4 tips to help create a meaningful family archive

Dear Readers,


Our grandfather’s cedar chest–neatly rearranged with an actual filing system.

We can’t believe it ourselves, but it seems as though we’re almost finished Phase 1 of the Great Irving Family Archive project. It’s taken all three of us four solid days of hard work, but it’s really exciting to see it starting to fall into place.

We now qualify as a crack precision team, though Rachel points out that we don’t actually do crack. Wendy says, “Speak for yourself.” Uncharacteristically, Karen is keeping out of this.

In any case, today we thought we’d pass on some of the techniques we’ve learned, just in case you’re deranged enough to want to try the whole family archive thing yourself.

We’ve been working with a combined textual and photographic archive, by which we mean “a shitload of photographs and slides” and “a whole whack of letters and other written materials, written by ancestors who may or may not have been on crack.” (See above.)

1. Be brutal.

We had to sort through box after box of photos, many of which were not of the highest quality. We decided early on to take the excellent advice of Dish of Daily LIfe, and accept only photos that met the following stringent criteria:

  • They had to be clearly identifiable—there’s no point keeping photos where you can’t tell if it’s Cousin George, Uncle Bill, or the milkman.
  • They had to be good shots—nothing blurry, poorly composed, or over- or under-exposed.
  • They had to contribute meaningfully to the family story. This can be tricky if the family story is less than stellar, but we decided to take a “warts and all” approach.

One hundred years from now, our great-great-grandchildren will thank us for laying it all out clearly, logically, and with merciful brevity.

2. Develop a filing system that works for you

Ours consisted of a series of manila envelopes, clearly labelled with the full name (including maiden names), birth and death dates, and other pertinent information. We used one envelope for each major family member, and filed the less prominent members with their closest relatives.

We like to think of this as similar to planting them in the same burial plot—it just makes it easier to find them.

3. Back up your photos by scanning them

In addition to retaining hard copies of our photos, we opted to scan them, so we’ll be able to tag each person in each photograph, and eventually distribute copies of our work within the family. Scanning takes time (just ask Rachel) but it’s well worth the effort.

4. Transcribe handwritten correspondence


Oh, come ON. Are you kidding me? I thought the Victorians were all neat freaks?

But don’t kill yourself. For instance, we chose to transcribe a series of letters between two brothers from 1867 to about 1890.

We feel these letters tell an essential part of our family history, but we couldn’t imagine inflicting the painfully illegible scrawled handwriting on anyone else. We definitely deserve a medal for this, and expect to find one in the post in the next week, just saying.

However, we didn’t transcribe bills or typed documents; the former just aren’t that interesting, and the latter can easily be scanned.

Despite our urge to burn the lot by the time we’d struggled through them, we’re keeping the originals of all the letters as part of the archive.

Equipment you’ll need

1. A shopping trolley.

Coincidentally, we found just such an implement in the basement of Wendy’s condo building, and were able to use it to schlep boxes of crap photos and such to and from the storage locker area.

2. Antihistamines

If you’re prone to allergies, keep a supply of antihistamines on hand, as the dust and mildew involved are not your friends.


If you’re sorting slides, you’ll need one of these bad boys.

3. A scanner

We lugged our photo-quality scanner from Ottawa to Whistler, because we are idiots gluttons for punishment. No, it’s because we wanted to scan as many photos as possible, and arrange them in a logical manner. A decent scanner is essential to back up your work, and help preserve your valuable family archives.

4. Slide viewer

Our family insisted on having much of their film developed as slides, which now have about the same relevance as the dodo bird…and are pretty much impossible to sort one by one. A kind friend offered us her back-lit slide viewer, to enable us to look at slides by the hundreds, nay thousands, nay hand over that martini stat.

5. Storage boxes

Even though we’ve done a lot of culling and rearranging, as we say in the biz, we still have a metric shit ton of photos and other memorabilia that needs storing. However, it seemed kind of like tempting fate to rely on the decrepit cardboard boxes we’d been using up till now. So we’re transferring the lot into plastic storage bins with lids, so that in the event that the building’s sprinkler system goes wacko on us, our work will be preserved and we will not have to commit ritual suicide.

6. Pragmatism

As we finish up this task, we’re realizing that this is just the beginning. Archiving family records is an ongoing process, and we’ll be working away on it, in more more manageable doses, for a long time to come. In the meanwhile, we hereby forbid our family to take any more photos. Of anything. Ever.

Thank you, and good night.


Karen, Wendy, Rachel, and Bucky


All right, who keeps putting Bucky in the garbage?




  1. That’s a friggn’ freaky lot of work. Was it worth it or couldn’t you simply make up stories?

  2. You’re inspiring me….but I’m still in the thinking about it stage.

  3. This is a great posting with very good advice. Thanks for posting.

  4. Excellent tips. I will definitely be using these. I just finished scanning over 4000 of my Dad’s slides. I just did all of them, without stopping to sort. Now comes the sorting . . .

  5. Great advice! As it happens I am in the thick of what you describe…I feel as if I am on one of those amusement park rides where one places their back against the wall inside a circular barrel, then when the ride begins it spins faster, faster, faster which is then followed by the floor dropping out from the riders feet! Thus leaving me dizzy and without footing! Oh and nauseated!

  6. I am in the thick of this. My family photos/ours aren’t too difficult, but next up are my husband’s! That will take some work.

  7. Inspiring. Sounds like a great project to do with grown children. I’ll run it by my readers [at grownchildren.net] to see if they can figure out how to get the grown kids to put in the time.

  8. Of course just like every other project I read about, I am ready to jump on board! I have started writing a family memoir with my blog being one way of preserving stories, but I realize every family has so much STUFF…. and I don’t have a sister. Damn. I think your family :”sense of humor” helped you along quite a bit…. picture doing this job with people you don’t actually like and can’t joke around with. Thanks for all the information.

    • Oh, a sense of humour is essential–we can’t even imagine trying to do this without it! We have heard of people who will help you out, for a fee, but we’ve been finding it too rewarding to farm out the work.

  9. Suzanne Fluhr (Boomeresque)

    April 29, 2014 at 7:22 am

    I’m on the receiving end of my grandmother’s photo albums via my parents’ downsize. No one remembers who some of the people in the photos are. I’m seriously not sure what to do with them other than storing them and then punting them to our adult children when the time comes. This unplan is my plan.

  10. We were in the same boat for a long time, Suzanne–our great-grandfather had moved from Toronto to Victoria, BC, but we knew NONE of the Toronto relatives. It was actually Karen’s interest in genealogy–and years spent piecing together the family tree–that helped us ID at least some of those photos, and make more sense of the rest of the BC clan. So don’t be too hard on yourself!

  11. What an amazing project. I wish I had more written material to save. I literally have nothing. Not even anything with my mother’s writing on it. How wonderful it must be for you all to work together. As difficult as it is you are making treasured memories while saving treasured memories. Thanks for sharing. =)

    • Thank you so much, Elena! That’s really too bad about your lack of written material–we know we’re lucky that at least one of our relatives was a major-league packrat who saved EVERYTHING. :) But perhaps you could think about starting an archive of your own life, so your kids or younger relatives will know a bit more about you?

  12. This is wonderful advice for dealing with images and letters, but what did you do with meaningful objects? Things like a hand mirror or a child’s Halloween costume or chipped China from decades ago? Those are the things that I can’t figure out what to do with. Any thoughts?

  13. Really good point, Ally.

    We really didn’t address that here, but you’ve given me an idea for a blog post! Stay tuned….

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