American Family Archives | Setting Up a Great Work Space

Part 3:

Setting Up a Work Space to Sort My Archives





Why I Gotta Do This:

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





So, now its time….

The first thing I gotta do is find, and then set up, a space where all my photos, albums, heirlooms and family archives can be laid out, undergo a preliminary sort, and then be left undisturbed for a bit. While full of adventure and tremendous rewards, projects like this are usually not weekend affairs. The whole point is to not have a crappy time slogging through it all, but to break the project up into do-able mini-projects that will keep the fun of discovery and accomplishment alive.

Workspaces can be your dining room table, a portion of an unused room, the corner of your living room, anyplace where you can spread your archives out and where they will be safe / not be in the way of “life” / not jumped on by your six cats (you know, the ones in all those videos you keep posting).


archives, workspace, funny cat photo
Non-archival cat “sunning himself” on my work table. Cat nap + archives = cat hair on everything. Are you comfortable, cat? Can I get you anything? Maybe feed ya dinner right there? Jeez! Well, at least now I know who’s the boss. Hey, it coulda been worse. Fortunately, though, my pet monkey is elsewhere just now.


For me, the perfect workspace was the corner of an unused “guest room”, i.e. the room my kid lived in before she went off to skool to get one of them there kollege edumacations (just kidding folks, as the kid is off to get a PhD and I myself have one of them MFA thingys from RISD, so I know the value of edumacation). Anyway, here is what all that looks like after I have cleared it out:


work space, family archives
The corner of an extra room – clean / dry / out-of-the-way / perfect!

Lesson #1: find a convenient place to set up camp, as you can carry mini-projects down to the living room to work on while watching TV, interacting with the family, cleaning up after your pet monkey, etc.



folding table, family archives, workspace
A table dedicated to the archives project for its duration.

A $25 folding table, as using the dining room table, while perfectly acceptable, can sometimes cause “friction” – shall we say – with one’s significant other.
Lesson #2: the less “friction,” the better. Trust me on this one, folks!



heirlooms, snapshots, photo archives, workspace
Moving my stuff in.

Boom! I’m well on my way. It all needs a preliminary sort, but at least everything is in one place and its FINALLY out of the basement / attic / outside storage bunker / Uncle Poindexter & Aunt Zoetrope’s closet / etc. 
Lesson #3: notice that the blinds are closed to avoid excess sunlight, which can be very damaging to photographic emulsions, documents, fabrics, old artifacts and such.



sorting archives, photographs, snapshots, workspace
My archives: halfway through my preliminary sort.

There are a zillion ways to sort through one’s jumbled “I-don’t-know-where-to-start” archive, but there are certain general concepts that can guide you such as keeping similar “formats” and “types of junk” together. For example, here I have placed all my framed photographs and stuff on the left / photo albums are under the table / old drug store photo processing envelops and loose family snapshots are on top of the table / newspaper clippings, old letters and home movies are on the right.
Lesson #4: ENJOY THIS PART! You’re gonna find all sorts of cool stuff you either forgot you had, or never even knew you had!



So, I’m all set! Time to grab a sloppy / drippy piece of pizza and a cold one or a nice chardonnay and get to work, right?

Um, not quite….


snapshot mistakes, damage, disaster, family archives
What’s wrong with THIS picture?

Lesson #5: NEVER have soda, candy bars, Chinese food, pizza, Cheetos, chicken wings, veggie burgers, mocha-choka-with-extra-egg-yoka ice cream, vichyssoise, fondue, sautéed monkey brains (tastes like chicken) or any other sort of food or drinks (or cats / pet monkeys, see above) near your work space. All your family artifacts have survived this long, and it would be a shame to mess ’em up now. You can ABSOLUTELY trust me on this one, folks! Been there, done that (sigh!).






Post-It Notes, family archives         index cards, family archives

Me, in the store takin’ pix, about 30 seconds before
I got thrown out of the store, for takin’ pix.


Quick Hack: Before you get started, go out a grab a pack of Post-It Notes and/or 3 x 5” index cards in assorted colors, as they will help in sorting. They can be used to color-code family connections, as in BLUE for “Dad’s side of the family” and PINK for “Mom’s side of the family” (with sincere apologies to those who rebel against the assignment of such an old-school “blue is for boys / pink is for girls” cultural signifiers – hey, just makin’ sure you’re payin’ attention) GREEN is for grandparents on Dad’s side of the family, ORANGE is for grandparents on Mom’s side of the family, etc. You might also use them to jot down quick notes to yourself regarding names, dates, locations, etc. before transferring such important information to your final archival enclosures, files, boxes, labels and such.



old letters, archival organization, sorting archives, family archives


Blue is for Dad’s side of the family, Pink is for…well, you know the rest.


sorting archives, slides, photograph, letters, family archives




snapshots, sorting, family archives
Post-It Note on the OUTSIDE of a packet of photographs = OK.

Lesson #6: DO NOT adhere Post It Notes or tape of any kind directly to photographs or documents (except in certain circumstances, but more on that later), rather use them on the outside of drug store film processing envelopes, in shoeboxes, on picture frames, on your work table surface to separate piles of stuff, and then remove them when you are finished (i.e. don’t leave Post-It Notes attached to anything long-term).



photograph mistakes, damage, family archives
Just LOOK at how unhappy these folks are with a Post-It Note stuck directly on the image surface = NOT OK.

Please Note: The text on the index cards and Post-It Notes in the images above were written with a regular ol’ marker that I fished out of some drawer someplace so that the words would show up in the photographs. DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME, AS I’M A TRAINED PROFESSIONAL AND, WELL, YOU’RE NOT!


In all seriousness, folks, see Lesson #7 below:



Stabilo-All Pencils, writing on photographs, family archives
Stabilo-All Pencils, in a number of colors, are safe for writing on archival materials.
Please click on image for more information.

Lesson #7: always use pencils in your work space and around your precious, irreplaceable family photos and artifacts (unlike the moron using a marker in the previous set of pix). Pencil lead is generally inert, and won’t cause any of the problems sometimes associated with ink. Pens have nasty stuff in their inks (oils, solvents, sea urchin venom – you don’t want to know), so never write on any artifact or archival enclosure with a pen as it can bleed through over time, transfer to other images or artifacts, and otherwise cause problems. A dropped or leaky pen can also be an issue, none of which you will encounter with a pencil. Much more on pencils and permanent / neutral / safe marker pens coming up – stay tuned.





So, with my work space up and running and my preliminary sort complete, its time to really start to get familiar with the family treasures and time-travel adventures that await in the next step:


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


(BTW – got a question thus far? Got a particularly challenging archival / preservation / presentation / organizational / storage nut that just won’t crack? Don’t know what’s what re: your personal archive or collection? Post a comment, send us an email or give us a call. We’ll get ya through it!)



Series Navigation<< American Family Archives | Finding Family ArtifactsAmerican Family Archives | Sorting Through Family History >>