items as that WW1 love letter from Grandpa to Grandma, your uncle's military discharge papers, your dad's death certificate, or your grandmother's baptism record. You probably have a strong emotional attachment to items in this pile and you likely feel they are of historical importance.

Pile #2 This is where you put papers that have meaning for you but are not as important or unique as Pile #1. You would like to see these documents survive and be passed on in the family but they do not have the same emotional pull for you.

This pile might include such things as a newspaper clipping from Grandma's scrapbook, or Christmas cards that were sent to an ancestor from one of their friends. Perhaps there is a Valentine's card from Grandpa to Grandma with only his signature.  In other words these are items that you find interesting or your parents or grandparents treasured but they don't carry the same weight in your mind as the items in Pile #1. This is a very personal decision as to what is most important or valuable and what is of lessor importance.

Pile #3 is the toss pile. For me personally there is a good chance there will be nothing in this pile! I should purge but I will have a difficult time doing so. But the more papers you have in your possession the more ruthless you will need to be. If you can bring yourself to create this pile, please do. To show you how difficult a toss pile is for me, I have a ticket stub for a dance that my mother had in her possessions. I don't know the story behind this ticket. I don't know when the dance took place. I don't know why my mother kept it. So it has no meaning, no story behind it. I should toss it. But I doubt I will. 

You may also wish to consider creating a 4th Pile. Pile #4 consists of original documents that you are willing to pass on to other family members right now. If you aren't prepared to do this or there is no one in your family who is ready or willing to accept some of the items, that's fine. But consider doing this as it will reduce the stress on family who may be left to decide who gets what after you are gone. 

As an example you can see in my photos above that I have a serviette (napkin) from my brother's first wedding in the 1950s. It has the names of the bride and groom and the date of the wedding so it holds important details. I don't really want that napkin but perhaps one of his children would like to take over as guardian and keeper! As well I have two birth announcements for two of my nieces.  They include photos of each baby at birth, plus details of time of birth, weight, size, parents' names etc. Those notices aren't important for me to keep any longer and I think it is time to put them in Pile #4 then pop them in envelopes and mail to my nieces. 

In my next blog post I will talk about what we're going to do with Pile #1 and Pile #2 in order to maximize our chances that those papers will still be in the family 100 years from now. 

You can follow these upcoming blog posts by choosing the topic "Preserving Paper Treasures" from the right hand side bar.


GeniAus said...

I need to tame the paper monster - will follow this series with interest.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Jill I hear you! I too am a huge paper saver but slowly and surely I've made progress in dealing with it.

This step by step is my latest project to deal with my family ephemera and get it in shape for future generations