Safeguarding and Sharing Your Home Archive

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Do you have documents or photographs in your house you wish to keep for your children or grandchildren? Materials that have been passed down to you? Are you the default “archive” for records related to your family, or do you document your community or town through collecting historical materials or oral histories?

As a home archivist, you play an important role in intentionally keeping and caring for materials relating to your community, organizations, and family for future generations.

Here are some tips to maintaining a vibrant and safe home archive:

1. Gather

It’s easiest to assess what you have when everything is in one place. Find a spot where you can spread everything out, from letters to receipts to scrapbooks, and create piles based on importance.

2. Prioritize and Organize

Create several piles or areas:

  • Most cherished materials
  • Things that are important to keep but not sentimental such as tax records
  • Items you’re on the fence about
  • Trash, discards, or items that might better fit with another family member

3. Assess

  • Are there items damaged beyond repair, or replica of what a family member might have stored elsewhere?
  • Are there digital copies of anything, or ability to order another copy of it, if needed?
  • Depending on the object, this can affect your decision on how important it is to keep here and now.

4. Preserve

  • Keep photographs together, and place them into a folder or zip bag, and label them with the who, what, when, where, and why (if you know them!).
  • Acid-free folders and archival-quality polyester sleeves are ideal for long term storage, but it is more important to simply keep materials in a cool and dry place. You can buy acid-free folders at any office supply store, and has archival quality sleeves, envelopes, and boxes.
  • Flatten or unfold any crumpled or folded documents, and place them into folders to help reduce space and to properly care for them. If they can’t be easily unfolded, place them in folders as they are, until you can dedicate more time and attention to each individual document.

5. Describe

  • It is important to document the source of the items and the context/history of the materials for future viewers such as your great-grandchildren.
  • Place items in labeled boxes stating what is inside. Be sure to contextualize the materials. Ex. “these are the letters we wrote while I was studying abroad.”
  • Keep a list or even a spreadsheet of what is in all of your boxes.

6. Safeguard

  • Archival materials can be damaged by age, water, dust, heat, light, and rough handling. Keep materials in a cool, dry, space with limited natural light and consistent conditions.
  • Do not use any cleaning chemicals that leave a residue.
  • The items should be free of mold or bugs (dead or alive!) and excessive dust should be gently brushed off.
  • If a collection has mold on it, quarantine it in a box or room separate from other collections until you are able to treat it for mold.
  • These instructions also apply to film, video, audio, and digital materials such as hard drives.

7. Share and Reflect

There are many ways you can share your home archive with family, friends, and your greater community if you choose to do so.

  • Bring items to a family reunion and invite family members to share remembrances related to specific photographs or family documents.
  • Digitize items at your local library (or with a vendor such as The File Depot) and share in a photograph album on social media or on a photograph sharing service like Flickr.
  • Record oral history interviews with your family and friends, especially the older generations, to capture and share memories.

Further Resources

The Library of Congress and the Society of American Archivists have great online resources to care for your collection long term. Both organizations also provide information surrounding the maintenance and care of digital collections.