Everything we own or use does not belong in a family archive.
In the archives profession we try to identify items that have enduring value. A family archive should retain records that show documentary evidence of a person’s life.
Collectively this forms the family history. I cannot say fully what would have enduring value in your family. To some extent the matter is very personal. But there are certain things that are typically more important than others and are worth saving.
Legal Documents – certificates of birth, death, marriage, passports, immigration papers, military records, lawsuits, divorce decrees, wills, etc. Legal documents reveal a great deal about people, sometimes in ways we don’t always think. Typically all legal documents should be retained.
Financial Value – stocks, bonds, deeds, purchase and sales agreements, loans, appraisals for jewelry, antiques or equipment, family heirlooms such as jewelry, silver, watches, artwork. Keep items that show evidence of value that are still active. Many people are very private about how much money they earn, but saving some of this information might be revealing to future generations.
Functional – documents used to accomplish a specific task. Blueprints, architectural drawings, maps, navigational records, scientific and observational documents, business plans, cookbooks, dress patterns, knitting patterns. If they were created by a family member or show evidence of something that was important in their lives, you may want to save it.
Show proof that an event occurred – legal documents will do this, but other events not legal in nature will be recorded through graduation diplomas, religious rites of passage such as first communion or bar mitzvah, greetings cards for birthdays, sympathy cards, thank-you notes, awards or certifications for hobbies or sports, course completions or professional training certificates. I’m an avid concert go-er and save tickets of the different concerts I’ve attended. Photographs are the most explicit way we document that an event occurred. Photographs of family reunions, travel abroad, annual holidays, or baby’s first tooth are all events we may find important to save and archive.
Some discrimination will be needed in this category of showing proof that an event occurred.
Ask yourself, does this item have enduring value? Does it show evidence of a person’s life? Is the event significant enough to keep evidence of it?
In other words, do we need to keep every photograph from every holiday? It’s probably not necessary to save every Christmas card you’ve ever received, but you might want to save all the sympathy cards you received when your father died. Think of what would be of interest to your future forebear.
Sentimental – This is a tough category because, depending on how sentimental you are, everything could potentially be saved. Some things have higher sentimental value than others.
You probably don’t want to save the McDonald’s uniform you wore in high school, but you may want to save the baseball cap you wore if that was a big part of your high school experience.
If you played baseball one season and weren’t very good at it and didn’t like it, keeping the cap doesn’t really provide evidence of who you were and what was important to you. Many people save wedding dresses and christening gowns that are passed down to future generations. My family saved the fiddle my mother’s Uncle Freddy played to entertain the family. He died many years before I was born, but I will keep the fiddle and include the stories my mother shared about his wild life.
Recording the Inner Life – many people spend hours carefully creating records of their own thoughts, telling their own stories, or recording the lives of other family members. These documents include journals, scrapbooks, photograph albums, blogposts, videos, emails, letters, memoirs, oral histories, books, especially those that are signed by the author or contain margin notes by the owner. We’ll want to save these documents since the owner took such care in creating them.
Social Interactions – most people have belonged to at least one social organization in their lifetime whether it’s the Boy Scouts as a child, or a quilt group as an adult. Some of these social institutions form a big part of our identity and our personal history. In many cases families participate in a social organization as a group. This is particularly true of many religious institutions. We may have in our possession minutes of meetings, programs of events, membership rosters. Sports organizations also fall into this category, as would recreational activities such as boating, hiking, skiing, golfing, or bicycling. Evidence of political activity such as pins, banners, financial contributions, speeches, campaign activities may have enduring value. It’s not necessary to save everything from every organization we ever attended. We may not want to save any of it. But, if we’ve received special recognition or if it formed a big part of our personality, we may want to save a few treasured items. My sister belonged to a quilt group for over twenty years. She received recognition for some of her quilts, gave presentations, and participated in the group’s annual events. Retaining some evidence of her participation in this group will show future generations what was important to her, provide evidence of her values, and document how others perceived her and her handicraft.