To Keep or Not to Keep? by Juliana Smith

As in many of your homes I’m sure, spring cleaning is well underway in my house (much to my daughter’s chagrin!). Closets, cabinets, drawers, and shelves are being reorganized and we are making regular trips to the Goodwill store with drop-offs. I’m also doing a gradual spring cleaning in my office. I had to move some things around to accommodate the new all-in-one printer/scanner I got for my birthday and decided it was time to go through some of the storage boxes I had stashed under the printer stand.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about being a gatherer and the positive side of that practice.  The downside to it is that it can lead to an overabundance of papers that can quickly become overwhelming. Every so often we need to go back and take stock of what we’ve gathered and clear some things out. In some cases it may mean letting go of things we don’t need. Yes, I mean actually throwing things out. (Gasp!) I know, it goes against the grain. After all, we’re the preservers of our family history. We should be preserving everything, right?

Well, maybe not. I read a post a while back on Sally Jacobs’s “Practical Archivist” blog that stuck with me. The article was talking about photographs, but is totally relevant to other family history materials as well. Accompanying the article was this warning sign:

“Caution: Keeping everything means that someone else decides what gets tossed later.”

Scary stuff! It made me really think about not only what I kept, but where I kept it. So this week, let’s take a look at some ways we can dispose of some of our excesses, so that someone doesn’t overdo it for us down the line.

Storing the Maybes
I typically keep a separate section in the back of my family binders for those folks that may be related–“the maybes.” Keeping them there is convenient, but in cases where they are starting to take over, I am moving them to a different binder. I’m also going through them and actually getting rid of some that I know I don’t need anymore. For example, once upon a time we found a record that gave one ancestor’s maiden name as Nesen. For year we collected every scrap we could find on Nesen, Nessen, Nesson, etc. Turned out that was a typo. Her maiden name was Nelson. Do I really need to keep all the Nessens now? No. The Nesens are off to the recycle bin.

You may also be holding on to the records of individuals with the same or similar name as your ancestor, despite having proven that they are not the same person or even related. Because I may run across records of this person again and will want to be reminded why they’re not related, I really don’t want to toss these. But rather than keep the paper copies of the records, why not save them electronically into a “not related” file, with a typed up report of how you ruled them out. It will be easier to access, regardless of where you are researching, and you’ll free up filing space for ancestors that are really yours.

Duplicate Copies
As I’m going through papers, I occasionally run across duplicate copies I’ve made of records for my ancestors. Perhaps I printed out a census copy again, not realizing that another copy was sitting in my bin waiting to be filed. Instead of just throwing the copy away, sometimes I’ll send it to another family member, with a quick note explaining the find. It’s a great way to get other family members interested, and you may find that it opens up some dialogue that will reveal other clues.

Magazines and Periodicals
I don’t know about you, but part of my office problem is an overabundance of magazines. I also keep and print out articles that I find helpful online and they help add to the clutter. I love having the reference materials, but it never fails—-whenever I want to reference an article I read a while back, I can’t find it in the pile.

This year, I’m going through that mountain of magazines and I’m pulling out only the articles I really need. This way I can file them in a way so that I can actually find them when I need them. I keep a locality file for each place in which my ancestors lived. It gives me a place to stash odds and ends I find for each location (e.g., vital records availability, Family History Library Catalog print-outs for records they hold, articles about research in that area, etc.).

I’ve also started a new file in one of those plastic file boxes with articles that don’t relate to a particular place, but that I think may help me jumpstart my research or overcome a problem down the road. Manila folders help me to organize the articles by topic making it easier to locate those items when I’m wondering, “Now where did I read that?” Plus it saves space because I don’t have to save the whole magazine.

Also, keep in mind that many magazines now have an online presence. Ancestry Magazine has an archive online in the new Learning Center with articles posted as recently as May 2007. Relying on online searchable archives is often more practical than retaining paper copies.

Clearly Indicate What’s Important
While we gaze lovingly at the collection of records we have amassed filling out our family tree, other family members may just see files or piles of papers. Have you organized the documents you have collected so that it is evident what is part of your family history? A well-organized binder, especially one that is well-labeled and that chronicles your ancestor’s life in an interesting way, is more likely to survive than papers stuffed into a manila folder. Decorate the binder with ancestral images so that it attracts attention.

Or perhaps it’s time to take that step and start working on publishing your finds. If you haven’t tried AncestryPress, take it for a test drive. They’ve added new backgrounds and embellishments, and now you can invite family members to view your book online and order copies for themselves. It’s a great way to help ensure that all of your hard work won’t be tossed and forgotten. You can find an article I wrote about AncestryPress on the blog  and you can keep up with the latest features on the AncestryPress blog.  And if you can wrap up your AncestryPress project in the next week, they’re offering a discount for Mother’s Day.

Start Today
Take fifteen minutes today to begin your family history spring cleaning. Taken in bite-sized pieces each day, you’ll find that you can really make strides, even in the space of just one week. Not only will you be helping to secure all of your hard word for the future, you’ll find that by clearing out some of the clutter, you can be more productive.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than nine years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

12 thoughts on “To Keep or Not to Keep? by Juliana Smith

  1. Dear Juliana, your article was great. Let me make a suggestion if I may as to what to do with those extras, rather than send them to the recycle bin. Take them to your local library for their files. Most libraries have files of family informantion that people have donated. It is a great place to check when you are in a new research location. This way, someone else can use it and it is not wasted. As to the magazines, copy the articles you want to keep out of them and then take the magazines to your library for their Friends of the library sale. Or the library may want to keep the copies for their collection. This way you do not feel bad getting rid of those “things you must have!”
    I love your articles and suggestions.

  2. Thanks for the informative artical …as a result I too have been riding out the material and just putting the hard copies in preserving sleeves in notebooks, and shredding the notebook pages as copied off..some like a scratch paper so not good to give to library. Others will send to my relatives in hopes they might be able to add to our tree.
    Made a wastebasket full just cleaning the clutter so appreciate the suggestion. Luckily though I ran across some notes I had forgotten which helped me discover more of my family tree. So that is a good reason to go thru and rid out the paperwork.

  3. I’ve found that I too have many papers which I know others will simply toss. I decided that when I find an obit or death certificate online that I simply save it to my computer in a vitals folder and then have update my backups (flash drive, CD disk). When I’m gone, the person responsible for the family data will only have to store the drives or disks and it’s a lot easier to contend with. Of course as technology changes I will change with it by upgrading to DVD’s or whatever is available and hope that the future keeper will do the same.

  4. Accompanying the article was this warning sign:
    “Caution: Keeping everything means that someone else decides what gets tossed later.”

    It seems to me that ultimately someone else ALWAYS gets to decide what gets tossed.

  5. Great article, and I especially like Debbie’s comment about storing data in digital form on CDs and other media. I take that idea one step further by copying the CDs and sending them to family as presents. Some of the advantages to this idea:
    – Most of my family seems to appreciate these gifts.
    – Some family members have become interested in our history.
    – The redundancy of disseminating digital images of photos and documents to a wide audience guards against loss from fire and decay.
    – And it does help make it more difficult for someone to make an arbirary decision about throwing stuff away.

    Debbie also points out the big problem with this idea: Technology changes at a rapid rate. I have computer disks from the early 1990s that modern computers can’t read. I try to convince family members to back up their copies of family history every few years using the latest technology.

  6. This also hit a nerve with me as I sort through boxes and envelopes of pictures of my own to put in scrapbooks or boxes or trash.

    I have been told by my father that he has more old pictures. My advice to him was if he doesn’t want them and doesn’t think I want them, to find the nearest relative of the individual and see if they want them. There are others doing genealogy research in the family that may want some of these pictures that had been inherited from various boxes from deceased relatives attics. Seems that people always give these treasures to the closest one doing genealogy research.

  7. Great article. I feel like I am drowning in paper and pictures. I love it when I find a note that I forgot I had. My problem is with the 15 minutes a day. I am always in the middle of a pile when the times is up. I can’t stop then, so I am back to using more time than I have.

  8. And I thought I was the only one that kept everything. We are not only spring house cleaning, but I am going through files like crazy. I have only been doing Ancestry for 5 years, but it is amazing what I saved.
    Thanks for your article.

  9. Very helpful article. But, I just read in the last week that it is dangerous to leave files you will use later on the computer without printing them out because of rapidly changing technology. When you come back in 5 years with another computer perhaps or after the computer has been zapped, how do you get to your historical files?
    For this reason, I have just started printing off my correspondence that I had always left in e-mail. And, I had started copying photos onto my computer (no backup) and offering original to other family members. Bad idea. Now realize I need a backup CD, and hope to be able to read?
    Is there a better strategy?

  10. Thank you for this timely article.
    We have been trying to ‘go green’ and ‘declutter’ all this month. For my part, I have two large binders (only two?)full of printed census records. From now on, they will ONLY exist as computer files. also, other documents are going to be converted to PDF files. I’m going to alot 30 minutes a session to this project. Backups and distributions will be CDs or DVDs.

    “Guided by the Ancestors”

  11. For bulky papers you want to keep: you can take them to a copy center with digital services, and scan in to a high volume scanner, save them, and store it on a jump drive, disc, etc. These are also available for rent or purchase on line or from your business office centers. We save our business records that way – why not do it at home?

  12. Pingback: 24-7 Family History Circle » To Keep or Not to Keep? by Juliana Smith | Declutter My House

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