What to do with all the family history

A few weeks ago, I spent some time trying to find one specific photo of my grandma that, alas, seems to have disappeared.

But as I stood in her office stuffed to capacity with books and boxes of photos, I had two conflicting thoughts:

  1. How amazing that she has pictures of things like her grandpa, who used to take out-of-towners for sleigh rides through Yellowstone! There he was in a black-and-white photo, smiling and standing next to his steeds. How amazing to have three packets full of photos Grandpa shot in the South Pacific during World War II! Yeah, there are a lot of topless ladies pictured, but there are also inspiring photos showing the industry of a primitive civilization.
  2. What a freaking disaster, and who is ever going to organize ALL.THIS.HISTORY?

It’s made me wonder how other people keep track of their own histories. Are they glued into acid-free books? Are they stacked chronologically in boxes made just for photos? Or do most people have a “classification” system like grandma—put as many photos as you can fit in this box, then fill another?

So I went home and dug out a few scrapbooks I’ve been saving for my own version of family history. These leather-covered scrapbooks cost hardly anything at two different estate sales and have never been used. The black pages inside were as good as new.

Now it’s time to start. I’m going fill those pages with my favorite black and whites. And I’m not going to pressure myself to “get organized” before I start gluing. I’m simply going to add photos as I find and make copies of them, making sure to always add a caption so we can remember who’s who. You understand, I’m working with a short deadline. My grandma is 89 and not getting any younger. Since she remembers the people in the photos, I need her help with documentation before she forgets.

Why did I decide NOT to organize them chronologically before I start pasting away? Because that won’t allow me to add more photos in the “right order” as they’re discovered.

To cut down on confusion, I’m going to glue a family tree to the first page. That way, when someone wants to know who Arthur Berry or Eugenie Virgin is, they’ll just flip to page one and look at my family tree.

Once I’m done with my dad’s side of the family, I’ll start on my mom’s—that’ll be lots of fun because my maternal grandma has quite the collection of family photos. I saved the bigger of the scrapbooks for this side of the family.

How do you handle all the genealogy? And don’t you just love the romance of it all? I’ve looked at some of these pictures so many times that I feel like I was there when they were taken. And I hope having these scrapbooks on my coffee table will help my kids feel familiar with the people who came before us and who are our guardian angels now. •

5 thoughts

  1. Photographs can be overwhelming, especially when you get behind in organizing them. I like your idea! They will at least get into albums where they can be viewed, and they will be documented. If they stay in boxes, they are seldom viewed or appreciated.


  2. I am completely overwhelmed with our mountains of documentation. We have tubs of photos–I know, it’s enviable–but also out of control. I have yet to find a way to organize and sort and present it all such that my kids will want to see their heritage. I like your idea of the family chart inside the scrapbook.


  3. I also find my family photos and memorabilia overwhelming. As family members share with me the old photos and letters they have, the mountain of material has just exploded.
    I think the best collection is found in my Blog. It contains the letters and pictures that relate to subjects – people and places – in the letters.The problem is that the only printable record is on my computer, not some photo album or coffee table book.
    Another problem is pictures of people and places that are never mentioned in the letters. What do I do with them? I post Special Pictures as a feature of my Blog highlighting these photos.
    The original letters are stored in acid-free tissue, in acid-free containers, in cardboard boxes. None of this tackles the problem of sorting and storing the photos and memorabilia. Over the years, I have tried labeled hanging folders (outgrew them), 6 and 8 shallow drawer containers (too many pictures in each drawer and it takes forever to find the one I want). I’m thinking of going back to hanging file folders – I now have a four-drawer lateral file, so lots of room to expand.
    The next question is – how do I separate and label them: by family name, by place, by year? I haven’t yet decided – so therefore – I haven’t started yet!!!
    Thank you for giving me an opportunity to think out loud and address this most perplexing problem.
    Any thoughts?


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