Packrat: Pruning the family tree

When I cleared out all the clutter in my house, one of the hardest things that I had to deal with was family documents and souvenirs. Part of the reason for this is the fact that I see my genealogical collections as only partially belonging to me. These items were handed down by my parents and grandparents, so I felt like I was a caretaker for a legacy, not the owner of a pile of objects. In other words, I didn't feel like I was allowed to throw anything away.

On the other hand, my genealogical collection was also a big mess. For years, I had been carting around a motley pile of pictures, albums, slides, birth certificates, death certificates, personal statements from grandparents, xeroxes of family histories, and assorted other stuff. Worse yet, after my daughter was born, I spend a lot of time sitting with her on the couch. To keep my mind occupied while she napped, I wandered through a lot of genealogy sites and worked on my family history. Largely through the help of Ancestry.com, I generated a great deal of genealogy information very quickly and was able to fill in a lot of blanks. While this brought me into closer contact with my ancestors, it also added to the junk in my house.

My solution was to file and bind all of my genealogy stuff. Not only did this make it easier to deal with, but it also enabled me to take better care of a lot of family documents and artifacts that are irreplaceable. Here is how I cleared a lot of my family clutter out and turned my mess into an organized history:

Digital Genealogy

Almost a hundred years ago, a man put together a history of my family that covered my ancestors from the late 1700's to 1913. When my grandfather died, my Uncle Don took the family copy of the book, a decision that caused years of family strife and estrangement. While doing family research, I discovered that one of my distant relatives had scanned the entire thing in on the Internet. I immediately told my relatives and sent around the url.

Although I ultimately found the book, I still learned an important lesson from Uncle Don. When it comes to irreplaceable family history, people tend to get a little touchy. Consequently, I decided to scan in all of my genealogy materials and distribute them to my whole family. Not only did this relieve me of the burden of being my family's sole genealogist, but it also enabled me to shortcut any future family arguments about who has what. The best part was that, as I made multiple copies of these items, I could worry a little bit less about the originals.

Organizing Family Materials

Since I had a huge collection of family materials, I organized them into a series of binders. Each married pair in my family (my parents, my paternal grandparents, my maternal grandparents, etc.) got at least one binder, which varied in size depending on the amount of information that I had. For example, my parents got four 1.5" binders, while my great grandmother Ella got a .5" binder. I put the names of the relevant family members on the spines of the books, which made the information easy to find. For titles, I used the name of the husband, followed by the name of the wife, with her family name in parentheses. For example, my father's parents' binder read "Wallace Bowen and Viola (Burroughs) Watson." This made it much easier to track maiden names.

Inside the binders, I put all my genealogy materials into thin plastic archival sleeves. This made it easier to organize and read these items, and also protected them. Whenever I find further information about a family member, I put it into the appropriate binder. I also put color printouts of pictures in the albums.

Pictures

I had a lot of pictures, most of which were mixed together in shoeboxes that littered my basement. A few years ago, my sister Susan had the same problem, until she scanned a big box of family pictures into her computer. She burned the scans onto disks for every member of the family, and gave them to us as Christmas presents. I did a similar thing. Basically, I scanned every picture that I could get my hands on. I kept all the older pictures of my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so forth, but I threw away many original pictures of myself and my siblings. To be perfectly honest, by scanning at high resolution, I was able to create digital copies that were superior to the originals. This was particularly true of slides. Best of all, through the miracle of cheap CD-ROMs, I was able to give copies of family pictures to all my siblings.

Scanning

If I haven't already made it clear, I can't over-emphasize the importance of scanning. Basically, this one, relatively cheap tool gives you a great way to memorialize all of your family history and pictures. Best of all, you can easily distribute copies of all these irreplaceable documents and pictures, which will be particularly helpful if your house catches on fire or your genealogy materials get lost in a move.

If you don't have a scanner, you might try checking out your local public library, as they will often allow patrons to use their computer equipment. You could also try taking your pictures and other items to a photo store, like Ritz; on the downside, this can tend to get a little expensive. Finally, you might consider just buying a scanner/printer. Wal-Mart currently has cheap ones starting at around $28. Given all the mess that it will allow you to clear out and the family problems that it will allow you to shortcut, it's hard to imagine a better deal!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea.

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