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Organizing Family Papers

Gather them together

Student nurse Eileen Larson Johnson writing a letter home in 'C' floor dorm room, Alpha Dorm, Swedish Hospital School of Nursing, Minneapolis, 1939.  MHS Collections, Location no. R2.2 p75 Negative no. 31562
Student nurse Eileen Larson Johnson
writing a letter home in "C" floor dorm
room, Alpha Dorm, Swedish Hospital
School of Nursing, Minneapolis, 1939.

Bring together those items that you want to keep permanently. Keep them together in a box or a file, and clearly label them as family papers and mementoes.

Identify them

  • Remember that this information is what will make the materials meaningful to younger family members and future generations.
  • Fully identify writers and recipients of letters. Either write this information (inpencil) on each letter, or write a separate note to accompany a group of letters.
  • Write onto the back of each photograph (in soft lead pencil) as much information as is known about it - who; where; date; event or other circumstance.
  • Medals and other memorabilia: write a note identifying the recipient, occasion, and date, and keep it with the object.
  • Write down other relevant information about the persons or events, particularly birth and death dates, parents' and other family names, civilian or military service units or employment, dates and places of service, memorable experiences.

Organize them

  • The goal is to keep them from becoming scattered or mis-identified in the future, and to help others follow what was happening at the time.
  • There are many options, depending on the number and types of documents. They may include: keep all of each person's letters and other papers together; keep a single chronological run of all materials; keep one group of only letters, and another group of other materials; keep separate groups of each type of material.
  • If photos or other items were received with a letter, keep them with that letter.

Put them in protective enclosures

  • The goals: protect them from wear and tear, from light and dust, from becoming scattered or lost, and from losing their identity.
  • Use good-quality boxes, file folders, and other supplies. Archival-quality (acid-free) is ideal but not essential.
  • Unfold folded items; remove letters from envelopes; place them in file folders.
  • Remove pins, brads, and metal paper clips.
  • Label each folder or other enclosure with an identification of its contents.
  • Use separate folders or boxes for diaries and other volumes, or medals and other artifacts; do not put them in a folder together with letters or photographs.
  • For some items - such as medals and other artifacts, groups of related photographs or post cards, books in poor condition - consider the use of specialty enclosures that are available from archival suppliers.

Store them safely

  • The entire group of materials should have its own "home," whether in a box or a file drawer.
  • Avoid extremes of temperature and humidity; keep them clean; protect them from mold and insects.

Avoid the use of:

  • Pressure-sensitive ("Scotch") tape.
  • Rubber cement.
  • Metal paper clips.
  • Acetate sleeves from office supply stores.
  • Self-adhesive album or scrapbook pages.
  • Manila envelopes.

Sharing documents with other family members

  • Do not pass the originals around; make photocopies or digital copies to distribute to other family members.
  • If you wish to compile a scrapbook, use copies, not the original documents.

Other Resources

This handout is being distributed by the Conservation Outreach Program of the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) as a public service. The distribution of this handout does not constitute a recommendation by MHS of any specific vendor or their products, nor will MHS assume liability for products supplied by a vendor. Each application must be evaluated individually and materials selected that best suit the condition of the object and how it is to be used. If you have questions about a particular application, treatment, or service, please contact the MHS Conservation Outreach program at: 651-259-3465, 1-800-657-3773, FAX at 651-296-9961 or email at conservationhelp@mnhs.org.