Organization| Photographs | Family Heirlooms | Family History

3 Words To Know When You Inherit The Box Of Stuff From Grandma

Box of old photographs
Credit: Margaret Eves

Do you have a few (or many) boxes of:

old family photographs,

old home movie film,

family videos,


family heirlooms,

some or all of the above?

Then you are a family archivist. Keep reading and you’ll learn how your family archive is a living bridge from your ancestors to the next generation.

I recently attended the Georgia Archives Institute. Although I was learning about what professional archivists do, I learned some tips anyone can use easily. Everyday folks who have boxes of old family photos and inherited papers can apply techniques professional archivists use for preserving and protecting collections in large institutions. What you have is a “collection” or several collections, just like the big repositories. You have a family archive.

Three words archivists use a lot are: preserve, assess, and access. I’ll explain what they mean for you, the everyday family archivist.


Would you make family members live in a wet basement, an oven-like attic, or an unheated garage? No! So don’t treat your precious family records like smelly gym shoes or garden tools. An easy first easy step to take is to get the boxes out of the attic, basement, garage, or heaven-forbid, the backyard garden shed. Find a corner of a room or an interior closet in a climate-controlled part of your house.

Credit: Margaret Eves

I won’t get into using archival storage containers in this post, but the sooner you get photos and papers out of regular cardboard boxes, the better. You can buy safe boxes and containers online from University Products, Hollinger Metal Edge, and Gaylord.


If there are moldy or bug-infested items, DO separate them from the main part of your collection. You may have to discard some items if there is considerable damage. If it’s a one-of-a-kind photo of an ancestor, photograph it with what you have — a smartphone or digital camera. The important thing is to prevent the icky mold from spreading to other items in your family archive. And you should get the moldy, buggy stuff out of your house.

Before you start “reorganizing,” STOP! Provenance is good! Provenance means the relationship of the record (the photo or document) to the person who created them. By keeping the items together as you found them, you may discover the context in which they were created. Context helps tell the story. The sedimentary layers of photos may indicate time periods in your family history.

As you glance through the boxes, you don’t have to make a list of every individual photo or paper, at least not right now. Just get an idea of what the photographs and documents are about in general, and make notes.


⁃ Photographs of Edna Rutledge as a college student (about 1920)

⁃ Edna Rutledge school records (about 1915–1920)

⁃ Edna Rutledge Jones and Herman Jones early marriage photos (about 1925)


Credit: DepositPhotos

Translation: Describe and share what’s in the family archive so people know what’s there. The first step in access to an item is awareness that it exists.

You know that quick list you created? Make a digital copy and share it with cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, kids, and grandkids. Scan a photo or take a photo with your smartphone to give them a taste of what’s in the boxes, or rather, collection. See, we’re thinking like archivists now!

Do you know a story behind one of the photographs? Tell it. Or maybe there’s a “mystery” person in a photo. Ask family members if they know who it might be. Or better yet, if you know who the person is in a photograph, (like maybe Grandma Edna as a young college student), ask the family to guess who it is and offer a prize!

Mary Elizabeth Davis, approximately 1905. Collection of Margaret Eves. Photographer unknown.

One thing an archivist does is write a short biographical note about the “creator” of a collection. If it was stuff your Grandma Edna tucked away into a shoebox, then your grandma, Edna Rutledge Jones, is the creator. And the stuff in the shoebox is the Edna Rutledge Jones collection. Keep the biographical note brief. Use birth and date dates if you know them, and a brief overview of what you know. You can add to it later. You can include the biographical note when you share the pictures or have it handy when your relatives start asking about Grandma Edna’s college photos.

BONUS TIP: Caring for your family archive is like the old adage of eating an elephant. You do it one bite at a time — or one box at a time. Just start. One box today. Another box tomorrow.

Archives are not places for old, dusty records to be hidden away. You and other members of your family are keeping the memories of your ancestors alive by preserving and sharing the stories embedded in your family’s photographs and papers. Your family archive can be the living bridge between past and future generations of your family.

One way to share your archival treasures is with a short family history video. You can learn more about making family history videos on my website,, where this article was originally published.

Viaduct. Savannah, GA. Credit: Margaret Eves

Thanks to Kathleen D. Roe, Lead Instructor at the Georgia Archives Institute and author of Arranging & Describing Archives and Manuscripts. Also, thanks to Christine Wiseman and Tina Seetoo for teaching the preservation portion of the institute. They helped me to better understand the concepts of content, context, and preservation in archives.

Video Storyteller, Family History Fanatic & Librarian. Frustrated with sharing your family tree? Get free tools to tell your ancestor stories:

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