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January 15, 2013

What to Save? What to Toss? 4 Questions That Can Help You Decide

Family Keepsakes Blog Book Tour It's the How to Archive Family Keepsakes Blog Book Tour and Olive Tree Genealogy is the stop today. My readers know how passionate I am about preserving family treasures. Well today you are in for a treat! Denise Levenick is the guest author today.

So read on for great tips on deciding what items are worth archiving. As an added bonus you can get a FREE PDF Chart Handout What To Do With What You Inherit: Save, Skim, or Toss, (Read on for information about downloading the free handout).

What to Save? What to Toss? 4 Questions That Can Help You Decide

Guest Post by Denise May Levenick, The Family Curator, author of How to Archive Family Keepsakes (Family Tree Books, 2012). 

It can be hard for family historians to let go of anything that might carry a family story, no matter how old or broken that keepsake might be -- the chipped china teacup you remember from your grandmother's kitchen cupboard, the mildewed children's book that was once bright and new, the keys to long-forgotten locks. 

One key isn't much to save, but it doesn't take long for family keepsakes to become a mountain of memorabilia that threatens to come down on our present life like an avalanche. 

So, how do we choose, what to save, what to toss, and what to give away? I've sifted, sorted, and organized dozens of family collections, and discovered that it sometimes "less" is truly "more," even when it comes to family archives. Yes, we could probably find a family story in every single item set aside and saved, but is that the story we want to preserve? Or, knowing the story, can we let the item go?

Our ancestors were mobile people, and as anyone knows who has ever moved from home to home, each relocation typically involves a kind of triage. Some things are tossed away, others carefully packed up and moved to the new home. Rarely is a home moved intact from place to place.
The same kinds of decisions occur between generations. Sometimes, a son or daughter will inherit an entire home of possessions and need to begin the difficult task of sifting, sorting, saving, and tossing.
Family historians will want to be on the lookout for anything that documents vital record information (birth, marriage, death records), hints at unknown family members, or fills in the blanks for "mystery years" or "family secrets."

Ask Yourself

1. Why did my ancestor save this?
The answer could be quite simple. Maybe your mom, like her girlfriends, followed the current fad and pressed her prom corsage in her school yearbook. Or, perhaps your grandmother added a caption to a baby photo because there was no other documentation of birth. The dried flowers are sentimental, but can be discarded. The baby photo, however, should be preserved with its important handwritten note.

2. Is it unique, one-of-a-kind?
Some family letters, photos or documents might be the only proof of birth or other event; you will want to save those items that document a vital event or important family story.

3. Is it old?
You might be unsure whether or not an item is worth keeping. When in doubt, save it, especially any original document decades old with names, places, and dates. You may discover connections later in your research. Think again about Question #1: Why did my ancestor save this?

4. Is it valuable?
“Value is relative,” you may have heard it said. And, it’s true. What’s valuable to you today, may not be valuable to your children or grandchildren.

Some items, like books and newspapers are now available in digital versions. Save digital copies as PDF images and let go of the paper copies. Or save a digital copy and file a single paper copy as a backup. Digital storage is less expensive than physical storage space. Do preserve your family’s heirloom original documents, though. They may be priceless and unique.

Think About Your Answers

Four "Yes" answers should be a clue that the item is worth preserving, or at least holding for further consideration. 

I've found 19th century baby photos tucked between pizza take-out menus and trade union cards stashed in old wallets. You have to look inside everything, but then, it's ok to toss the cracked plastic envelope, the take-out menus and the smashed, blackened prom corsage.

Take a digital photo if you need a visual reminder of the artifact. Write a short note if it holds a special story. If in doubt whether or not you should let something go, ask yourself if you've ever saved a similar memento from your own life experience, and what you expect your children to do with it. Sometimes, it's ok to give yourself permission to hold on to the memory and let go of the clutter. 

For a FREE PDF chart What To Do With What You Inherit: Save, Skim, or Toss, visit

Find more ideas for sorting and organizing inherited family treasures in How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia & Genealogy Records by Denise May Levenick (Family Tree Books, 2012). Copyright, 2012, Denise May Levenick. All Rights Reserved.

How to Archive Family Keepsakes (Family Tree Books, 2012) ISBN 1440322236
Paperback from
Family Tree Books, ; PDF eBook from Scribd
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Join the Blog Tour
Join the Blog Book Tour for How to Archive Family Keepsakes January 10-26, 2013 for author interviews, book excerpts, giveaways, and more. Visit the Blog Book Tour Page at The Family Curator website for the complete schedule .
Proceeds from the sale of How to Archive Family Keepsakes during the Book Tour will help fund the 2013 Student Genealogy Grant founded in 2010 in honor of Denise’s mother, Suzanne Winsor Freeman.

Blog Book Tour Giveaways
Comment on daily Book Blog Tour PostTweet the Tour Twitter @FamilyCurator #keepsakebooktourShare the Tour on FaceBook, Google+, Goodreads

It’s easy to enter to win a free copy of Denise’s new book or one of the weekly giveaway prizes. All you have to do is leave a comment to the Blog Tour Post hosted at one of the official tour blogs. Random winners will also be selected from social media comments on Twitter, FaceBook, and Google+.

Each blog tour post comment gives you one chance to win; one entry per post per day, please. Leave a comment at each stop on the blog tour and increase your chances of winning. The lucky names will be announced each Saturday during the tour at The Family Curator.

About the Author
In every family, someone ends up with “the stuff.” Denise May Levenick is a writer, researcher, and speaker with a passion for preserving and sharing family treasures of all kinds. She is the creator of the award-winning family history blog, The Family Curator and author of the new book How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia and Genealogy Records, (Family Tree Books, 2012).


Cheri Hudson Passey said...

I really needed this information, I have been given so many things from different family lines. The free pdf will help me determine what to do with it all.
Thank you!

Cheri Hudson Passey said...

Thank you so much for the free pdf. I have many things that have been given to me and I need help determining what to do with it all. Your suggestions will help me.

Elroy Davis said...

Tossing items is one of the most difficult tasks for me. My grandmother was the type of person that didn't throw anything away. When we were kids, whenever we needed something, the answer was always "Ask, Gram. I bet she'll have one." She usually did. Fortunately that also meant that she saved a lot of useful newspaper clippings. I'm finding now that some of the clippings aren't family related, but were items related to people that she knew in town. I'm torn between tossing them, and keeping them. It is nice to see articles stating that it's okay to weed things out, and that throwing items away isn't a sin.

Mary P. Nelson said...

I've used your "save, skim, trash" ideas before, but your four questions really will be helpful in making some of these decisions in the future.

Jane N Rollins said...

As someone with a distinct tendency to pack-rattism, the 4 questions to ask before keeping and tossing are particularly useful for me. Thanks so much for this post.

Family Curator said...

Hello Lorine, and thanks for hosting my Blog Book Tour today. I'll be checking in to answer any questions from your readers, and every comment enters the writer in a drawing for the weekly Giveaway Prize -- this week it's a Family HIstory Archive Kit and a copy of my new book.

~ Denise

Elyse said...

This has been a challenge for me lately. For example, I've inherited a collection of dishes - some for display, some for actual use. I remember some of these sets from my childhood that we used during special occasions or up on our walls. But now, the sets are incomplete and some of the sets are chipped or damaged. I have no use for most of it (although I want to display some of the plates) and I've been contemplating what to do with them.

I think I'll be donating the incomplete china sets for someone else to use - it would be nice for a newly married couple to have a 2 person set for a nice anniversary dinner or something. I want someone to love them just like my mom did.

I know that before I give them away, I'll be taking photos of the china and write a blog post about it too. It'll be my way of remembering the stuff but also giving myself more space in my tiny apartment.

Tina Telesca said...

Throwing anything out is hard for me to do, but I know I have to. Thanks for the tips and that sometimes a photo of the item is okay.

Family Curator said...

Thanks for all the great comments today.

Cheri - glad you like the chart! I find it's pretty handy.

Elroy - Yep, you have to live YOUR life too! I bet our ancestors would be surprised that we've held on to some stuff all these years.

Mary, Jane, Tina - Sometimes it helps just to take a deep breath and think about things. Glad the questions are useful.

Elyse - We must be related! I LOVE old dishes and find it so hard not to keep them all. But, you're right, we can't, or might not want to keep the ones that are damaged. I like you idea of keeping photos. I have a friend who collects individual plates and place settings. They were beautiful at a shower luncheon for her niece. Something to t hink about: save one place setting or dinner plate from each set. .. Wish I had done that years ago.

Thanks for stopping by today on the Blog Book Tour!

Colleen G. Brown Pasquale said...

How did you know I have an old key to my grandmother's house? The four guidelines are helpful. I have generations of items & it is hard to decide what to keep.

Spikey Lisa said...

After years of working on my family genealogy, it is only over the past year that "the stuff" has started being passed on for my caretaking. It's coming in such a frequency and quantity that it is difficult to keep up and know what do do with it...definitely no complaining about this.

It was a relief to realize that I can tell my inner packrat NO and that you offered suggestions on what do do with various items. The scanning has already begun and I am sure that the descendants from the heirlooms originated will one day enjoy seeing the pictures and a blog to tie it all together.


Kathleen Gregory said...

Thank you for the outline on what to keep what to toss. I have a lot of paper to digitize!

Mariann Regan said...

I like especially one of your last "tests" for saving something: namely, if it were your memento, would you expect your children to keep it?

I've been staring for a while at some bronzed baby shoes (my mother's, I think, but not sure) and a toy iron from the early 1900s. By your "test," I think I'll toss these. Thanks for "allowing" me to.

But I do have a preserved locket of my grandmother's hair in a little braid. And two clips of my hair as a one-year-old. Think I may save these for my daughter and her children. Just to compare. And because they seem, somehow, precious.

Family Curator said...

Glad you are finding some useful ideas!
But, Mariann, I admit a weakness for all-things-baby and I'd think twice about those bronzed shoes. I had my son's red cowboy boots made into bedroom lamps for their sons, and they were a big hit. Sometimes, repurposing an item can turn it into an heirloom. Just a thought :>)
~ Denise

Robyn said...

These are really helpful guidelines, and the pdf chart is great. Thanks Denise!My sisters and I have a lot of stuff to sort through and I'm trying to do it methodically. My sister always wants to get rid of things, but I find it hard to let things go. I think some guidelines will hep us negotiate our way through it!

Pamela Guye Holland said...

My mother has a whole room of old photos, clippings and files. Every time we go in the room it seems so overwhelming. I think this information will really help get going on organizing her stuff.

Larry said...

This is one of the hardest thing for me. I cherish getting things that have to do with my family and are reluctant to discard anything. One man's trash etc. Because others did not discard things I have many lost memories returned to me. Organizing it all is what I feel will serve others to come.

Anonymous said...

I think it is great to have the 4 questions of what to toss or what to keep. Now if there could only be someone who can tell us what to do with what we keep after we are gone. I know that none of my kids want the stuff that I have saved and not having any relatives that are interested in the stuff,what can I do with it to prevent it from being thrown out?

Lori H said...

This is by far the hardest thing for me to do! As the "family historian" extended family members are sending things to me all the time and it's hard to know what to keep. I am known as quite the "pack rat" so even with these new guidelines I am going to require some "tough love" from my husband to keep me in line! Thank so much for the help!

Anonymous said...

That is my problem. I jave been the collector since i was little. I now have all my patents and de eased siblings things that my mom kept. I have found that the older i get the more they mean to me but unfortunately not one of my children have that strong urge to hold onto others stuff. What to do with it is my problem too. I have no idea how to insure it is not tossed as there may be a child from my children that actually cares about the past relatives like i do and would be nice that that child would have access to these cherished items.