Establishing a Family Record Archive

When we hear the word “archive,” a mental picture comes to mind of a large, stately building, usually with a controlled storage environment to maintain proper temperature and humidity.  Documents are stored under acid-free paper or carefully mounted under glass to preserve their original character.

My dictionary defines an archive as, “A place or collection containing records, documents, or other materials of historical interest.” An alternative definition is, “A repository for stored memories or information: the archive of the mind.”

Archives are usually filled with papers and artifacts that describe people, their cultures, values, and morals; their relationships and dealings with each other. Given these definitions, why not a family archive?  Think about it. A family archive. A place to keep important papers of legal significance. A place to keep photographs. A place to keep letters. A place to keep memories.

A friend of mine moved often during the years her husband was in the military service. As a matter of practicality, the Government advised them to keep important family documents such as birth and marriage certificates, proof of citizenship, etc., together in a loose leaf binder and to keep it in a handy place where it would be readily available should evacuation be necessary.

My friend has carried this concept further and keeps the history of their immediate family in a similar binder. Each year she reviews her journal and writes a summary for the family history. Photographs taken that year are kept in the “family book” with their history.  Each member of the family has his own personal book. Mementos of school work, achievements, and of course journal entries are found here. Parents take time to write notes about each child in their own books and even more lengthy commentary until they are old enough to assume this responsibility themselves. As each child leaves home, his book goes with him and copies of legal documents made for the family book.  The originals go with the child.

We know that family ties extend further than our own immediate circle. Adding information about parents, grandparents, and great grandparents to the family archive is a very natural, and almost compelling, extension of this work.  My friend keeps a separate binder for each of her ancestral lines with computer-generated pedigree charts and family group sheets. She adds photos, of course, and copies of documents or other memorabilia–the finished stuff you don’t want someone to throw out when you die.

One year we had an appraiser come to assess the value of our home so we could refinance it. My “office” is in a tiny bedroom just off the kitchen. As the appraiser looked about the kitchen, his eyes fell upon this little room. “Whoa! Office city!” he exclaimed as he counted the filing cabinets. “One, two, three, four. . . I think you could put two more over here under the window!”  “I’ve already tried that,” I replied glumly, “and they just wouldn’t fit, so I had to put them in the basement.” I restrained myself, but I wanted to say, “I have my mother in the bottom drawer and my grandparents over there.  Unfortunately, I could not fit the entire family in one drawer, so I had to use two. I keep my children in the top drawer, next to the bills and taxes, where they are handy to get at.”

Now, I realize that some families don’t have space for six filing cabinets and they have to put their children in the spare bedroom; but every family needs a little space to keep the things they treasure, all together in one place, be it under the bed or in a closet.

My neighbor keeps her family archives (research file folders) in office storage boxes where she can grab them at a moment’s notice if the dam breaks or the house catches fire–something I can’t do with my filing cabinets. Others make copies of their computer genealogy files and give them to their children for Christmas each year.

You can begin with just a cardboard box or a dresser drawer (if you can find one). Bring your important papers, photos, journals, family stories, and other memorabilia into one place. However you do it, start now to collect those things that are near and dear to you. And maybe, if you can, try to retrieve a few things from the archive of your mind and write them down for your family.


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