It’s not difficult nor expensive to create a family archive in your home to safely store family photos and papers. Move your family treasures out of the basement or garage this weekend with these practical ideas to help you set up a better home archive.
Cool is the Rule for a Family Archive
Find a cool spot inside your home to house your family keepsakes.
If you’ve been storing old family papers and photos in the garage, attic, or basement, move the contents to clean boxes and store them inside your house where the temperature and humidity can be controlled.
Avoid closets located near furnace ducts or other heat sources. Museums and archives lower the thermostat to slow the rate of deterioration caused by heat. Cooler temps also discourage pests, but be aware that humidity and temperature are related. Too much moisture risks mold, too little moisture dries out paper and causes cracking and drying. Aim for a cool room below 75 degrees Fahrenheit and relative humidity below 65%
I like to use archival acid-free bankers’ boxes as working storage for my collections. These archival containers are large enough to hold all kinds of objects from photos to albums to toys until I have time to sort, inventory, and organize the contents.
I’ve also found that it’s best to go slowly and become familiar with the collection before deciding on an overall organizing scheme. It can take time to unravel family connections and understand how documents and photos fit together in the family story.
Leave Room to Grow
The amount of space needed for your family archive will depend on the size of your current (and future) family collection. I stored my first few boxes of family letters inside the bottom cabinet of a built-in bookcase in our living room, where the temperature was relatively cool. To protect items from the acid of unsealed wood, I painted the wooden shelves with a coat of polyurethane sealer. If you’ve ever seen yellow stains left by old newspaper clippings, you know the damage that can be caused by high-acid materials to adjacent items.
When the next collection arrived, I found space on the closet shelf of a spare bedroom, but my family archive quickly outgrew this space and needed larger quarters.
As the boxes continued to multiply, I repurposed the entire closet as a designated Family Archive. I added a wire shelving system inside the closet to hold large bankers’ boxes and smaller acid-free archival boxes. My favorite trick for maximizing shelf space is to use standard-size boxes as much as possible:
- Standard size archival acid-free bankers’ box
- 5-inch wide archival flip-top document case
- 12 x 15 x 3-inch drop-front archival flat box
- archival acid-free photo storage boxes
Organizing Family Photos and Paper
Many family historians have shoeboxes filled with old photos or papers. It can be a big job to organize and store everything in one afternoon. I have found it more manageable to work in a series of steps, focusing on photos one day and papers on another day:
- Gather all the photos, negatives, films (or paper and documents) in one place. A large table covered with a clean sheet works well. Wear white cotton or nitrile gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints on photos and negatives.
- Keep items in their original groups and move into clean archival-quality boxes. I wrote about organizing photos with the “Parking Lot System” as a way to maintain original order so you can use clues to help identify unmarked pictures. Large acid-free bankers’ boxes are great for holding items in this step. It’s helpful to label the outside of the box with a brief description and the date.
- Store the new boxes in the Family Archive and work through them one box as time allows. This is what professional archivists call “processing.” It’s the exciting treasure-hunting part of working with family treasures, but it’s also very time-consuming. By moving items into better storage containers FIRST, your keepsakes will be waiting in preservation-quality storage containers instead of decaying in old cardboard boxes. See my book How to Archive Family Keepsakes for specific ideas on safely storing all kinds of artifacts and memorabilia.
Tips for Working with Old Documents
Family collections are often jumbled by many hands, and you may find photos, papers, and mementoes all tossed together in the box. As you become more familiar with the contents, certain family groups, events, or places may become obvious.
As items are moved into better storage boxes, follow these best practices:
- Keep items in original groups
- Replace staples, paperclips, or pins with archive-safe plastic clips
- Remove food and other foreign objects such as candles, crayons, or pens that can melt or leak
- Store papers flat but don’t try to flatten brittle creases
- Don’t try to unroll tightly curled photos or papers
- Isolate newspapers between sheets of acid-free paper or inside acid-free folders
- Use boxes large enough to hold items without folding or bending
Moving family collections from the garage to archival boxes stored inside the house is a great first step toward preserving the past and learning more about your ancestors.
Read more about archiving family photos, documents, and keepsakes:
How to Preserve and Archive Old Family Documents
5 Things You Can Do Right Now to Save Your Family Heirlooms
Organizing Old Family Photos with the Parking Lot System
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Emilie Quast says
I’m a cataloging librarian for a University’s archives and special collections. I recently asked my brother about some family papers — I don’t want the originals, but would like copies. He told me that he still had to get more of them in scrapbooks. He is NOT going to be happy when his older sister tells him glue and paste are not great things to use. Do you have an article for family archivists that talks about paperclips and Elmer’s?
I can find all kinds of advice for archivists, but not for younger brothers who “know what they’re doing!”
Denise May Levenick says
Emilie, it sounds like you’ve got a challenge here! You don’t say how old your “younger brother” might be, but it’s too bad he won’t listen to his Big Sister. I see this is much-needed future blog post! I will let you know when it’s ready.
Leslie Baker says
Fantastic and wonderful learning. Thank you. However, what do you do when you literally have NO room anywhere in your home for genealogy storage? Any ideas?
Denise May Levenick says
That’s a tough one, Leslie, but pretty common in the wake of downsizing and minimizing. I’d suggest digitizing what you want to use for research or to preserve your own family history, and then donating to a suitable archive. The interest in social history has made the stories of everyday people an important part of most archival collections. Check around with your local historical societies and university archives to see if they would be interested in your collection.