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Your Personal Archiving Project: Where Do You Start?

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“Simplify, simplify.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

Before and After photo of the the Herbert A. Philbrick Papers, in trash cans and then sorted and archived. Photo by the Library of Congress.
Before and After: the Herbert A. Philbrick Papers. Photo by Laura Kells, the Library of Congress.

Most of us comb through a lifelong collection of personal papers and photos either when we have plenty of free time (typically in retirement) or when we have to deal with the belongings of a deceased loved one. All too often the job seems so daunting and overwhelming that our natural response is to get discouraged and say, “I don’t know where to begin” or “It’s too much; I’ll do it some other time” or worse, “I’ll just get rid of it all.”

At the Library of Congress, archivists process every type of collection imaginable. They often acquire — along with scholarly and historical works — personal papers and mementos, things that had special meaning to the owner, not only letters and photos but also locks of hair, newspaper clippings and beverage-stained documents. One recent collection contained a piece of bark. Some collections arrive neatly organized and others arrive heaped into makeshift containers. How do professional archivists create order from clutter? Where do they start? And what we can we learn from their work and apply to our own personal archiving projects?

For this story, I spoke with Laura Kells and Meg McAleer, two senior archivists from the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division. Both exude the good-natured patience and relaxed humor that comes from years of dealing with a constant inflow of often-disorganized paper and digital files. [Watch their presentation, titled “The Truth about Original Order, or What to Do When Your Collection Arrives in Trash Cans.”]

Photo of a room in the Library of Congress filled with boxes of papers.
Photo by Laura Kells, the Library of Congress.

I found it striking that, throughout our interview, they rarely dictated how something must be done. Instead they offered well-seasoned advice about archiving but they left the decisions up to the individual. In the end, their main message was this: if you want to get through the project and not make yourself crazy and despondent over it, start simply, separate items broadly at first and, in the end, accept your final sorting decisions as “good enough.”

Start Simply

First, approach your collection as a single unit of stuff. Don’t dwell on individual photos or letters yet. Think about the entire collection as a mass of related things. Kells said, “You’ll scare yourself if you think, ‘I have two hundred things.’ The project will seem bigger.” It is one collection.


Consider devoting a rainy weekend to pulling out your collection. At this point you will be surveying its broad landscape. Begin by sorting items from your collection into what McAleer and Kells expertly call “clumps.” This is your first pass, so just group things into general categories such as letters and photos. You decide on your categories. Be consistent but accept that there might be overlap between categories. If you want to categorize clumps by year, fine. Or phases of a person’s life. Or holidays. Or type of materials (letters, photos).

“What you try to do is identify the clumps that already exist,” McAleer said. “And hopefully clumping naturally occurs. For instance, you could have gotten all of your grandmother’s papers after her death. That’s a clump. Trips? That’s a clump. Christmas stuff, that’s a clump. Photographs, that’s a clump.”

WARNING: Don’t get sidetracked. Resist the temptation to savor any one thing right now. “If you begin engaging with individual items at this point, then you’re sunk,” McAleer said. “You can paralyze yourself by over scrutinizing.” Whatever it is, no matter how wonderful it is, put it in its rightful clump and come back to it later.

Sorted paperwork on shelves.
Photo by Laura Kells, the Library of Congress.

Be Realistic About Work Space and Time

There are two important things you should address early on: space and time. Your collection will take up space in your house as you sift through it, so plan your work space realistically. Set aside a temporary work space if you can – a room or a corner of a room — or plan to unpack and re-pack your collection for each sorting session. “In most people’s homes they don’t have a great deal of space to have things sitting out for a long time,” McAleer said. “At some point you will really need that dining room table for dinner.”

Don’t eat or drink in the work area. Kells said, “Just step away. When you’ve got big piles and you reach your drink and you knock it over, you’ll be real sorry if you spill your coffee all over your documents or your photographs.” McAleer said, “It happens in an instant. None of us anticipate it. It can be tragic.”

As for time, McAleer said, “Do not start out with a commitment that every single item within this collection is going to be organized perfectly.” Kells said, “That could make you feel a sense of defeat. Just start out by saying, ‘I want to improve the organization.’ ”

Nothing is Perfect

After sorting the collection into clumps, you could put everything into envelopes or other containers and be happy about your progress. “You can feel good because you’ve done something,” Kells said. “As long as there is some order. It’s probably chaotic within those clumps but just by identifying and labeling and boxing those clumps, you have some intellectual control over it that you didn’t have before.”

You could leave the project at that or you could continue on, from a rough sort to a refined sort. “If you have the energy, you just work in layers and keep improving it,” Kells said. “Then you can gauge how much time you have and how much space you have to do this. Anything new is gravy.”

Photo of letters, sorted.
Letters sorted by correspondent. Photo by Laura Kells, the Library of Congress.

For example, you could sort letters by date or by topic or sort photos by location or by who is in each photo. “It is a matter of constant refinement, where you’re going to be getting more and more information about the content over time,” McAleer said. “It’s like building a house. You start out building the structure of a house and then you add furniture into each room.”

It’s a good time to throw things away too. Decide if you really want to save paid bills, cancelled checks or grocery lists. McAleer said, “In the long run, just save the things that you’re going to value over time. It is up to you how far down you drill in terms of arranging the material. At some point you have to say to yourself, ‘This is so much better than it was. I know what I have. This may be as good as it gets. I have put some organization on it and that is going to make it more accessible.’ ”


Scanning is a terrific way to preserve and share digital versions of papers and photographs. The Library of Congress explains the basics of scanning in a blog post and an instructional video. You can also add descriptions into your digital photos, in much the same way as you would write on the back of a paper photo.

Scan newspaper clippings too. Newspaper ages poorly, when folded it can rip at the creases and it can crumble when being handled. Print a scanned copy if you want a hard copy. Computer paper ages better than newspaper does.

Another reason to scan photos is to rescue them. Photos may fade due to their chemical composition or because they may have been in direct sunlight for a long time. (Institutions rotate their collections regularly to avoid the damage from light and environmental exposure.) “Resist the idea of framing things,” McAleer said. “They really should not be exposed to light for too long. You can make a copy and frame that but keep the original out of the light.”

Photo of a handwritten letter.
Photo by Laura Kells, the Library of Congress.

If you have hundreds of photos, think about if you really want to scan them all. That may add pressure on you. Again, be realistic with your time. Consider being selective and only scanning the special photos or documents that you value the highest. Most institutions don’t have the resources to scan everything so they digitize their collections selectively; maybe you should too.

Disks and Digital Storage Media

If the collection includes computer disks, scan the disks for viruses before you open the contents. Don’t put everything else on your computer at risk. Before opening a file, make a duplicate of it and open the duplicate to avoid any accidental modifications. That way you’ll still have the original if you mess something up.

If the disks contain files in an old format that you can’t access, but you believe those files might contain something of interest or value, archive those files with your other digital stuff. You can either find a professional service to open them or someday you might find a resource that will enable you to open them.

Digital Preservation

Save your digital files properly. Organize the scanned files on your computer and back them up on a separate drive. If you acquire disorganized computer files, organize the clutter as best you can within a file system. To help you find specific files again, you can rename those files, without affecting their contents.

Archiving a Life Story

Organizing personal collections can be a way to tell a story about your life or the life of a loved one. “I don’t think people should be afraid to curate these collections,” McAleer said. “Zooming in and narrowing in on one particular story or one particular item can actually have a little bit more impact.”

Kells said, “Old letters give you a sense of the people, even if there’s not much to the letters and cards. It shows you what they valued. What they did, what they ate, what holidays they celebrated.” McAleer said, “Letters provide a voice and by grouping them together you release a kind of narrative.”

What was in her wallet or purse? What did she keep near to her? “There are probably certain things in a drawer somewhere that tell a story,” Kells said. “You could create a time capsule about a loved one.

“Not everyone values this stuff but if you archive it, it will be there for somebody in a later generation. There may be one person who really cares about their family history and will be glad to have it.”

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Comments (33)

  1. There are people who make history and people who deal with the clutter. We need both.

  2. Thank you for this informative article!
    I’m at the clump stage and wondering, ” who really cares?” After reading “maybe one person will care…” I am re-invigorated. Your time preparing this is much appreciated!

  3. Dear Leeana, we are cheering you on! Trust us; there are people who will care and will be grateful for your efforts. Have fun with your project. Best of luck, Laura and Meg

  4. Very well written and encouraging, I have my little collection of letters, photographs and cards – ironically mostly from the US even though they were sent back to Italy. Do you have any specific advice on digital archiving of scanned cards or letters? In other words, a way to keep both sides of the card in a single file, instead of having two separate files (maybe in a folder of their own). I thought about creating a PDF but that is not very good for storing high quality images. Multi-page TIFF exists but it doesn’t seem widely supported..

  5. What an excellent article. If only it could help with the procrastination side of things too! 😉

  6. This article is very helpful. We are just starting to deal with the clumps with the recent passing of my Mom. It is overwhelming, and this article helps to make it more manageable. Thank you Mike – Well done article!

  7. I’ve been scratching away at genealogy for 45 years, plenty of personal items (pictures, letters, graduation, wedding, retirement etc.)”Much stuff”.. I use hanging file folders with Family name then subset of given name starting several generations back, items for that family, then next generation etc. are sorted into files, easy access when looking for items on that family. Works after many years of accumulating.

  8. Dear Stefano, What a wonderful transatlantic collection to have! Agreed, creating folders for each set of images associated with an item can be too granular and clunky. One way to keep the TIFFs associated is through file naming. For example, let’s say you have a two page letter with an attached photograph and an envelope – so four images in all. You could name these files as follows: Letter_Smith_Mary _1953_04_26_001; Letter_ Smith_Mary _1953_04_26_002; Letter_ Smith_Mary _1953_04_26_003; Letter_Smith_Mary _1953_04_26_001. You will notice that the first part of the file name remains the same for each image, thereby keeping the association intact. The one-up number at the end of the file name is unique for each component image: 001 is the first page of the letter, 002 is the second page, 003 is the attached photograph, and 004 is the envelope. Another point . . . Consider the order in which you want the images to be listed in your file directory, and choose sequencing of the terms in the file name accordingly. For example, if you used the file naming pattern: Letter_Smith_Mary_1953_04_23_001, all letters would be listed in sequence by last name, then first name, then date of the letter. Or you could begin the file name with the name of the person or date of the letter. It is your choice, but it is worthwhile spending some time thinking about it. One final point, we would list the date consistently in yyyy_mm_dd order. Good luck!

  9. Thank you for the informative article. My friends – musicians and civil rights activists asked me this week for advice on how best to keep their wonderful collection (over 40 years) of performance ephemera, audio, video, etc. They have progressed past the “clumping stage” . I was wondering if you had any advice on a database for listing or cataloging their resources please?
    Love your work. Warm regards from the Antipodes

  10. Excellent article! I am in the process of organizing my clumps and this article is very encouraging. I have been the family historian for many years now. Although most in my family roll their eyes when I start to tell them about something exciting (to me, at least) find, I believe one day I’ll find a family member who will get excited along with me. For those of you who wonder if it’s worth it, or if anyone will care, I can tell you, we family historians will love you forever!

  11. Kerry,

    Without knowing much about your friends’ database skills, an Excel spreadsheet might be the best way to go. If they used something more fancy, it’d be more likely they’d have to migrate it from one database format to another.

    Make sure that the labels on the items and what’s in the spreadsheet are consistent with each other is the most important thing for cataloging a physical collection.

    Data imaging tools are improving all the time, so depending on how your friends organize their information, they may be able to display it from the spreadsheet in the data-visualization tool in some fascinating and useful ways.

    [Library of Congress archivist Jaime Mears contributed to this answer.]

  12. I am a retired database admin with very modest skills, and a self-designated family archivist for our family. I inherited tubs of photos, documents and videos from my Dad’s lifetime of semi-pro photography, a real treasure. Plus lots of other items 🙂 I am really attracted to the idea of storing a text file with metadata, maybe based on the Dublin core. There is NOTHING out there for the personal archivist, that I can figure out how to use, at this level. I may have to write my own software. I love your advice, but how to leave my archive so it will be accessible to my descendants in 50 years! I may have to write a bespoke program (Access or .NET) to do the following: Intake photos, documents and videos, store them in rational folders with rational filenames, and a text file with each digital media, using the same filename. I am thinking of making the text metadata file in XML format so that it will be “machine readable”, in the long term event that the database program that created them becomes obsolete. So, “grandma-1903-12.jpg” will be accompanied with “grandma-1903-12.xml”. I would like to create a digital archive that is rational, can be left to the next generation to carry on, that is affordable and doable by individuals, and which someday could easily be accessioned by a museum. (Hence the Dublin core idea.) All this is simple and straightforward, but there is nothing out there to help me do this. After all these years of digital archive progress, the personal digital archivist has not received the kind of help we need in this era :). Thanks for your site, though, it is at least addressing the issues of us personal archivists :).

  13. Roger,

    There are several open source archival management platforms that could be of interest. A “DAMS” system like Omeka would allow you to create Dublin core metadata files and organize your collection- just be sure that you continue to store backups locally and transfer them as the years go by!

  14. Roger,
    As a follow on to Jaime’s excellent advice . . . Given your computer expertise, you might want to look into the POWRR project which was created to help repositories that have limited resources (but is also useful for the private individual who has technical skills). Its website has a “tool grid” that lists a lot of useful tools, many of them free and open source. The list is a little dated (2013), but good. You might want to look at one of the suite of tools, Archivematica, as an example. I applaud your goal to keep it simple and practical, but with a commitment to long-term accessibility. Best of luck, Meg

  15. Thank you for the encouraging article. I’ve done some clumping of photos and other items, including making digital files. My question is, are there times when I should save the original item? I really appreciate that digital files aren’t taking up space and collecting dust, but I also feel looking at something on a computer screen is not quite the same. Is there a guide for when to keep the physical copy and when to scan it and toss the original?

  16. Dear Greta,

    Great question. The answer may require balancing what is important to you and your family and what resources are available to you in terms of time and storage space. This is subjective, we know, and there is no “right” answer. If viewing the original photographs is important to you, save them (!) and use scanning as a way to share them with friends and family. If storage space is a concern, you might want to “curate” your collection – save a selection of original photographs that are particularly compelling and memorable and preserve the remainder as digital images. Your mother’s wedding portrait, we suspect, is important to you and you would want to preserve it as an original item in addition to scanning it. The five rolls of film from a 1983 cruise? Perhaps only six of these photographs are outstanding in their own right. When we need to make a tough decision about whether to preserve an original item or an image of it, we generally consider whether the item has significant value as an original object or whether its chief importance is the information it contains. Here is an example . . . a newspaper clipping is important for the information it contains. The original clipping is very acidic and will deteriorate over time, so the information is best preserved in another format such as a digital image or a photocopy. An autograph letter from John F. Kennedy is important both as an object and for the information it contains. You would want to preserve the original and scan it so that it can be shared and, of course, if the letter was either lost or destroyed, you would at least have an image of it. The bulk of the cruise photographs may be most important for the information the photographs contain, recording the places you visited. If you prefer not to store the entire original set, scan what you have time to scan, but perhaps save as originals only the six outstanding photographs we mentioned above. Remember to make backup copies of your digital images, particularly if you are not saving the originals! Best of luck, Meg (with great insights from our colleague Connie Cartledge)

  17. Just got 2 boxes of letters that go with some photos that a now deceased family history buff kept. I was looking for internet advice on how to catalog, file and store and voila! here is your article. Thank you so much for sharing these ideas. I am off to clump the collection!

  18. I just wanted to share a personal story about the value the archivist adds to a cataloging project. I was allowed to view many of the original letters, notebooks, and photos of the Wright brothers when I visited the Manuscripts Division at the LOC. On a “First flight photo” printed by Orville himself in his home darkroom, LOC librarian Fred Howard had added a yellow sticky note that read, “The Wrights were unable to develop the glass plate negatives taken on December 17, 1903, until quite a bit later because the pipes in their Dayton home were frozen.” I might never have known that story had Fred Howard not chosen that method and that place to enhance the value of that extremely valueable photograph. I salute all those who care enough to archive!

  19. I am a member of a Historical Society in Missouri. we have thousands of county newspaper obituary clippings. We are thinking about scanning them in, and linking them with each name on an Excel generated list. We are thinking of generating a folder for each name, so that we could add information to that name if more information of that person becomes available. We don’t want to get started and later find out down the road that we did it wrong. Any information or advice? Thanks

  20. I don’t know if Laura and Meg will see this, but my husband and I are encountering a strange crisis of conscience — as long as we’ve carefully digitized and are conscientious about our backups and transfers to newer hard drives, etc. — what reason MIGHT there be to keeping the hard copies of VHS tapes, audio cassettes, photos, or photo negatives? Is there a benefit we aren’t thinking of to keeping these? For us, one of the major motivation to digitizing all this stuff is that we are going to be having twins in October, and having everything accessible digitally not only clears up needed space in our home, but almost certainly ensures that we will look at the items on our home computers or television as a family as the twins get older. Thoughts?

    PS — We are definitely keeping hard copies of old family letters and sentimental records, but we just are struggling to figure out a ‘why’ for the video/audio/photo stuff (unless there’s some writing on the back of a photo that might be sentimental).

  21. Good blog you have got here.. It’s difficult to find good quality
    writing like yours nowadays. I honestly appreciate people like you!
    Take care!!

  22. I am thinking about archiving and offering a course in cultural studies. Do you have any suggestions???

  23. Great lesson
    I have find it very informative
    Though I had already started archiving I did not know how detailed I should go – I find myself scanning all photos taken in Primary scholl to college and life before getting married. I do have kids in the level of University and high school.
    I find myself requiring big space, I think I need to go back and reduce some of information which is not required in the future. Trying to keep everything interesting on Whats app I will find myself getting burst of space.

    On question could you suggest the best way of arrangement of files meaning directories and subdirectories which could make life easy when retreaving them.
    Thanks again

  24. Some common mistakes to avoid when scanning important documents on your own. The first thing is don’t do it yourself and the second thing is don’t hire temps to do this work. Identify the document classifications and indexing needs upfront and get an estimated cost to allocate funds to complete the project. It is always best to hire a company that has a great deal of experience and is willing to work on small and large projects

  25. Gosbert,
    There is no single ideal for file directory arrangement. The guiding principles should be simplicity and consistency. A simple arrangement makes it more likely the user will consistently put the same materials in the designated folders over time. The folder headings should be clearly, understandably named and reflect the folder contents. As mentioned above, the user should think in terms of big “buckets” or “clumps” of materials when naming folders (e.g. years, photographs, school, etc.)

    Before beginning, a person should reflect on how they expect to use the materials in the future. Also consider how they expect others might use the archive in the future. For example, does the person conceive of their archive chronologically or in terms of events or people? A chronological arrangement could yield a file directory like this–

    In the best possible situation, the files within these folders would have the date as part of their name (see Laura and Meg’s response to Stephano above).

    Arranging photographs by life event might look like this–

    The problem with the second approach is — what happens if Aunt Mary’s birthday is on Halloween? And she celebrated it with a costume party? Which bucket does it belong in? You might say Halloween. I might say Birthdays. It might depend on the contents of the picture. The solution many people would come to is to duplicate the photos in both folders. But that leads to unnecessary duplication and opens the door for inconsistency.

    A simply arranged master archive promotes consistency which promotes findability. If a user wants to pull items from the master archive to create photograph albums or themed collections, that can be easily done. Those digital photograph albums or themed folder collections should exist outside the master archive. All the while the master archive is maintained as is for future use.

    I hope that is helpful. Good luck!

    Kathleen O’Neill

  26. Thank you so much for this article and discussion. I have been wondering how and why to approach my parents’ documents and memerobilia. I now know what I am doing is not pointless or abnormal! Archivists unite! Thank you.

  27. Does anyone have experience with placing archive material into a Family Trust or similar? I am helping a cousin to organize a large collection of family postcards sent between the two World Wars by 13 brothers and sisters. We want to collect other items from family members and to publish the story on a new website but we are unsure how to keep hold of the collection for future generations. Any suggestions?

  28. I have a similar question to Peter Whitehouse. I’ll be inherited a lot of papers and photos relating to my grandparents’ immigration to the US during WWII. My parents are scanning everything now (bless them!) but it’s all just going to go on a flash drive. I dream of starting a password-protected website for future generations of our extended family. I would want it to be something as long-lasting and well organized as a digital archive such as those maintained by universities. Do “regular people” do this? The closest I’ve seen is family blogs, but I dream of something more robust and searchable.

  29. I am archiving Kala Bharati Legacy.
    I would like to have some help and guidance how to go about it.
    I live in Montreal.
    It will be part of Bibliotechque de la Danse Vincent Warren. in Montreal…they have agreed to it.
    Looking for your help with advice and information

  30. Thanks for this beautiful, interesting and educative article. it will really assist me in my office project on archive management

  31. This is lovely. I did a project in grad school for my MLIS using the collection of stuff my mother had from her “secret” first marriage to a Venezuelan ex-Army officer in the mid-20th century. I had all her official documents for when she emigrated to Caracas, travel documents, medical clearances to move to another country, letters she kept from my grandmother, cards, postcards, little snapshots. They lived apart until she could move to be with him, and then it fell apart, and she went back to Queens, NY. I thought it was interesting, but can you believe that my digital collections instructor actually said to me during my presentation, “Why would anybody keep that stuff?” I was appalled! My scanning, cataloging, and database structure and querying worked flawlessly (unlike some of my classmates’ projects of their beer bottle collections, or their CD collections–which she didn’t denigrate). This is a very informative and interesting article. Thank you.

  32. How naive I was to think that I had nothing of value to archive. Now I am daunted with a REMARKABLE family saga. . .one chapter woven through the National Archives of the US and UK.. . and others. Thank you for these directions.

  33. Thanks for sharing this great advice. I see the comments have become fewer as the years passed. It is now 2024. I have been working on archiving 34 years of personal journals, letters, photos (spanning over 100 years and include family, friends, local events, and world travel), and journals of other family members, and journals obtained at estate sales. This is a process, a journey, that has been 15 years in the making. Looking at all that has been accomplished, I am humbled at the end result (or should I say ongoing). Had I known all the work that would have been required, I probably would never have attempted this. But as you pointed out, I took a “clump” at a time, staying focused on just that, and went forward one step at a time, month by month, year by year, decade by decade. Now the question I have is, with everything preserved in digital, what do I do with all of the originals? What if there is no family that would ever want it? Yes, I feel certain that one day someone will, but is there any place to donate these to? Some place that will preserve the originals? Asking myself this question is what led me to your site.
    Thank you.

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