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.

IMAG1049
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!

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