As I mentioned in Part One of this post, Tom and I have been lately thinking about downsizing. Although we’re not quite ready (yet) to get rid of everything and move to a studio apartment, the idea of paring down to essentials is very attractive.
Irony alert: this is a long post. Not at all minimal. But hopefully very useful. (And I'm happy to answer questions in the comments.)
All this “minimalist” thinking brought me around to family history stuff. So many of our clients and students are weighed down by the sheer amount of paper--photos, scrapbooks, letters, old genealogy binders--some inherited from previous generations. It’s a real source of stress for many people.
Getting rid of clutter is hard enough, but getting rid of family history clutter is even tougher--because much of it is mysterious, and everything feels irreplaceable.
One woman I know (I’ll call her Alma) has a whole room dedicated to her family history stuff, with piles of things on every surface. She’s not a genealogist; she’s just trying to organize the stuff she has been given and accumulated before she dies. Alma has been “working on” these Sisyphean piles for at least ten years. She surely has some gold hidden in the mountain, but when the gold is surrounded by dross, it can be enjoyed by no one. Least of all her.
What is essential?
How do we tell the gold from the dross? How do we decide what to let go of? And what should we do with the stuff that is important enough to keep, so that it can be enjoyed and cherished by the whole family?
With my own stuff, I am borderline-hoarder in some areas (art supplies, anyone?). But in other areas--like my family history stuff--I have become relatively streamlined and organized. It didn’t start out that way. I learned, as I went along, some tricks to make this easier.
The Good News: First of all, I want you to understand that each phase of overhauling my family history stuff took a lot less time than I thought it would. Seriously. What I thought would take me months ended up being, like, half a weekend for each stage.
Here’s how I did it:
In stages. In one session, I tackled all my personal history stuff pertaining to my own life. In another, I organized my genealogy paper files, which have shrunk over the years to two small file boxes, soon to become one. In a third, I organized my computer files to “match” my paper files. (The digital stage is detailed in this post.)
In each stage, I did two things simultaneously:
1) threw away obvious garbage and
2) sorted the rest into very loose categories
After completing this initial process:
3) put what was left into proper storage containers.
To show you how I did this, I’ll describe how I completed my first stage, which was dealing with all my personal history stuff. The process can apply to any stage. You may want to tackle your ancestral history/genealogy stuff first, and then in another stage tackle your own personal history assets. It’s up to you; I would suggest starting with whatever feels the most urgent to you or what causes you the most stress.
The main thing to remember is that you want to organize quickly, intuitively and loosely.
There are a couple of tricks:
Don’t stop to read or research anything (beyond what you need to make a quick classification.) Otherwise, your family may find your emaciated body a week later buried in a pile of WWII letters and dirty laundry.
Don’t make any big decisions now. When in doubt, don’t throw it out. You can always decide to get rid of it later if you don’t need it. Don’t agonize over every little thing at this stage.
I’m going to show you my stage one, organizing my own personal life history stuff. I don’t have a before picture, but here’s the “after.” One plastic bin that isn’t even full. (Note: I have only one child. If you have a larger family, you will have more stuff than this and that’s okay. Likewise, if you have a hard time letting things go, you may end up with quite a bit more stuff initially, and then continue to cull things according to your personal comfort level. That’s okay too.)
Here’s how I did it.
About 8 years ago, I hauled about 5 boxes of my personal memorabilia up out of the basement. Stuff from childhood, high school, and beyond. I parked myself at a large folding table in front of the TV (old black and white movies are my drug of choice) and put a trash can next to me.
I made piles for my loose categories: childhood, high school, my amateur acting days, photos of my daughter, etc. I just grabbed the first box and started to put things in these piles. This was the key to doing it quickly: I didn’t stop to read anything or look too closely. Pile, pile, pile. Toss, toss, toss.
What to keep and what to pitch?
For each item, I asked myself:
Do I know what this is? If you don’t know what it is, toss it. If you don’t remember now, chances are you’ll never remember. And you didn’t know you were missing it, so…
Do I care about this any more? Will my children ever care about it? As you can see, my high school stuff went from a whole giant box to one baggie and one mini-album. As I was sorting through the box, I realized that my memories of high school had nothing to do with all the homework papers I’d written, flyers for school dances, smashed corsages, etc. What remains important to me are the people I knew. So I kept photographs, a few cards and letters from friends, and my diploma. And the yearbooks on my bookshelf. That’s it. (Your results may vary.)
Would I want to include this in a book of my life stories someday? If it helps tell the story of your life or if it would be interesting to future generations, keep it for now.
Is it a duplicate? You only need one. Pick the best quality copy and pitch the rest.
Case in point: here are two versions of my former in-laws’ personal history. They did the binder version one year, and then a couple of years later improved it and gave us all a lovely new hardbound history. Do I still need to keep the old 3-ring binder version? Nooooo! Bye bye, binder! (Feels so good!)
Is it large and bulky? Snap a photo of your kids’ dog-eared second-grade science project and let it go. (Especially if your child is now in college.)
Is it accessible online? This especially applies to old printed genealogical data, like pedigree charts from your great Aunt Martha circa 1973. If that data is stored on your computer, or now resides in Family Search or Ancestry, pitch it! Someone has probably done research on that person since 1973 that is more accurate anyway.
One other tip: take things out of frames and albums. This decreased the footprint of my stuff dramatically. Framed certificates from awards I got in high school? I knew I would never hang them on a wall again, so I kept the certificate part and threw away the broken frame. Eventually I threw the paper away after scanning it. (If it’s a plaque that doesn’t come apart, take a photograph of it.)
I thought it would take me weeks to do this. Guess what? About three movies later, I was done. Five boxes had been reduced to one plastic tub and two photo shoeboxes.
A world on containerizing:
If you want to now go out and buy some fancy storage boxes, have at it. I used what I already had. I mostly put things by pile category into large plastic ziplock bags and put them in the plastic bin. You can also use binders and plastic sheet protectors, although I think they are bulky and take up more room. To each his own.
(I used ziplock baggies for things that aren’t precious. If you have valuable or fragile things, put them in archival-quality sleeves, envelopes or boxes.)
I removed family snapshots out of gigantic albums and filed them in acid-free photo storage “shoeboxes” instead. They take up so much less room on a shelf than the albums did! (I have since digitized all those photos.)
Other snapshots of my childhood, high school, etc. I put into little mini-albums. I have also since digitized these.
This box is reference material for my personal life story projects. As I continue to digitize things and put them into life story books, I can then feel free to discard the originals if I choose.
The rest of my family history assets: genealogy and ancestral treasures
I went through much the same process when sorting through the rest of my family history stuff. Decide on loose categories (I divided mine by family lines), pile, toss, and containerize.
I do have one other box not shown in this photo: photos and letters that I brought from my grandmother's house when she died. Nobody else in the family knew what to do with it, so I was happy to oblige. I have since scanned all of it and I will send the digital files on a disk to each of my family members for Christmas. I will also divide up the originals and send them back to the appropriate family member. That way, it's already digitized for them but they can decide whether they want to keep the originals or not.
Above is the entire sum of my current genealogy, family history, and personal history assets. At one point in my life I had at least three times this much stuff, but I’ve pared it down little by little over the years. Most importantly, I am still in the process of shrinking it even further; as I continue to digitize and load things online, I believe I can eliminate at least a couple more boxes if I want to.
Above is my current research box, which I pull out for every online research session. (It has a handle, so I can even cart it to the library if I need to.) I have it color-coded using this method based on my four basic family lines. In here I keep my current research logs, some original documents and photos kept in archival plastic sleeves, and other pieces of paper (printed census records, etc. which I will most likely discard after I have added them as sources to FamilySearch.)
Above is my backup research box. It is also organized by my four basic family lines. This is where I keep more general information on the family names, like location or historical info, that doesn’t pertain to a specific individual, or things that are of dubious provenance but might be useful for future research. I have also filed more original photos in archival sleeves in this box.
Above: 40 years of journals in a banker's box. After I have finished using these as reference for writing my stories, I’ll burn these diaries. I can hear the gasps of horror!--but seriously, there’s no point. A lot of my journals are just complaint vomit, the idea being to get it out on the page so I can get over it and get on with a happy life. They are not representative of my life as a whole and were never meant for others to read. When they have served their purpose, they are outta here.
Two archival storage boxes. One holds a gorgeous Victorian-era photo album filled with unidentified family photos. (Sigh.) This kills me. It’s too pretty to throw away. And did I say it’s Victorian? The other box holds a few loose (also unidentified) old family photos. The chances of them ever being identified after 100+ years is pretty slim. But someday I’ll scan them and upload them to DeadFred.com. You never know.
While photographing my stuff for this post, I culled a few more things. This binder, filled with pedigree charts, used to accompany me on all my trips to the library. Now the pedigrees are all in the cloud and I can go to the "library" in my pajamas at 3:00 a.m. Bye-bye, binder! Hello, iPad!
The main goal is to lessen your load, make it easier to find things when you need them, and do enough to let go of the guilt and stress. Don’t aim for Pinterest-worthy perfection.
Sort quickly and loosely.
Don’t make big decisions now.
Continue to get rid of things as you no longer need them.
When what you have is even partially organized, you can then find what you need as you continue your genealogical research or make a life story book.
My eventual goal--my gift to the future--is to leave behind no boxes, no binders, no mystery files. Just a few beautiful hardbound life story books, and the contents of my genealogical research in the cloud for all to use and enjoy.
Now I just need to minimal-ize my kitchen. Who really needs five salad bowls, anyway?
Questions? Post them in the comments below and I would love to help.