Your Personal Archiving Project: Where Do You Start?

“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.

Clumps

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

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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18 Comments

  1. Ray Matthews
    May 12, 2016 at 10:25 am

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

  2. Leeana Allen
    May 13, 2016 at 2:23 am

    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. Laura and Meg
    May 13, 2016 at 8:30 am

    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. Stefano Costa
    May 14, 2016 at 3:37 am

    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. Alan
    May 14, 2016 at 12:20 pm

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

  6. Judy Lerner
    May 15, 2016 at 10:08 am

    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. Sharryn Clark
    May 15, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    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. Laura and Meg
    May 16, 2016 at 10:20 am

    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. Kerry Cody
    May 16, 2016 at 5:05 pm

    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
    Kerry

  10. Anna
    May 17, 2016 at 9:32 am

    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. Mike Ashenfelder
    May 19, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    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. Roger Matthews
    May 23, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    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. Jaime Mears
    May 23, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    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. Laura and Meg
    May 24, 2016 at 1:59 pm

    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. Greta Marlow
    May 30, 2016 at 8:12 am

    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. Laura and Meg
    May 31, 2016 at 9:40 am

    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. judyg
    October 20, 2016 at 11:59 pm

    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. Beverly Wright Coleman
    November 7, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    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!

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