What To Do With Your Family Papers

A box of unprocessed material from a client. The only way to begin trying to establish if there is any original order to the material or what the material is will be to take the material out of the box and start going through it. This is what I am referring to when I say ‘You start where you start.’

What to do with the ‘old stuff’ you found during your Covid clear-out

A box of unprocessed material from a client. The only way to begin trying to establish if there is any original order to the material or what the material is will be to take the material out of the box and start going through it. This is what I am referring to when I say ‘You start where you start.’

I have a lot of conversations with people about what to do with their stuff. This is partly because I am nosy and partly because of my profession: I am an archivist. Much of my private archival and organisational work is with people who have lived in the same house for 7 years or more and are downsizing, or planning a move. Or they inherit material from a family member and just aren’t sure what the material is or what to do with it. The initial questions I get most often are: does it have historical value? Should it be donated to an archives or museum? How can they share the material with the rest of the family? And ‘where do I start?’ These are the collections that come to me in my consultancy, specialise in establishing legacy and rehoming collections, including ‘mixed media’ and non-traditional archival collections.

Let’s say you’ve cleared out the attic and you’ve got boxes that no one has opened in 30 years. Where do you start? Short answer: you start where you start. That first box, the first item you take out, the first flicker of curiosity, THOSE are your starting points. Congratulations, you are on your family archives journey.

A letter written on tissue paper. The letter has already begun to disintegrate and will be difficult -if not impossible to conserve.

The journey can be overwhelming, especially when it is YOUR family’s material. I recently became the caregiver for my maternal family’s archives, which encompassed 4 separate families’ worth of ‘old stuff.’ In addition to the 17 medium sized moving boxes, I also had to rehouse an entire home of furniture and clothing. The latter pieces of work were infinitely easier but time consuming. The deaths of my mother and grandmother were recent and there were time constraints. It was emotionally taxing, as well. But going through the letters, the vital documents, the life mementos – even though I DO this work – was emotionally taxing.

Material you will like encounter:

Paper: such as wills, deeds, correspondence (letters, postcards)


Related ephemera Journals, address books, and what we often call ‘related ephemera.’

The same letter, unfolded. It is currently being flattened and we’ll try to move it into mylar (archival polyester).

Some you will keep, much you will not. And that is okay: it is part of the process of sorting a collection. We cannot keep everything and nor should we.   But how do you approach the old stuff you’ve found? Well, first you need a clear space to work in, well lit but preferably not in direct sunlight because sunlight is hard on the old stuff. Approach the material gently. I would suggest wearing a mask (and because of Covid, you’ll have one to hand!) because the material will be dusty and you don’t want to breathe that in. Also consider wearing gloves if the material is coming from a particularly dirty or dusty venue. Also, lay down a sheet or table cloth (I usually use white cotton) to spread the material out on whilst you’re getting a feel for what you’re encountering. This helps protect the surface you’re working on, as well as the material.

Metal fastenings rust and damage the paper. Plastic fastenings tend to become brittle over time and can also damage paper.

There will be piles and piles of material. There will be a point in the process where the space you’re working in will be messier than when you started and you’ll wonder if you’re even close to creating a sense of order out of what is clearly chaos. You will. It will take time, but you will begin to see order emerge from the chaos. And what you discover I hope will enrich your life as well as help you make space for new memories.

When I say there will be piles, these can go on for weeks or months. I am currently working on a collection that I spend approximately 20 hours a week with and I am still at the pile making stage of going through 4 bankers boxes worth of material. The correspondence is complex and in a variety of languages, there are business records and personal material intermingled, and the material in these four boxes spans 120. There is no inherent order to the material outside of two lever arch files that make the concept of ‘original order’ even more difficult to follow.

My key advice is to accept that this process is going to take time. Even if you have no personal or emotional connection to the material, going through boxes is tiring work. Don’t do more than 2 hours without a break and don’t do more than 4-5 hours in one day, unless there really is a time-crunch on the material.

There will a lot of piles. There will be paper that you simply will not be able to untangle. And there will be material that disintegrates the more you look at it.   There will be material that you look at and wonder if it needs to be saved. In most cases, it does not. Do not underestimate the value of the wastepaper basket.

But what do you with the piles of paper? I label my piles as a I go along. They begin to make their own sense. For example, let’s say I have 500 letters in a box. There are single letters from individual correspondents. I put all of those letters in one section.   When I come across multiples, that correspondent gets their own stack. Once I’ve sorted the material, I look at the notes I’ve made going along and I sit down and type those up along with the information I’ve gleaned just handling the material. You’ll be surprised at what you can intuit just unpacking the boxes.

Then I start on each pile individually, putting them in reverse date order to folder. I keep a tally of how many pages per folder and whether the writing is double-sided, if I am thinking the material might be digitised. I put approximately 20 letters in a file at a time, so that they are manageable and the paper isn’t damaged. And I repeat the process for each stack of material, putting the completed files in boxes, usually paperclipping the stack label onto them.

I keep a running list of names I come across: individuals, businesses, institutions, and corresponding dates. This helps when I am writing up the scope and content of the collection, as well as with establishing the timeline of the material. The finding aid is guide to help people access the materials. Below, I include links to two examples of smaller archival collections’ finding aids that I drafted early in my career that are still in use, to give a sense of what I mean.

Fritz Bamberger Papers (americanjewisharchives.org)

Joseph Solomon Papers (americanjewisharchives.org)

If you’ve inherited material that involves family you know very little about, there will be external research that you may want to do to flesh out the story. But you don’t have to do that. You can simply create a high-level file and box list, so that you know what is in the boxes when you are deciding what happens to the material next, such as hiring genealogist, donate the material. Ultimately, this is an opportunity for you to clear out space from your attic or closet, engage with your ancestors’ legacy, and spend time in another decade or five and it should be enjoyable. Make it enjoyable for yourself and if it is daunting, please DO reach out to the Archives community. We love to help and love keeping heritage alive.


Suggested supplies:

  • Pencils
  • Gloves and a mask – especially if the material you are initially unpacking has been in a dusty/dirty or damp area. This will protect you from any mould spores and dust that you may release.
  • Acid-free/ph neutral file folders
  • Brass paperclips (as opposed to steel – even the coated ones, which rust or plastic, which become brittle and often break) to replace staples and fasteners. Surrey County Council has a nifty guide available here: https://www.surreycc.gov.uk/culture-and-leisure/history-centre/depositors/conservation/damaging-fasteners, if you feel like you need more guidance on fasteners.
  • A thin piece of card to remove staples.
  • Mylar (archival polyester) sheets can be purchased in small packs from art supply stores or from conservation retailers such as Preservation Equipment Limited or Conservation By Design
  • Archival boxes
  • Bankers boxes (I know a lot of people use the plastic Keep boxes, which are BPA free but I prefer and recommend cardboard; it is sturdy and keeps the light out).


Useful links and resources:

One of my favourite accessible resources for non-archivists who have inherited collections Deniaw May Levenick (www.thefamilycurator). Her work is pragmatic, accessible, and readable. Her guide _How to Archive Family Keepsakes_ ((ISBN: 9781440322235) is available through independent bookshops, HIVE and Amazon.

­­_Saving Stuff_ (ISBN: 9780743264167) by Don Williams and Louisa Jagger is a great resource for archival material as well as clothing, photographs, and memorabilia.

Bessel van der Kolk’s book _The Body Keeps Score_ (ISBN: 9780141978611) is an incredibly important read for people who are approaching family collections where there is trauma. In these instances, I would strongly suggest bringing in an archivist to work through the material with you.




How can you find an archival consultant? LinkedIn, a targeted Google Search, contacting your local studies or local history centre or through the Archives and Records Association (ARA)

Archival consultants (full disclosure, I am not an ARA member and am not on this list, but I know archivists who are and can/do vouch for the veracity of the list. I just belong to other Archival organisations internationally and in other sectors).



Rachel Howse Binnington is Deputy Archivist at Fortnum and Mason and an occasional Heritage Consultant. She has worked in the Heritage sector since 1992 and in Archives-sphere since 2000. She is happy to answer questions about archives and heritage at rachel.binnington@gmail.com.


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