Letters and Photos and Stuff, Oh My!: Sorting Through a Loved Ones Estate (Part 3)

We're finally here--down to the nitty gritty. I know you are saying to yourself, "Thank goodness. I didn't think we'd ever get there." (Actually, my husband said exactly the same thing just the other day...) I am currently sorting out at the item level and in the process of organizing literally a hundred letters, thousands of photos and slides, and bits and pieces of memorabilia, hoping to glean whatever genealogical information I can from them.

Before I go any further, however, I would like to say a word about your workspace. I have a fold up table in my den/guest room to stack, store, and organize the projects I am currently working on. I'm trying, I said trying, to keep all of my active projects in one place. I also have three cats that jump everywhere and little boys that battle aliens with light sabers in my house. On top of that, spilling drinks and other liquids comes naturally to us. My fold up table is out of the way where it is not likely to get knocked over or spilled on. Keep all liquids away from your photos and other materials.

For supplies, you can spend what your budget allows. I would love to buy an extensive array of archival products, but they can be expensive. I have purchased basic non-archival storage items from Walmart, Staples, and Target. For acid free archival materials A.C. Moore, Michaels, and the Container Store are possibilities. There are also online product purveyors of archival products such as Gaylord. My supplies are pretty simple. They include archival boxes for storage, PVC-free photo sleeves and slide sleeves. I use acid free tissue paper for wrapping fabric items. I am also planning to purchase acid free copy paper and folders.

I have about 100 letters, mostly in Polish. I don't read Polish, but saved the letters hoping to find someone to translate them for me someday. I'm lucky that I've made contact with a cousin from Poland who is as interested in genealogy as I am. He is kindly translating letters for me one at a time. I scan them and send them via e-mail. He replies with a translation. I have organized the letters in an archival box purchased at a crafts store. They are arranged first by sender and then by date. My cousin translates the earliest ones first, so we can learn about our family using a chronological timeline. I'm planning to print the translations on archival paper and put them in the box next to the original letter.

If you are interested in translating letters get your name out there via blogs, message boards and the like. Stating the obvious, RootsWeb is a great place to start. You too may have a cousin who is interested in genealogy and happy to translate letters for you. Other options to consider: hire a professional translator; contact a poor graduate student looking to make some extra cash; or make friends with another genealogist. Are there any ethic churches or schools in your area you could contact? A final note on letters--if you have envelopes keep the envelopes with the letters. I have the street addresses of our family back in Poland dating back to the 1930s, because my family kept the letters in the envelopes they came in.

I've organized my photos in archival boxes purchased from a crafts store. I also have some photos in archival plastic sleeves and slides in archival plastic sleeves inside a three ring binder. If you have photos in old photographer's folders/portfolios, carefully, and I mean very carefully, remove the photos from the old acidic folders. If you can't remove the photo without potentially damaging it, place a clean piece of acid-free copy paper between the photo and the folder to protect the photo. Before you toss a folder/portfolio make sure there isn't writing on it, like a personal note from the sender to the recipient. You don't want to toss away an inscription by mistake and lose valuable information for your research.

Consider purchasing a light screen to organize slides. If you buy a scanner, can it scan negatives and slides? How many slides can it scan at once? Unfortunately my scanner can only scan four slides at a time. Given that I have a couple thousand slides, I expect to finish my scanning project sometime in 2035. I am currently the process of scanning and organizing photos onto my hard drive, preparing them for a digital scrapbook. I haven't yet, but hope to in the near future, check out one of the photo sharing websites to share all of these great photos with other members of my family. Also, if you are looking for a great gift for someone--birthday, Mother's Day, Father's Day--consider scanning your old photos and then give your loved one a digital picture frame.

Do you have yellowed newspaper clippings? You might want to consider photocopying them onto archival paper. You can keep the original and the photocopy together in an archival folder, or you can toss the smelly yellowed original and keep the copy. You may want to eliminate the paper all together and simply keep a scanned copy on your hard drive, memory stick, or photo sharing website.

As far as memorabilia is concerned--tickets, programs, postcards, menus, diaries, yearbooks, etc.--archival boxes are handy. If I have several copies of something and the item is of special significance or interest, I keep three copies. I don't think more than that is really necessary. I don't really see the need to keep more than one copy of most things. As I mentioned earlier, acid free tissue is great for storing fabrics.

When I started this process in 2004 my son was 18 months old. It's now 2010, and my son will be heading off to second grade in the fall. I say, somewhat tongue in cheek, by the time I finish he'll probably be in college. At least I won't be bored in my retirement years. Yes, my organizing project has taken a while. As I said, my process may not be the best way or work for everyone, but it's worked for me. I hope you find some what I've shared useful. Now go forth and organize...


Pat said...

Thanks Cynthia, for encouraging my own organizing attempts. I am still sorting my mother's "estate" and she died in 1991. (I am almost done, but it has been a slow process.)


Joan said...

Cynthia, Thanks for a great series. Lots of very useful information that I will be using.

I scan pictures, letters and documents in to my external hard drive. Then I am driven to distraction to make sure that I have backup(and back ups to my backup), that I move forward to the next method of storage, and OMG I can't lose this treasure trove of mine.

J.M. said...

Great posts. I am dealing with my grandmother's 'estate' right now, as well as everything my parents have given me. I have not yet gone through everything, but my process looks a lot like yours.

Cynthia Shenette said...

Hi Ladies. Thanks so much for the kind words regarding my series of articles. I'm new to this whole blogging thing, so I really appreciate your feedback. Sorting through all this stuff is a slow process, but I'm sure our research and family history can only benefit. It's tough but worth the effort in the end. There is an end, right? ;) Thanks again, and happy organizing!

hummer said...

Just got to read through the 2010 articles. Followed the whole series. I was not as diligent as you and am still trudging through not only my mom's stuff but my own as I had to leave my house when my husband died. You have some great thoughts will be using some.

Cynthia Shenette said...

Hummer - Thank you for reading and your comment! Good luck with your sorting project and don't get discouraged. I closed out my mom's house in 2004, and I'm still working at it a little bit here and there. Keep me posted if you find any of my tips particularly helpful.