My Family History – What Now?

This post is by Pharos co-founder, Sherry Irvine.

We moved three months ago. We have done what many do at some point in retirement, moved to a much smaller home, one that is closer to family. The change precipitated lots of decisions about what would come with us on this next stage of our lives.

Furniture was the easiest decision – take only what fits. We were fortunate in having access to our house in advance of the move. It was painted, but it was also carefully measured and we planned what would go where.

Gardening things were also easy to deal with – not much to take when there are just two tiny areas to look after. Kitchen, no problem. This one is bigger. The major difficulty has been books and papers, (and knick knacks not far behind). I began with what I thought was ruthless weeding of my office bookshelves. Not ruthless enough. By moving day I had doubled the number of books that needed new homes. Papers were weeded, but not completely. We ran out of sorting time and we imagined we could live contentedly with a few stacks of file boxes for quite some time. That was a mistake. After about 6 weeks we were ready to take drastic action to get rid of the pyramid of boxes in the middle of the dining room. Well, we did it, but anyone challenged to find a dozen or more unpacked boxes would find most of them quite quickly.

So much of my family history material is on paper. I started a system of binders 35 years ago and that remains. Yes, I have digital files, text and photos and scans and downloads, but much of my work was done before the development of good software. I am not sorry about that. Sorting paper is something I know how to do.

I set to work sorting, tidying and tackled the problem of too little space and too many boxes. Hard work, however, being did was not clearing my head of a nagging thought. What am I sorting this stuff for?

I had no clear idea of how I would deal with it all, whether writing it up, giving it away or … that other fate of family history stuff I could not think about. The lack of storage space came to my rescue: as I concentrated on a logical arrangement of the binders and boxes my mind actually began generating a few ideas. I just let that happen as I set about figuring out shelf space for three-ring binders and went shopping for the right size of cabinet to fit in a 20 inch deep alcove. The cabinet turned up in a used furniture store, and I came up with my first project.

I will tell the story of my father’s life in words and pictures. This is familiar territory yet something special. I had a close relationship with my father, especially in the last several years of his life and I want to convey to our children and grandchildren what sort of a person he was. I want to take time to reflect on all my memories and to find out things I never knew. I want to talk about him with my siblings – I am the middle child and have an older and a younger brother – and discover the view from their perspectives.

All genealogists come up against this dilemma. There must be hundreds of ways out of it. I have decided to chronicle mine here in the Pharos blog. What about you? How have you tackled the challenge of what to do with your family history stuff?

About the author:   Sherry is the author of Your English Ancestry (2nd ed. 1998) and Scottish Ancestry: Research Methods for Family Historians (2003) and co-author of Finding Your Canadian Ancestors (2007). From the start of her career she has been involved in local and professional organizations. In 2005, the Association of Professional Genealogists presented her with the Smallwood Award of Merit for services to the organization and to genealogy. In September 2015 Sherry retired from regular teaching but she has not left Pharos. She will return from time to time helping in the FHSS program or as a substitute teacher. Meanwhile all that free time, will be filled with her own research and seeing much more of her grandchildren.

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2 Responses to My Family History – What Now?

  1. Sherry,

    Your story is one I am afraid many of us face as we downsize. We just moved into a condo and no longer have the storage space we had. Mind you, having many things stuck in the basement doesn’t really do the job of keeping the memories alive either. Anyway, I, too, have rid myself of a great deal of paper. Fortunately I began the digitizing job some time back so my binders mostly contain only original documents that I refuse to part with. But I still have a dozen or so cardboard and plastic storage containers filled with memorabilia, children’s report cards, tapes and records, school and university material and, of course, all the books and files of genealogy stuff for projects I am currently working on. Hey! How can you get rid of a scrapbook your mother made as a school project 80 years ago? I also can’t part with all the photo albums that have pictures not only or our immediate family but those many photographs that go back several generations.

    I am afraid there is not much hope for us collectors (hoarders) of family stuff. We have 10 foot ceilings in the new place so I have been able to install shelves much higher than are normally found. One thing we did do before moving was take down the dozens of old family pictures that hung on walls and put them into classy albums. Still the closets are full and boxes remain stacked in my office/guest bedroom. More built-in bookcases will help eventually but we are stuck with storing most of it some place. Maybe I’ll at least organize it to the extent that what our kids don’t want can go to an archive without them having to go through the boxes individually. Meanwhile everything I am now discovering about the family history, or writing about is being kept electronically. I will also be working through what paper that is left and scanning those documents that are worth keeping. At least that way I can be sure my descendants will be able to access the information.

    Good luck with your organizing efforts and your future projects.

    All the best from Wayne Shepheard, a fellow collector and saver of wonderful old family stuff.

  2. L SALTER says:

    Thanks for this.  Such useful approaches and advice.

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