Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, February 26, 2018

Shoe Boxes of Old Letters, Photos and Papers -- Part One

Boxes of old photos, letters, and papers are a genealogist's treasure. Unfortunately, less enlightened individuals view them as junk. This series will address the curation and storage of all kinds of documents based on the most accepted archival standards. For each type of record discussed, I will give various options, These options reflect the realities of budgets, storage space and time.

It may be helpful to start with the fact that even under ideal conditions of temperature, humidity, and light, some documents and photos will deteriorate over time. The old 35mm slides that were popular for many years are a good example. Even if kept in optimal conditions, some of the film types will turn yellow, green, or other colors over time. Another example is high acid paper, such as that commonly used in newspapers. Even the slightest amount of light will turn the pages yellow and then dark brown. Keeping the newspapers in complete darkness is an option, but then who could read them? I working on document preservation at the Maryland State Archives, most of the documents have a darkened edge where the files were in even a low light. When I lived in Mesa, Arizona, a newspaper delivered to our driveway in the early morning would be yellow by noon. I could and will go on to write about water damage, mold, and many other calamities.

Considering all the bad things that can happen to documents, it is amazing how many of them have survived. Now, why don't we just digitize everything? I guess this is one of the reasons that my wife and I are working as preservation specialists in the Maryland State Archives and digitizing records all day. But digital copies are not the ultimate panacea. Digital files have to be maintained, migrated and backed-up to survive. Time takes its toll on everything. But for availability and access, digitization cannot be beat. I can post a digital image of a photograph online and it is immediately available to anyone who is interested in viewing it. But as long as the photo remains a paper printed photo, only one person can possess the image and anyone who wishes to see the image would need to know that the photo existed and have some physical access to it. You could argue that publishing the photo in a book would do the same thing, but the access would still be limited to those who could obtain a copy of the book or even knew of its existence. By putting a photo online on a family tree program such as or, millions of users and hopefully relatives would have the opportunity to learn about the photo a view it and even download their own copy if desired.

I must also start out this series with a few comments about paper vs. digital. Many genealogists are still in the mode of saving everything they discover in paper copies even copies of copies. Some of this fixation on paper is merely a conservative holdover, however, part of this entrenched paper use comes from a fear of impermanence of digital files. When challenged, some paper users will launch into a tirade about how digital files can be lost in a wink of an eye. By the way, so can paper records. The key to both is conservation and curation. From my standpoint, genealogists only succeed to the extent that they become curators of their ancestral heritage.

What do we do with the originals once they are digitized? The worst possible choice is to destroy them. We must keep them and preserve them as long as possible. This is not an either/or situation where we dump the paper or whatever as soon as it is digitized. Digitization is only one in a panoply of methods that we can call upon to preserve and organize.

What about shoe boxes? Archive quality containers for documents and photos are acid-free, lignin-free, and pH-neutral. I will discuss those qualities and others in future posts. But from the cheap, preserve it from being thrown away standpoint, there is nothing wrong with a sturdy cardboard box. I have written about the constant loss of old, genealogically important documents and photos. The most common scenario is that a genealogist dies and all of his or her papers, documents, photos etc. are thrown away by uncaring or unknowing family members, assuming there are any family members who care enough to throw things away. At this point, my old Brigham Young University Family History Library Video on the BYU Family History Library YouTube Channel is still pertinent. Here it is:

What will happen to your Genealogy when you Die

Stay tuned.


  1. Looking forward to following this thread. l just taught a class at a retirement home. These people are the keepers of so much of their family history but have so little resource and ability to preserve it.