Coming up with a plan to manage my new, huge family history collection

Coming up with a plan to manage my new, huge family history collection

As I wrote about in my last post (The find of a lifetime…twice in a weekend), I was pretty freaked out about the impact of receiving the largest collection of family history items I’m likely to ever receive. By the next day it was clear that someone else had claimed the photo albums that were found in Oregon, so it was just this huge collection that I had to process.

What I was feeling those first few days was basically a powerlessness that soon disappeared once I realized we can manage this if we just took a deep breath and put together a plan.

IMAG1082Luckily I had a few bourbons, relaxed, and we came up with a plan. That helped get us back to appreciating this blessing we’ve received, instead of focusing on anything negative.

Before we get to that however, here’s a quick update on the collection. The first thing that jumped out at me is that this isn’t a single collection; this is the remnants of my Great Grandmother’s, my Great Grandfather’s, my Grandmother’s, and my Uncle’s collections. The first boxes came from my grandmother’s cottage after her passing, and there are many documents from/to/regarding her, however there is a trove of correspondence and photos and documents from her parents. In-fact, there are even some that are from her grandparents! Each generation likely collected what they could from the previous generation, and it eventually grew into the collection that’s on my dining room table. What I’m finding most interesting is the letters that reference events, and then finding the invitations to those events in other parts of the collection. Also, the few letters where I’ve found both sides of the conversation for a letter or two are fascinating. Most excitingly I’ve found many photos of relatives that we’ve had no previous photos!

Here’s how I calmed down, and started attacking the collection, and the impact on my life outside of this hobby.

Research how to archive a collection

My first thought was that I would catalog, inventory, scan, present, and cite each item in the collection, touching them once before putting them into their final archival state. But how should I properly archive them?

I Googled it (of course!), and pretty quickly came saw there was a pretty common approach to these collections. The New England Historic Genealogy Society has a great video walking through the common wisdom on how to archive items (Organizing and Preserving Your Family Papers), and it wasn’t long before I had come up with a strategy. I also visited my local History Museum and met with a very helpful historian there to review some of my questions, and found I was largely on the right track.

Split tasks, focusing on organizing and protecting the collection first

It became clear that we can’t spend the year moving these boxes back and forth from kitchen counters, to the dining room table, to the couch (if the 18-month old is restrained), as we live our lives. It was also obvious that keeping everything in the plastic tubs they came in for months was going to be a good medium-term strategy.

Buy 1000 nitrile gloves, you’re going to need them all! You can also see our inventory log in the background.

We made the choice to focus on collecting an inventory as we move each piece into archival storage first, and when that’s complete (and the collection is organized/protected), we’ll go back and catalog, scan, present, and cite each piece. It does mean touching everything twice, but it also gets the collection protected and in proper storage much quicker.

Make choices on archival strategies, and purchase supplies

One of the things that is immediately apparent about archiving this collection is that nothing is cheap. That inevitably will make us make choices about how to protect items, balancing their long-term survival with the costs of providing maximum protection.

Since we have a nice space that’s largely temperature and humidity controlled, and away from exterior walls/plumbing, the main risk to this collection is the acidity of the papers that makes it up. The best way to protect the paper would be to separate each piece in a sleeve made of polyester, polypropylene or polyethylene (3P’s), but in a collection of what will likely be at least 1000 pages of various sizes, it would be very, very expensive. However, as long as you choose carefully, many copy papers are acid-free and you can separate your documents using these papers, and stop the acid transference between pages that will eventually destroy the documents. The downside to using paper, instead of a 3P sleeve, is that the paper will need to be replaced every 3-5 years since it will become acidic as the historical documents transfer their acids to the acid-free paper over time.

Get the newsprint away from everything else

The most acidic paper in any collection is newsprint, and it’s doing the most damage to the collection, so it’s best to start by getting it out of everything. There were close to 200 newspaper clippings related to my great grandfather’s time in Congress in Box 1 alone, so we pulled them all out and put them in their own folders. The experts are divided on what to do with newsprint, but many archivists suggest making copies of what’s of interest (on acid-free paper), and destroying the originals. We’re taking a little different approach, in that we scanned everything into raw image files, and then put the original clippings in their own folders in their own archival box. Eventually we’ll put a 3P sleeve around the entire batch of clippings, so that the acids won’t leach out of the newsprint, but it will continue to subject the clippings themselves to acid. This will eventually lead to the loss of the documents, but they have largely survived for over 100 years, and so with good digital copies, and limited archiving, we should be able to provide some preservation without going through the huge expense of trying to protect each piece.

We assigned a document # to each clipping, and inventoried them as they were scanned and stored, so we have at least basic information about each.

Separate the documents from the photos, inventory, and store the documents

IMAG1083We decided to attack the documents first, and for them we’re going to categorize them by type (Personal correspondence, Speeches, Misc. documents, etc.), separate each page with acid-free copy paper, inventory the document with basic information (description, date, author, target, etc.) and a document #, and store them. The documents are going into 5″ deep, legal-sized metal-edged archival boxes and legal-sized folders. I already had archival folders, and some of the boxes, so adding more to store the collection makes sense. We are making sure that each sheet is smaller than the copy paper dividing them, so we’ve bought letter, legal, and ledger sized paper.

Here’s the products we’re using for documents:

Sleeve each photo in a PAT-tested envelope

How best to store the photos has been a bit of a dilemma. In the past we’ve used 3P 3-ring binder pages of 4″x6″ and 5″x7″ pockets, and stored them archival binders. However, faced with hundreds of photos of various sizes, it’s taken some work to decide how to archive these pictures.

We don’t have a complete strategy, but since most of the photos are 5″x7″ or less, we started there. We’ve ordered individual 5″x7″ envelopes with PAT-tested clear windows on the front. While some archivists suggest writing information on the backs of photos using either pencil or an archival-quality marker, there’s another school of thought that suggests to use envelopes for photos and to write information on the envelopes. Given the more dense storage of envelopes and storage boxes vs. 3-ring binders, and that we’re more comfortable not writing on original photos, we’ve gone the envelope route. We will likely go with larger envelopes for the larger photos, and a large metal-edged box for them, but we haven’t decided yet. It’s been harder to find a large enough 5″x7″ storage box to hold all the photos than we would have guessed, but ultimately we’re trying the box made for the archival storage of shoes from Gaylord since it will give us 13″ of photos.

Again, once we focus on photos we’ll be doing it two phases: first, inventory, assign a photo #, and store them archivally. Once the collection is completely protected, we will come back and scan them, catalog and identify them, and then cite/publish them.

Here’s the products we’re using for photos (so far):

Books, misc. relics, etc.

Box 1 is only photos and documents, so we’ve only addressed how to approach those item. Boxes 2 and 3 are much more book and relic focused, so we’ll figure out how best to archive those items as we get to them.

Balancing time going forward

One of the main worries we had when the collection arrived home was how we will do any other work now that there is years of work in front of us. It took a couple of days, but the solution was pretty simple: manage the time we have, and live within our means. We’ve decided that Monday and Wednesday nights are genealogy nights, Tuesday and Thursday are family history-free, and we play the weekends by ear. I’ll get up early on the weekends and get a few hours of document work in while everyone else sleeps (I’m used to getting up at 5:30a anyways), and the college-aged boys home from school have been pitching in.

We’re working on the balance of family history projects still, and you see it in this blog. Instead of posting 2-3 times a week, it’s been barely 1 time a week since we received the collection. Additionally, the great document I’ve been working on to better understand how a formal Research Plan can breakdown brick walls (Elizabeth Shown Mills has just the right guidance at just the right time!) hasn’t been opened in two weeks. We’re forcing ourselves to put down the collection and focus a bit on DNA, and a bit on Felice’s lines, but we’re going to have to get much better at this as time goes on.

But the important part, for both the time division as well as the overall archiving of the project is this: there is a solution, and we just have to focus on finding the right tools, the right strategies, and the right balance. What I was feeling those first few days was basically a powerlessness that soon disappeared once I realized we can manage this if we just took a deep breath and put together a plan.

More to come on this amazing collection!

The find of a lifetime…twice in a weekend

The find of a lifetime…twice in a weekend

(Note: I began this post Monday, so it’s a bit dated now that it’s going up, but it’s accurate. The owner of the disposed of photo album has since been identified.)

I can barely process what’s transpired over the past 72 hours. I’m both excited, panicking more than I would have thought I would, and starting to understand/worry that my family history journey just changed radically (at best), or is largely over (at worst).

First, a bit of background. My father’s mother Catherine (Morse) Leonard came from an amazing line of ancestors. Her great-grandparents were some of the earliest European settlers in Wisconsin, arriving among the first 20-30 people in the territory in 1835. Her

My grandmother, her mother, and her grandmother, c. 1910

relatives were Mayflower descendants, DAR, Civil War heroes, and people who wrote the Wisconsin State Constitution. Her father was a 3-term Congressman from upstate Wisconsin, and he participated in the Republican Progressive movement as a close friend and ally of “Fighting” Bob LaFollette. He worked tirelessly with LaFollette to bring down the most powerful man in American politics in the 1910’s, Republican Speaker of the House Joe Cannon, at the cost of his own political career.

Catherine passed away in 1990, and her oldest son John collected boxes of family history from her home, and put those boxes in his basement. Nothing had seen the light of day in decades by the time he passed in 2014, and his surviving daughters decided that since I was now the family historian, his papers (which included his mother’s boxes) should come to me. In 2015, hours before the closing of the sale of my Uncle John’s house, I was able to drive up and save invaluable artifacts. There was over 600 “Magic Lantern” 3″ x 5″ glass slides that Congressman Morse and his wife Myra used to make presentations to Opera Houses throughout the Upper Midwest through the 1920’s. There were dozens of photos, wedding invitations/programs, funeral programs, obituaries, etc. There was even a 16mm home move of my late father’s 6th birthday party with footage of him, his two older brothers, various cousins, and of my grandmother and her mother. That day in 2015 that I retrieved the collection, my cousin Diane let me know that she’d been at the house and saw the collection, and we worried it wasn’t going to get picked up, so she took a few boxes of things and that we could get together soon and she’d turn them over to me. It took almost 2 years, but I received the 3 boxes this weekend…and it’s the treasure trove you always dream of, but you know you’ll never get lucky enough to find.

The additional boxes are larger than I expected, and they are stuffed full of material. There are college yearbooks, over 500 family photos (at least!) going back 150 years, land records, telegrams, scrapbooks, etc. The most amazing pieces, however, are the personal correspondence of Congressman Morse and his wife, as well as at least 100 handwritten notes of speeches given throughout the years while he was in office, as well as after. There’s also dozens of letters to my grandmother, including one from one of her best friends from college imploring her not to marry my grandfather!

I’m completely overwhelmed by the volume and importance of what I’ve inherited. I have found at least a dozen letters, invitations, and table placards from the Roosevelt and Taft White Houses on official stationary. It’s almost frightening when you hold these artifacts in your hands, in your dining room. I feel like I’m in National Treasure and I’ve stolen something that belongs in the National Archives! I can’t stop thinking about how we were one broken sump pump away from never knowing what was lost for the last 20 years. And mostly, I am panicking about the amount of work that lies in front of me now that I have this collection.

Dinner Placards
From a 1911 dinner at the Taft White House

And that’s the really impact of getting something like this. I have a clear responsibility to catalog, image, record, cite, and archive these documents. This is likely the most important contribution I’ll make to my family history for the coming generations, and yet this isn’t necessarily where I wanted to spend my limited time. I have more DNA analysis than I could finish in this lifetime, I’d like to work on publishing more of what I’ve found, I’ve started discovering the power of executing formal a “Analysis and Research Plan”, I’m starting to blog seriously, I have a long list of on-the-ground research in Mississippi and Arkansas we need to complete to break through several walls on my wife’s side, I need to get off of Family Tree Maker to a platform that will be supported long-term, and I need to flesh out my Morse line more formally to fill a large gap in the Wisconsin Morse’s for the Morse Society. But I also only have limited time to pursue these goals, and it’s dawning on me that instead of that work, I’m going to have to focus on how to properly archive this collection, and start the years of work necessary to inventory it, scan it, transcribe it, identify the photos as much as possible, and establish both archiving procedures and a storage method that will keep them as safe as possible for generations to come. That will likely be my focus for years to come, at the expense of the other work, and I’m not yet comfortable with that notion…but it’s been 72 hours.

In the middle of this once-in-a-lifetime find, I stumbled across another, and I’m literally having low-grade panic attacks each time I think about it.

As a part of the new collection I just obtained, I grabbed a book that was on top to read in the hotel Saturday night (since all I really wanted to do was go through each and every item right then…and since I couldn’t, one book would have to do), and it was a personal family history of Gwendolen (Morse) Mitchell, my second cousin 2x removed. It was a fascinating history of the children of the brother of my 2x GGF Addison Morse, and it explain quite a bit of the family movement that I’d discovered, but didn’t understand. The book details her husband’s family a bit, and her children, all of which was new information to me.

My 2x great uncle, from a distant relatives collection, found in the garbage, and now on Facebook

Going off of some of what I learned from this book, and as I was just kicking around while my scanner worked capturing some of the new photos I have, I came across an entry on that said Addison’s brother James Morse could be contained in a photo album that was found discarded, and clicked a link to a Facebook group that describes how the Salem, OR Statesman Journal was trying to find the owners of FIVE albums (Help find a home for these photo albums found in Oregon). In that link I saw page after page of my relatives. And all of these photos are of relatives that directly link to Gwendolen (Morse) Mitchell, whose book I first found last night! I have her in my tree, but I knew nothing about them until I read that book. Which had been in my Uncle’s basement since it was published in 1997. The article details the last names of Morse (check), Mitchell (check), Higgins (Gwendolen’s son-in-law’s last name), and Sykes (another of Gwendolen’s son-in-laws), and I can identify the events in many of the pictures as well as the participants.

We all likely see these “lost album” posts all the time. I get them on my Twitter feed, in Facebook, etc. on the regular basis. I never thought I’d see one I recognized even a single photo, and yet here I am posting to FB and to author of the article that I know exactly what those albums are and very likely exactly from whom they came! And, if they don’t find another owner who comes forward, I’m probably the person those albums should go to. I archive everything properly, share with the family openly, have a clear family connection, and I’ll be at the Morse reunion in Oregon this summer where I might be able to find an even better home.

My mind is reeling right now. Two finds that literally are “once-in-a-lifetime” just struck me over the course of a long weekend. I need a bourbon, a little distance from my research, and a good night’s sleep. Funny how getting what you’ve always wanted is always more complicated than you thought it would be!

Click to keep reading about this collection: Coming up with a plan to manage my new, huge family history collection