What Do I Do With All Of This Stuff: The Process of Processing
Walking into my Granny's apartment a few days after her death, I looked around and thought, "What are we going do with all of this stuff?" At some point all of us will experience this sense of foreboding brought on by the responsibility of managing materials passed down to us or accumulated by us. At the time of my Granny's death, I was years away from becoming an archivist and had no clue how to even begin. The storage options alone were overwhelming. Here are a few basic terms and rules that can be followed to ease your apprehension and make the process of organizing the material a bit easier.
In Richard Pearce-Moses' Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology (Pearce-Moses, 2005), the term "archival processing" is defined as "the arrangement, description, and housing of archival materials for storage and use by patrons." I believe this definition can be directly applied to what happens when family historians/genealogists take up the task of going through the boxes of "stuff" that they have either inherited or created. The end result that we're looking for is an organized collection of material in which we can easily locate items and glean information.
For material that comes into our possession, we can apply the archival sciences' term respect des fonds to capture the importance of maintaining the original order in which materials are received. The premise behind this term is that the creator of the material had an organizational process in mind, and that the original order must be maintained in order to gain the most understanding of the collection as a whole.
That's all fine and good if the person who kept the material was meticulous in the way in which things were organized, labeled, and filed, but we all know that's not the way things always work. We get boxes of material, often a seemingly jumbled mess strewn with various papers, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks and albums, loose photos, gum wrappers, and the occasional insect (on which I will not elaborate). Our instinct is to create order, whether that is chronological, alphabetical, or some other systematic framework.
However, believe it or not, there may well be a natural order to the material that can assist in creating context and potentially identify material that might not otherwise be identifiable. If the boxes were stored for many years, it's possible that they were filled over time and that the newest material is on the top, with the oldest material on the bottom. Or, perhaps school material is on the bottom and work material is on top. There's no way to know for certain until you've looked at the collection in its entirety. The key point here is to push aside the urge to pull items at random until you've had time to see the collection in its entirety; otherwise, you might lose context clues that will help you identify materials.
Whether the material you want to organize is newly acquired or your own collection, the critical step is to take a broad look at what you have. Are photographs, documents and ephemera (miscellaneous objects) mixed together? Is there a jumble of paper material mixed with photographs? Is it an orderly group of material that's been systematically filed? Each of these scenarios requires the same basic steps: visual assessment, separation and physical check, and filing.
Here is where new technology is truly our best friend. A few quick digital pictures of the current state of the material can help later on should there be a question about where something came from in the collection. Photos also serve as an important tool in capturing the condition of the material.
The two key elements to the visual assessment are identifying items that are detrimental to other materials and identifying items that are in obvious need of conservation and/or repair. Newsprint in particular, which is highly acidic, is very damaging to surrounding material. Check if photographs have been separated or are interspersed with other paper materials. Any plastic that is not either polyethylene or mylar can emit gases that are damaging to material and should be removed. Signs of water damage, mold, and insects or rodents should be noted for more detailed inspection later. Any item that clearly requires conservation or repair can and should be set aside; sheets of acid-free bond paper can be used as place holders as these items are pulled from the collection, making notes identifying what was pulled.
Separation and Physical Check
Once a general visual assessment is done and you've identified anything that might damage the materials or need conservation, the next step is separation and a more thorough physical check. For the purposes of this article, let's assume the material is unknown to you and disorganized. Keeping in mind the concept of respect des fonds, checking for the broader context of how things are ordered is part of this separation process. Are materials kept together chronologically or by family? Did the original creator of the material file alphabetically or by location? As you watch for context clues, separation can begin with large items such as photo albums, scrapbooks, autograph or memory books, etc. A quick condition check to ensure there is no damage at this point is appropriate and these items can be set aside for additional processing or conservation at a later date.
If the collection has all three types of material mixed together - newsprint, original documents, and photographs - it is important to separate them for long-term storage. It's possible, even probable, that the different types of materials are stored together. If the materials are meant to be kept together, for example a birth certificate with a photograph of the baby and a newspaper announcement clipping, the items can be filed together in a folder with buffered paper segregating the newspaper clipping. (The buffering agent applied to the paper neutralizes the high acid content in the newsprint, which slows the deterioration process and prevents leeching into the surrounding materials.) If the newspaper clippings are not directly associated but were simply stored together and the number of them in the collection is small, the best solution is to separate the clippings entirely and file them in acid free folders with buffered paper to reduce any further deterioration.
Photographs tend to be easier to understand contextually (for example, filed chronologically or by family) and can work in concert with surrounding documents for identification purposes. Generally photographs are stored separately from documents, but again, each collection is different and you may find them together. If this is the case, keeping associated documents and photographs together in a separate folder is best. (David Haas' article "Photo Organization" has further tips for dealing with photo collections.)
The final separation and assessment of any original documents, such as certificates, correspondence, and the like can be done at this time. Removing correspondence from envelopes and unfolding it stabilizes the document and reduces further damage caused by the action of folding and unfolding. Be aware, however, that caution and care must be used and if an item appears in a delicate condition it is best to leave it in its folded state. Removing paper clips and staples is also preferred as they can rust and damage the paper. Taking care when removing these items will reduce the chance of harming the document.
At this point, you should have a fairly well organized group of materials. The final step in this process is filing. Here again, the context of the original order of the collection, if there was one, should now have presented itself to you. Items can be placed in acid-free folders, which are labeled with their contents. Folders can then be temporarily stored in acid-free bankers boxes, or for a more long-term solution, in acid-free archival boxes. I suggest making a list of the folders in each box as a reference guide or finding aid. Like the index of a book, this finding aid will point you to the contents of the box without having to go through each folder.
In the end, the "stuff" you have will, at the very least, be a more organized and accessible collection for your use. What may have started as a jumbled mess is now material that can be easily viewed and used for family history research.
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