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Archival Advice: Your Family Memories

by Will Demick

In 2020, The Gables was able to inventory, organize, digitize a large portion of our archives thanks to funding from the NEH CARES program.

We all know the holidays are going to look different in 2020. With less time needed for travel, maybe you’ll be pulling out some photographs and documents from your own family. The long winter is a great opportunity to make sure your family’s history and documents are organized and protected. In the spirit of the holiday season, our collections team wanted to pass along some tips and best practices.

Organizing Your Records

Before you can begin preserving or digitizing your records, you’re going to have to organize them. So how do you start that? Should you organize everything by date? What about location, or people, or subject matter? The simple answer is: there is no simple answer. You’ll need to use your best judgement.

Consider what the most important aspect of the record in question is and where it fits in to your family’s story. Is it important that a photo shows cousin Teddy with mutton chops or is it more important that the image was taken during a rare family reunion? You’ll need to be the judge of that. If all else fails, sort by date. At least then you can return to the images later when you have a better idea of where they fit in.

While you’re organizing and sorting your family’s historical documents, it’s as good a time to make sure they are well protected.


Many families have a large collection of photographs, often in photo albums, binders, or scrapbooks. Many families also have envelopes and boxes of loose photographs. What is the best way to preserve your photographs?

  • A binder is the way to go. Put your photographs in plastic sleeves to prevent dust buildup, and keep the binder closed and shelved to prevent the photos from warping or fading from light. Make sure to store the binders like you would books on a shelf – you don’t want to stack them as this can damage the photos. If possible, purchase binders or photo albums using acid-free, non-degrading materials from a company specializing in archival supplies like Gaylord or University Products.
  • For those especially old photos, use gloves whenever you handle them. In fact, you’ll want to wear a pair of cotton whenever handling photographs, if you can. They reduce smudging from fingerprints and can prevent whatever is on your hands from damaging the photo.

Letters and Documents

Have you saved every greeting card from your grandparents? Letters from you beloved? Drawing from you little darlings? What is the best way to preserve your paper?

  • If you can, put them individually in sleeves. We recommend finding materials like polyester film, polyethylene, or polypropylene from a supplier like Gaylord or University Products. Most office supply stores sell plastic sleeves or manilla envelopes, but these may not be the best for long-term storage.
  • After being sleeved, there are two ways you can go. If you have a filing cabinet, drop folders can be used to store the documents based on whatever organizational method you follow. If you don’t have a spare filing cabinet around, I would recommend binders. Label each binder with the subjects contained within, e.g. “Letter 1914 – 1954” or “Teddy’s Barbershop Receipts”.


Almost everyone has old newspaper clippings and articles in their family papers.  Newspapers are tricky as they were printed on paper that becomes discolored, brittle, and harmful to other paper documents stored next to the newsprint.

  • Place clippings and full sheets in good-quality folders and boxes that fully enclose them. Full-sized sheets should be stored flat; attempts to fold them will likely cause them to break into pieces. Clippings can be sleeved in archive-friendly materials and stored upright or flat in folders and boxes.


Digitizing you to easily share and better preserve your family’s history. Photographs can stay in their protective sleeves. Letters can be kept safe from age and weathering. This may seem daunting, but today’s tools make digitizing easier than ever.

  1. Set up your digital space. Are you using an external hard drive? If so, how much memory does it have? What about cloud-based services? Google Drive was inexpensive and made it easy for our staff to collaborate.
  2. Set up your physical space. You’ll need a flatbed scanner and room to move freely. Cramped spaces offer more chances to drop or tear records. And this may go without saying but keep your coffee and snacks away from your workspace!
  3. Select which records to digitize. If you have a large collection of photos, just do a few at a time. Only take out what you can finish that day and be sure to put everything back in protective covering when you’re finished.
  4. Pick a resolution to scan the image at. Most scanners give you a wide range of dpi (dots per inch) to choose from, but as a rule you’ll want to aim for 300 dpi for documents, and between 300 and 600 dpi for photos. The higher the dpi, the clearer the image…but remember, the clearer the image the more space it takes up on your computer!
  5. Use a naming convention. Name each image properly and sort it accordingly. If it’s part of a collection, put the collection title in the name, i.e. “Teddy_001”. You should also add the date the image was created to the file name.

There’s a lot more than can be said about organizing, protecting, and digitizing your family records, but hopefully these tips give you a place to begin this holiday season.







Date: December 1, 2020

Author: sperling

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