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Organizing Your Boxes of Family History Keepsakes

Updated on September 23, 2013

Organize Family History Photos and Documents Into Simple Binder Scrapbooks

The easiest way to organize that pile of family history photos and documents is into scrapbook binders. I'm not talking about the creative fancy scrapbooks that are a popular hobby right now. I'm just talking about a simple way to chronologically file and organize all that paper that tends to pile up, into easy-to-access three-ring binders.

Treasures in Chaos

Treasures in Chaos
Treasures in Chaos

Preserving and Organizing Your Family Keepsakes and Important Documents

Get a Handle On Your Box of Family Photos and Papers

Overwhelmed with the volume of family keepsakes, photos and important genealogical documents I had accumulated and inherited, I had to come up with an easy way to organize and preserve these treasures. If you're looking for a way to make pretty and creative keepsake books, keep looking. I'm talking about huge piles of sometimes ugly and musty, but also precious, papers that document a person's life.

I've found a very practical (and inexpensive) way to quickly assess, sort and preserve these documents in chronological order. The end result is a book that becomes a person's history in a page-by-page timeline of their life.

Once done, the boxes of musty paper disappear in favor of a neat row of family genealogy binders. Now you can go ahead and selectively choose from the raw material, those photos and documents you want to use or copy for your creative scrapbooking projects. Or when a child asks you about Grandpa, you can pull the binder down and thumb through an illustrated history that makes him come alive.


"I'm talking about huge piles of sometimes ugly and musty, but also precious, papers that document a person's life."


"When a child asks you about Grandpa, you can pull the binder down and thumb through an illustrated history that makes him come alive."

A Simple Way To Control the Keepsake Clutter

Nothing Fancy Here, But Very Functional

The first step is sorting. If papers and documents aren't already sorted into family groups, do that first. Use tubs or boxes and simply toss in papers and photos belonging to each family. As you go you will find obvious discards. If you're unsure, keep it for now.

Now, starting with just one family, decide which things to keep and which to toss. You will definitely keep any formal documents like birth certificates and marriage licenses. When it comes to shopping lists and postcards, it depends on how old they are, how many there are, and how important it is to you. It's important to do this sort quickly and not get bogged down. At this point, if you hesitate over something for more than ten seconds, keep it for now.

Now sort loosely into chronological order, birth to death. Don't worry about getting things into exact order. The beauty of this system is that you can easily change the chronological order at any time without messing up your previous work.

Now it's time to simply place the documents into protective sleeves, and the sleeves into binders. If something is out of chronological order, simply move it. Now you'll be making some final decisions about keeping or tossing. Again, if you're unsure, simply file it, it's only another page.

The beauty of this system is that you can easily change the chronological order at any time.

Treasures in Order

Treasures in Order
Treasures in Order

Sheet Protectors Are Amazingly Inexpensive - Buy in Boxes of 100

Be sure to choose acid free, archival quality top-loading sheet protectors. Most brands run around the same price per box of 100, so choose a brand known for high quality.

Get High Quality Binders - Cheaper Binders Will Crack and Split

Choosing a high quality binder large enough for all the documents in one family will save money in the long run. Cheaper binders crack and split, even if they're not handled frequently.

Clear spine and front pockets make it easy to label or customize for each separate family.

Operation Family Keepsake - To-Do List

Your checklist for getting a handle on disorganized family and genealogy papers and documents.

Work on one family or person at a time.

  1. Sort papers into family surnames (last name).
  2. Keep or toss? When in doubt, KEEP.
  3. Loosely sort chronologically.
  4. Purchase binders and sheet protectors.
  5. Put each document in a sheet protector, then into binder.
  6. Adjust chronological order as you add pages.
  7. Label binder and shelf it.
  8. That's all there is to it. Give yourself a pat on the back!

Organizing and Preserving Family Papers Brings Peace of Mind

No Need to Make Anything Fancy. . . .Unless You Want To

Remember, this isn't necessarily about a finished scrapbook -- highly decorative or otherwise. It's about preserving and organizing important documents and keepsakes from a living or deceased person's life. Once you've done this, you can create other family history projects from the organized material. Or, like me, you might be content with the idea that number one, all the papers are now safely stored and accessible to family members or for genealogy research, and number two, there is no longer an overwhelming pile of disorganized family keepsakes cluttering your home and mind.

The Story of Your Lifetime

Write your history directly into a bound volume. Questions prompt you to write your experiences, thoughts and feelings for generations to come.

Do You Work on Genealogy or Family History?

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    • oceansnsunsets profile image


      5 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Hi Nancy, I appreciate your suggestions here for organizing such important information in such a "doable" manner. I am looking forward to doing this. Thanks for sharing!

    • Nancy S Oram profile imageAUTHOR

      Nancy Oram 

      6 years ago

      @martingallagher: The point of this article is how to organize your treasures once you're ready to get them out of boxes :)

    • martingallagher profile image


      6 years ago

      Shoeboxes work great if you are on a budget.

    • socialcx1 profile image


      6 years ago

      I think this is great idea and will look into doing it.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I've recently had a question from a client related to organizing family information. This is a great lens! I'm sharing on my bus Facebook Fan page so that my clients / visitors can check it out too.

    • Heidi Vincent profile image

      Heidi Vincent 

      6 years ago from GRENADA

      Yes but I am tired with the details so this lens gives me some new ideas. Excellent lens!

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 

      6 years ago from Central Florida

      I just inherited 22 boxes of the family archives from my mother. I'm going to try to digitize as much as possible to be accessible to far-flung family and even relatives that I didn't know I had.

      Until then, I'll start batching the stuff by family name as you suggest here. Thanks so much.

    • Coreena Jolene profile image

      Coreena Jolene 

      6 years ago

      I make sure my plastic is archival safe and acid free, I just bought a bunch of them. I like your binder system and plan to do something similar with some things.

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 

      7 years ago from So Cal

      I have lots of stuff. I just scanned all the photo's of my oldest child and he is getting them for Christmas. I have all my mom's photos and genealogy records that need to be organized. Thanks for some very helpful hints.

    • Celticep profile image


      7 years ago from North Wales, UK

      Yes I do genealogy, I must do some organising soon too!

    • agoofyidea profile image


      7 years ago

      This is a great idea. I do scrapbooking, but there are items that just don't go in those books. My dad did a ton of geneology and gave me a huge box of stuff. I'll have to get some sheet protectors and start organzing it. Thanks for the idea.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I have long been facinated by my family history, and find myself very lucky that my grandma kept so much of the families documents. Unfortunatly though she just punched holes in them to store in a 3 ring binder. Since her passing I find myself the new family historian (might have something to do with my love of the family story, or the fact that I majored in history!), this page gave me lots of ideas how I could simply and afordably protect what I hold so dear to me! I will also be taking a few moment to scan all the documents that I have into the computer and making CD's of them for all the family to have.

    • delia-delia profile image


      8 years ago

      Great advise! I have done this, but then I don't have many things from my family, we lost most everything during the war...what I have is what exists. I do this for myself because I have the drive, my daughters have no interest, but I guarantee when I'm gone they wished we had talked about it....they have such great History in their hence for some of my lenses.

    • Genjud profile image


      8 years ago

      Yes, I do. I have been working on family history for over 35 years. I also serve in a local Family History Center as a volunteer and I am the Chairman of the Book Committee for our Center. Your lenses are amazing. Great work and content.

    • GramaBarb profile image


      9 years ago from Vancouver

      Yes, I am known as our family historian. I am an avid believer in keeping family documents and pictures! Love your tips that you have outlined here and deserving of a SquidAngel blessing.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Wow! I really like your lens! Very informative!...

      I'll keep reading & I'll share this lens to my subscribers.

      Thank you so much!

      Get your FREE 13 Video Tutorials Here:


    • SusannaDuffy profile image

      Susanna Duffy 

      10 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      How immensely practical! After reading this I am most definitely going to tidy up my bits and pieces of family history - properly.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Excellent ideas! This sounds like a project for this winter! I do want my adult children to know what all my keepsakes mean and why I kept them! Lensrolling to How to Write Your Personal History. Great advice!

      Congratulations on Giant Squid! Yahoo!

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 

      11 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Great ideas. One of my sisters keeps our family records this way but mine are stuffed in a box so I think you may have inspired me.

    • profile image


      11 years ago


      I really appreciate the work you put into this lens. Both my parents have passed away (2004 & 2006), and I have loads of family letters, precious documents, photos, and so on. I have them stashed in a set of pretty stackable boxes, but it would be crazy trying to find a specific item.

      Thanks for such good, practical tips!


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