How to Organize Your Family Keepsakes and Collections

By Denise May Levenick

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When emptying my deceased aunt’s home to prepare it for sale, we didn’t have the time to go through all the contents of her closets and drawers. A brief look showed that over the years, important documents and photos had been layered with household receipts, brochures, junk mail, bill stubs and random bits of paper.

I transferred individual drawers to boxes and brought everything home to examine more closely. The first box I sorted showed me that this had been a wise decision. Mixed in with free notepads from the local realtor, I found two cabinet card photographs of my grandmother when she was an infant and toddler. These treasures could have been lost forever.

Lots of family archives are handed down in the same condition as my aunt’s: a mess of heirlooms, historical documents and, well, trash. When you’re the one in charge of dealing with the archive, it can be an overwhelming responsibility. You’ve just inherited a lifetime worth of stuff from a loved one (whom you may have recently lost). Now what do you do?


In my book How to Archive Family Keepsakes, I explain how you can organize, preserve and pass on what is meaningful and important—without letting inherited items take over your house and your life. Follow these steps to organize, manage and pass on your family archive.

1. Keep only what’s important

Receipts. Newspaper clippings. Old letters. Scrapbooks. Address books. All have one thing in common—they’re made from paper, in its many colors, shapes and sizes. If your inherited archive is free from paper trash, consider yourself lucky. I’ve worked with dozens of family collections and more than half contained moderate to extreme amounts of this type of trash. Why? Because paper is free or cheap, it comes to you, it has many worthwhile uses and, for many people, it’s hard to resist picking up that vacation pamphlet or restaurant take-out menu.

But all that paper can be too much. Saving vital information is one thing, but saving an entire lifetime of cancelled checks is quite another. As family curators, we might have just a teeny-bit of hoarding tendencies in our own DNA. We find value in anything our ancestors might have touched.


Be strong. You don’t want to end up on reality television with your closets and cabinets thrown open to the world. When it comes to paper, you can feel just fine about throwing away quite a bit—even if it came from Great-aunt Helen’s desk drawer. As you begin to sort and organize your archive, ask yourself: Is this item worth the time and the cost of archival storage supplies to be part of my archive?

I suggest you evaluate the materials and categorize them as:


The paper gives genealogical information or other key information about a person, place or event in your family; or it confirms or refutes family tradition. Photos, letters, vital records, military discharge papers and the like fit this description.

Be prepared to find photos and film anywhere and everywhere. I’ve found old photos inside books, tucked in letters, curled inside a vase, tacked to the back of a picture frame and underneath dresser drawer paper lining. Wallet-size photos might be in wallets or purses. Tiny photos were often trimmed for jewelry. Cased photographs such as daguerreotypes might be mixed in with books or other artifacts. Look everywhere and bring the photos you find to one place where you can evaluate their conditions and arrange them for storage. Handle these items with care and conservation.

Adds color

This paper adds color and interesting information about a person, place or event in your family. You might classify a bulletin from your ancestors’ church or brochure about their favorite vacation spot in this category.
Store these items either with the “vital” items, or move them to their own archival box. Digitize them as needed, and see to their archival storage needs only after the vital items are taken care of. If the information on a paper is more useful than the actual piece of paper, consider saving the digital copy and discarding the paper.

Not archival

If a paper—such as a receipt, bill stub or unintelligible notes—doesn’t add personal information, don’t bother saving it in your family archive. Just because a loved one kept it, doesn’t mean you have to. In particular, isolate anything made of newsprint or cheap-grade, acidic paper. It’s not worth damaging your grandfather’s last will and testament by stacking it with a crumbling cleaning receipt.

If the information is of interest to only you, or you might need it for insurance or other purposes, keep it somewhere outside of the archive. For example, I have a small plastic shoebox filled with 1950s valentines, sweet bookmarks and other bits of ephemera that I use in handmade collage and greeting cards.

2. Preserve and protect

Review all the items in your archive box by box and consider giving your full attention and resources to only those items that really count. Take care of the vital stuff first. When you are tempted to save odd bits of cool ephemera, remember your original goal to preserve your family history.


You have several options for organizing the papers you decided to keep. You could sort them by the family member they’re associated with, by surname, by size or by type (such as vital records, military papers or school memorabilia). Depending on the size of your collection, you might be able to fit all your papers for one person or surname in a single folder, or you might need several folders.

As you work, carefully remove staples (use a pencil eraser to bend open the “arms,” then gently pry it out with a letter opener), paper clips or other metal. Remove twine or rubber bands and discard. Remove letters from envelopes and unfold them for flat storage, but leave any brittle papers folded—don’t force them open. Keep each letter with its own envelope, and keep collections of correspondence together.

Remove any newspaper clippings enclosed with letters, scan or photocopy the clipping to acid-free paper and include the copy with original documents. Keep the original newsprint clipping in separate storage.

One good way to store paper items is placing similar-size documents together in archival-quality file folders or paper sleeves. You can place the folders or sleeves flat in archival storage boxes or upright in hanging folders. It you choose the upright option, don’t allow papers to slump inside the folder. If you’re on a budget, you can use office-quality hanging folders as long as the documents are first placed inside archival-quality file folders.

Label each folder with the date and the name of the family or individuals associated with the document. To make items easier to find, number the folders and keep a list of what’s in each one. As you place each paper in its folder, consider scanning it to easily preserve and share the content.


There are many ways to organize your photos. After sorting through the collection, decide whether to organize photos by family, date, subject, event, place, photographer (for example, photos Mom took), size or type of image (such as daguerreotype, tintype, etc.).

Your storage strategy depends on the type of image you have. Don’t worry if you have difficulty determining whether your photos are daguerreotypes, tintypes or ambrotypes. The care for any cased image is the same: Store these in close-fitting individual photo storage envelopes or sleeves inside an archival box. It’s important that both the envelopes or sleeves and the box fit the photo snugly to prevent images from sliding and scratching.

Keep prints in sleeves or envelopes made of archival-grade paper or clear plastic. Store same-sized prints together, stacking them carefully to avoid scratching. Place rare prints in individual sleeves. Store these envelopes vertically in same-sized archival boxes.

Color photos are especially prone to fading when exposed to light, but even images stored in the dark may develop “color shift” and a yellowish haze. Fortunately, by scanning and digitally restoring old prints, you can bring back much of the original color. Store old prints in archival paper or plastic sleeves inside photo storage boxes. Keep these in a cool, dry place. The cooler your keep your photos, the longer they will last, but don’t refrigerate them or put them in the basement—humidity causes its own problems. A shelf in an interior closet in the living area of your home is best, and check the collection regularly for pests.

Cataloging your keepsakes

After your demise, will your family know the importance of that odd assortment of china you inherited from your grandmother? Or will they (gasp!) sell your precious family treasures at a garage sale? Telling family members the objects’ importance can’t hurt, but they might not remember the story you’ve told about each item. Instead, make an inventory of your family artifacts. For each keepsake, include details such as:

  • how it came into your possession
  • who owned it originally
  • when it was made
  • what family stories are associated with the heirloom

Keep this with your important papers.

You also might want to catalog heirlooms that aren’t in your possession, so you and future generations know family treasures’ whereabouts. You can start with the handy Heirloom Inventory and History form (a free download), or create your own inventory from scratch. For each item, include the relative’s name, contact information, a description of the object, the item’s history (who owned it originally, how it was passed down in the family, how the original owner got it) and stories associated with it. Next, photograph the objects from different angles and add the pictures to your inventory.

Here’s a sample from one family’s heirloom inventory:

Dark blue Stafforshire tea and coffee set, circa 1840. Set consists of a coffeepot, teapot, creamer, sugar bowl, and four cups and saucers. All but the sugar bowl and creamer, purchased at a later date, belonged to the family of Emma (Ludwig) Rhoads and were used at their farm at Yellow House, Pa. Present owner: [name and address].

You can even inventory missing family heirlooms. Make the descriptions as complete as possible:

Unfinished and unsigned needlework sampler, probably stitched by Ellen M. Lorah, daughter of Mary (Rhoads) Lorah, Broomfieldville, Berks Company, Pa., who attended the Linden Hail School for Girls in Lititz, Po., in 1860, when she was 16. Floral decorated, about 6 ×18 inches. Current owner. unknown.

Make at least two copies of your family history inventory and any pictures of heirlooms. Keep one copy with your genealogical files, and store another copy with your important papers, so it will stay in the family. If you have a family history Web site or publish a family newsletter, you might want to post the list of family heirlooms, especially if it includes unidentified or lost items.

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, from the May 2004 issue of Preserving Family History.

3. Make homes for heirlooms

“Artifacts” doesn’t describe only objects excavated on an archeological dig. Curators and collectors use the term for the many manmade objects that acquire historical or artistic significance. For the family historian, artifacts may assume emotional and sentimental value, as well. Your great-grandfather’s pocket watch and your aunt’s Depression-era quilt are examples of the kind of artifacts you might find in your family archive.

Preserving inherited artifacts isn’t necessarily complicated, especially if the object is on display or used in your home. Some items need a bit of extra TLC, but most will likely be just fine with the same care and attention you give everything else in your home. If you’ll be storing the artifacts, take the standard precautions against extreme temperatures, humidity and pests.

No matter what type of artifact you’re handling, always wash your hands before touching it, and remove rings and bracelets to avoid nicking or snagging the item. Here’s how to store various artifacts:

  • Art: Museums recommend rotating displays of valuable pieces—six months on display, six months resting in storage—to prevent overexposure to light, dust and other environmental elements.
  • China and collectibles: Don’t wrap china in newspaper or acidic newsprint paper for long-term storage; this can cause discoloration. Use acid-free, lignin-free tissue instead. Keep breakables in sturdy, crush-resistant archival boxes.
  • Furniture: Spray furniture polish is convenient, but it’s a poor choice in caring for wood. Use a clean, slightly damp cloth instead, and try to keep pieces out of direct sunlight.
  • Musical instruments: Use a soft cloth to remove dust. Regularly playing an instrument is the best way to monitor its function and repair needs. Without proper maintenance, that violin or brass horn can easily lose its function to make music and become simply another interesting artifact.
  • Quilts and samplers: Roll large fabric items, such as quilts, around an archival tube to avoid creases. Cushion and protect the surface with archival tissue. Use a piece of clean washed muslin longer than the roll to form a protective outer layer: Roll the muslin around the item one and a half times, then tuck the ends into the ends of the tube. Gently tie cotton twill tape or muslin strips around the roll to secure.
  • Clothing: If it’s in good condition, launder clothing such as wedding dresses, uniforms and christening gowns after use and hang to store (consult a professional cleaner for antique or intricate items). To support the garment, wrap wooden hangers in polyester quilt batting covered with a muslin sleeve. Stuff archival tissue in sleeves and legs for additional support, and place the entire garment in a muslin garment bag of the same size as the item of clothing. Don’t use plastic or vinyl garment bags.
  • Military insignia and scouting memorabilia: Store protected with unbleached muslin or acid-free tissue inside archival boxes. For display, don’t use a wool backing—wool contains sulfur that will eventually damage medals. Cotton is a better option. Keep the display away from direct sunlight.

Just as you can scan photos and documents, you can use your digital camera to photograph family heirlooms. The photos would be a terrific addition to an inventory of the heirlooms in your possession (download an inventory form here).

Family archives are a great resource for family historians and a wonderful legacy to pass on to future generations. The time you spend organizing and preserving your archive will help you—and your family—take full advantage of all of the genealogical information and memories those old letters, photos and keepsakes hold.

Value Judgments for Heirlooms

What kind of value do your items have? Value is commonly understood as something’s merit, worth or importance with regard to money, history, culture, art or sentiment. The second half of the definition is often unstated, but it is essential in any evaluation of value.

Monetary Value

Monetary value refers to the price an item would bring on the open market, or its fair market value. Scarcity and condition play a large part, as does the current popularity of the item as a collectible. An appraiser can assess an item’s monetary value so you can have it insured.

Monetary value often is different from intrinsic value. Your family may place an intrinsic value of $500 on your grandmother’s crystal candy dish—that is, you wouldn’t consider selling it for anything less. But an appraiser may put the monetary value at $80 because it’s old but not rare, and that’s what similar dishes sell for on eBay. This also may be the insurance value of the candy dish and your tax deduction if you choose to donate it.

Historical and Cultural Value

Historical and cultural value is determined by events, people and places associated with an item. It may or may not carry a corresponding monetary value. Your grandmother’s diary, for example, may have little monetary value compared to its historical value as a window into the life of a WWI Army nurse.

Even so, museums seek out and purchase items for their collections, which helps establish the cash value for historical artifacts. The current black market in historical and cultural items has created an entire industry based on selling stolen and forged historical artifacts.

Artistic Value

Artistic value may be high if a piece shows skill in painting, sculpture or other media, but not all “good” art acquires a high monetary value. In general, the artist, school or subject matter must already be famous. Sometimes nice paintings are just that—enjoyable paintings of no exceptional monetary or historical value.

Sentimental Value

Sentimental value is most familiar to the family historian. Many of us cherish “worthless” little trinkets for the memories they inspire. It isn’t uncommon for families to haggle over who gets the cookie jar after Grandma’s death. It’s not the thing, it’s the memories that go with it.

Tip: Having trouble letting go of papers from Grandma’s house? Separate items in a box and see if other family members want anything. If no one else finds value in the papers, you may feel easier about tossing them.

Denise Levenick blogs about organizing and preserving family archives at The Family Curator.

A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine .