American Family Archives | Overall Philosophy

Part 1:

The Overall Philosophy of
Personal Family Archives



Why I Gotta Do This:

Family Archives: A Journey into Ancestry, Genealogy, Family History, Antique Photographs, Disorganization, Dysfunction, Chaos, and One Man’s Search for Archival Salvation





Family Archives



Let’s face it, we’ve all got one. Usually someplace where the sun doesn’t shine. Yup, its the “family archive” – those shoeboxes full of snapshots, formal portraits, newspaper clippings, old home movies, christening presents, wedding dresses, childhood toys and artwork, diplomas, the list of “stuff” goes on and on (and on and…).


It usually looks something like this:


Family archives of photos snapshots films slides
Where the sun doesn’t shine: freezing to death in the winter, frying in the summer.



Artifacts from family archives.
Shoeboxes are for, well, shoes…
Not archival nor acid-free storage.
…NOT irreplaceable family photos.













And just where is this eclectic stash of family curiosities? Why it’s in the attic, of course, freezing to death in the winter, frying in the summer. Or it’s in the basement, next to the cat’s litter box, slowly moldering away (dust to dust, right? – even for family photographs). Or it’s in an outdoor storage locker someplace, or its “archivally stored” in shoeboxes or crappy non-archival photo albums that are in fact doing more harm than good. As a rule of thumb, for most of us at least, its out of sight / out of mind.


harm and damage to family archives
Unmoored from the continuum.


But wait a minute. Why is this? This is just wrong. I mean, more often than not when you hear about what people risked their lives—quite literally—to save from a burning house, or from Hurricane Poindexter that came slamming into town, or from the once-in-a-hundred-years flood that showed up last week – its family photographs. Almost everything else an individual owns can be replaced, in one form or another, but this is usually not the case with family photographs (unless one has a “disaster recovery plan,” but more on that later). Barring such disasters, if you lose your family photos or related heirlooms to neglect or the ravages of time (or badly executed  “preservation” attempts) then you’ve lost your history. You’ve become unmoored from the continuum of your family’s last hundred-plus years, knocked off the foundations on which your own personal history was built. Sure, you might still be alive and kicking, but just what has been lost?



genealogy from the family archives

Speer Family Record – a page from a detailed and intricate personal genealogy assembled by my grandfather that dates back to the 1620s and runs through 1930. I didn’t even know this existed, much less that it was in my own attic for decades!



I could write paragraph after paragraph, page after page on the reasons one should go and grab those boxes of memories and keepsakes and begin sorting / organizing / archivally storing all of the material that makes up one’s personal family history – the snapshots, the important papers, the kids’ old report cards, the love poems dad wrote to mom back in college, the Grateful Dead ticket stub from ‘72 – all of it. Well, I won’t tell you that, because I just did.











artifact from family archives

From the “family archive:” 
Cigar my old man handed out when I was born (1958).
Figured I’d smoke it on my deathbed.
“El-Roi-Tan” brand? What’s up with THAT?



Instead, in the coming series of blog postings I am going to walk through the merriment, memories, minefields and occasional mayhem of my own life as defined by the artifacts and photographs – the “family history” – left to me by my parents and grandparents, with the goal of making sure that it is all figured out and in the right archival enclosures, boxes and albums to insure maximum longevity, utility and survival. In the process I’m heading back to the 19th century; watching the age of flight begin; hanging out with grandpa (who was a jerk, according to my dad) during the Depression; witnessing World War II through the eyes of my parents; experiencing the ‘50s / ‘60s / ‘70s and everything in between, all to land right back in the here and now – the era of the Smartphone camera, the photographs nobody prints, and the family histories left unrecorded and ill-preserved. All this as our parents and grandparents (and eventually each of us ourselves) inevitably and inexorably shuffle off to join the ranks of their own parents and grandparents in the Land of Not Around Anymore. Now is the time to do this, so here goes.





To make the past the present…
…this is what the last hundred years looks like:


Family archives need acid-free preservation and storage
The family archives, pretty much just as I as I found them. YOURS probably look just like this! Yikes!



And this is what I’m gonna make it to look like:
(Please click on each image for more information)


Archival Methods Film and Print Envelopes for snapshots
Archival, acid-free envelopes for easy print and negative organization and storage.
Archival Methods for snapshots and photos
Bulk storage of hundreds of family photographs, each indexed for easy retrieval.
Archival Methods metal edge box for snapshots
Clear file boxes allow me to see the photographs in my family archives, all of which fit nicely in an acid-free box.
Archival Methods for textile storage and preservation
I’m already learning a ton of stuff, as fabrics and textiles from the family archives each have their own preservation needs. If a particular fabric is made of wool or silk it needs un-buffered interleaving tissue, while cotton fabrics benefit most from buffered interleaving tissue. Who knew?

The stuff that makes up each of our own family’s history is full of various artifacts of one form or another, and while this voyage of discovery / recovery will start with a primary focus on photographs (no pun intended), there will be detours here and there to visit the best practices for the understanding and archival preservation of various other forms of family artifacts – each a piece of ancestral history often with zero monetary value (or less) and yet priceless in terms of sentimental or personal value.


 heirlooms from the family archives

Valueless – and yet absolutely priceless – family heirlooms.



As an example, you can tell a lot about someone by what kind of toys they played with as a child. To wit, my family as six-year-old kids. Worth preserving in the best archival materials, methinks, and I’m gonna show you how.


archival protection and storage for antique toys

Hand-built toy truck my dad played with as a six-year-old kid, c.1936.


textile and needlepoint preservation and archival storage

Needlepoint made by my mom when
she was a six-year-old kid, 1938.


archival preservation and storage of antique toys

My wicked-cool toy airplane from a gazillion years ago
when I was a six-year-old kid, c.1964.



So, with stacks and stacks of family photographs and artifacts as my traveling companions, the roadmap to get from Point A to Point Z looks something like this:

family archives full of snapshots

Point A:  A long way to go, it would seem, and yet…

                     (cool stuff happens between Point A and Point Z – stayed tuned)

Point Z:  …that was actually easy, fascinating, full of unexpected treasures
 very importantly, FUN TO DO!!!

family archives snapshots in acid-free enclosures and boxes
The Full Monty: negatives and prints from the same roll of film (bottom), placed in an archival / acid-free envelope (left) with all the important identification and dating info written on the envelope in the pre-printed space provided, and then placed in an indexed archival storage box (top). When repeated for each drug store film packet in my collection = Boom! 30+ rolls of film and prints easily (and accessibly!) organized, retrievable and safely stored. Ya gotta love THAT!
(Please click on image for archival preservation & storage solutions.)



The Next Steps for My Family Archives

In upcoming posts I’m gonna look at all the stuff that comprises my own family’s relatively vast and diverse photographic and heirloom archive (just gotta find it first). Yet its not about just me and my family, as what’s in store has a wonderful degree of universality in the specifics. What happened to my family happened, in general, to yours. Its cool. I’m going to sort through and archivally preserve the heirlooms—old and new—that meant something to us, and use them to try and figure out 1) what’s what; 2) who’s who; 3) where’s where; and 4.) when’s when. Through it all I’m sure I’ll uncover stuff I never knew existed (see the page from our family genealogy above – where did THAT come from?), while also discovering fascinating aspects of the lives of my relatives, my ancestors, my siblings and—of course—myself.


I hope you’ll join me on this adventure / offer your comments / ask me questions / steer me right when I’m going off the rails / share this series of posts with friends and relatives / buy me dinner the next time you’re in town (seriously, I know this great place, you’ll love it).


Its gonna be cool.





Rule #1: Don’t Blow Up!

Upcoming Blogs on the Specifics of Discovering, Enjoying, Sharing, and Archivally Preserving Family Photographs, Documents and Heirlooms, Without Blowing Up:


Part 1: Introduction – Philosophy of Personal Family Archives

Part 2: Locating My Family Photographs and Artifacts

Part 3: Setting Up a Workspace

Part 4: The Preliminary Sort – Images, Media Types, and Priceless Junque

Part 5: Quick and Easy Methods for Dating Photographs

Part 6: Rescuing and Revitalizing (and Sharing!) 8mm Home Movies

Part 7: Slides – Identification, Organization, Printing, & Archival Storage

Part 8: Snapshots – Sorting, Identification and Archival Care

Part 9: What to Do With All These Family Photo Albums?

Part 10: Framed Photographs and Stuff

Part 11: Genealogical Records – Windows on the Family

Part 12: Family Letters, Correspondences and Documents

Part 13: Newspaper Clippings and Scrapbooks – Windows on the World

Part 14: Fabrics, Wedding Dresses, Uniforms, Baby Clothes, Hats, and Stuff

Part 15: Toys and Weird Stuff: Archival Solutions

Part 16: Backing Up and Disaster Response

Part 17: The Payoff!



And with that, we’re off….



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