Organizing family history records with ‘2020 hindsight’

In an effort to review and organize the contents of my family history files, I started a project yesterday. I want to look at one file per week.

Some of my files are thick. Some are thin. I have records, notes, and letters that go back to the 1970s when I began working on a family tree.

My plan now is to sort the contents, indicate with an archival pencil the source of a document, and determine whether the document is an original that should definitely be kept.

I’m also tossing out some of the photocopies of records that can easily be found online for free, such as Canadian census records.

Much to my surprise and pleasure, this project has turned out to be about more than just organizing, citing, and tossing.

The impetus for this project was a comment made my daughter, who doesn’t like clutter in her life, but still appreciates, I think, the value of family mementos.

My daughter looked overwhelmed at the thought of inheriting all the family history records. She told me not to share any more stories with her. (Not an actual photo of my daughter.)

About a year ago, my daughter walked into my home office.

Thinking she may be interested, I pulled open one of the two file drawers in my three-foot-long credenza to show her that all of my family history files are labelled with family names and organized alphabetically.

I expected her to be impressed.

She wasn’t.

I’m not sure if I saw panic or dread in her eyes.

She likely was thinking about the day she’ll inherit my family history records and will need to find a place for them in her own home.

She said, “I hope you’ll write on each piece of paper what I should keep and what I can throw out.”

That’s why I’m finally getting to this project.

Sorting and providing context
I started with my Dever file, which is the oldest and one of the largest. In it, I found, among other things, letters distant relatives had written to me when I was in high school, faded photocopies of obituaries made in the late 1970s, funeral cards, original birth, marriage, and death records, and handwritten notes I had made when talking with relatives and cemetery employees.

Some of the documents, such as census records, were printed from microfilm before they were digitized and made freely available online. Years ago, I considered these microfilmed documents precious. Now, their value in my file folder has dropped.

I went through my handwritten notes taken at cemeteries, on the phone, and in relatives’ homes. In most cases, I am keeping the notes, but providing context by adding a line about who the source was and the approximate date of the conversation.

2020 hindsight
What I wasn’t prepared for were the new discoveries in the file when I re-visited it page by page. Some of the 40 and 50-year-old notes, letters and records now hold new information because I am looking at them from a 2020 perspective — sort of like 20/20 hindsight.

For example, when I read a great-uncle’s short note, written in the late 1970s, I now realize he was the one who told me a distant cousin was adopted by her grandfather after her parents divorced. For years, I’ve been trying to figure out where I discovered that tidbit. The information is possibly anecdotal and no legal adoption took place.

And somehow in the 1970s, I also overlooked the detail on a handwritten family tree that my great-great-aunt’s oldest child died in 1902 and was “buried in Pretoria.” Yesterday, the date and burial location jumped out at me. To think, I’d been looking for Arthur’s whereabouts for years.

A very faint photocopy of a photo of a great-uncle and his wife had me diving into the Montreal Gazette archives on to look for a better copy. It was probably published in the Montreal Star because I didn’t find it. What I did find when looking for my uncle’s name in the Gazette was a photo of my great-uncle and great-aunt aboard a ship, returning from Europe.

Going through my files one by one is doable. It’s such a portable task I could probably do it while watching television.

In the end, the best system for me is to spread out the papers on the dining room table and sort them there.

I may not make it through all my family history files by the end of the year, but I’ll make headway in de-cluttering a number of them, noting which gems I think should never be thrown out, and reviewing the old records with 2020 hindsight.

Doing this increases the value of each file, while lessening the burden on my descendants.

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