Setting Up The Family Archives

The current state of affairs
The Current State of Affairs Almost Complete Chaos


A couple of weeks ago I began to scan and organize my dad’s military papers. I have scanned over 600 documents and am still not finished. As in most projects, one thing led to another. Questions like how am I going to organize them? Dad had them roughly in folders by the type of document. Do I keep them in the same order Dad did or do I organize them by assignment? I ended up choosing by assignment and chronologically. This way a story emerges across time.

Then the big question. What to do with the original papers? Tossing them wasn’t an option. Do I put them in a document box and label it Dad’s military papers? What about all the other military papers I have from various ancestors? Should all these be stored together?

All these questions made me realize that I have been creating a family archive for over 30 years. Granted it didn’t look like an archive and finding specific documents was becoming more and more time-consuming. All this leads to the question. Why can’t I have a family archive that works like an institutional or government archive? There is a lot of information about what kinds of sleeves and boxes you need to archivally store your genealogy, photographs, and other items so they will last for future generations. There are several different ways to organize your genealogy papers both paper and digital. But very little has been written about how do you arrange and organize the archived material in a family archive.

It didn’t make sense to me to set up the archive the same way I organize my working files. For the most part, my working files are set up by location and type of record. My databases are split between paternal and maternal and I have two sets of hanging binders containing paper. Blue for my paternal side and red for the maternal side. Even if I used the surname approach for organizing my working files it still did not make sense to have the archive set up by surname.

Why? Because I am not archiving every piece of paper I have. I am only archiving original documents, documents that are not readily available, family scrapbooks and items that have been passed down in the family. Not every record I have is an original. Not every ancestor has original documents associated with them. The purpose of the archive is to protect and preserve the items that are not easy to replace. The rest can live in my hanging binders in my filing cabinet and in digital files. Even if I wanted to archive all those pieces of paper it would simply be cost-prohibitive and would not serve any purpose. By eliminating all of the readily available pieces of paper my family archive becomes something that can be passed on to descendants or parts of it donated to a historical society, library or archive. It will be a unique collection and not a collection bloated with paper that can be found anywhere.


I started researching how archives are set up. The American Archivist became one of my go-to places to learn about the various aspects of how archives work.

I learned that archives use a basic set of principles for how they are arranged and organized. The two basic principles are provenance and original order. Together these principals are known as Respect des Fonds from the early archivists in France. The word fond in its singular represents one collection within an archive. NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) uses the term Record Group (RG) instead of fond. An archive typically contains many RG’s or Fonds. Each RG or Fond pertains to one institution, one branch of a government or one individual. As a genealogist, I could have multiple RG’s in my archive or just one. It really is up to you. I have chosen to use one RG tentatively called The Ann C Gilchrest Family Archive. I could just have easily decided to call the archives The Gilchrest Family Archive creating multiple RG’s. One for the different branches of the family. If you have large amounts of original documents and items from multiple branches you may want to consider creating more than one RG.

The Two Principles

In basic terms, provenance means that records from one institution, entity or person are not mixed in with another institution, entity or person’s records. By its very nature, a family archive will include items from multiple institutions or entities and from multiple individuals. A family archive is created by the family genealogist. In some cases, it may make sense to keep all of the items from one person together in a family archive. In others, it may not. Examples of keeping items together would be the contents of your grandfather’s wallet or your dad’s military papers. Items that may not be kept together under a specific individual are things like old family photographs. These are probably better suited to being all together as opposed to having pictures of your great-grandparents in a collection of items once owned by a second cousin. When documenting these you would want to make note of how they came into your possession.

Original order is the idea that the order is kept that the original creator of the collection used. Sometimes this is not practical and other times a collection may not be in any order. In the case of the family archivist, you are the creator of the collection. Meaning you get to determine the order and organization.

As a family archivist and genealogist, these principles should be kept in mind but they should not be seen as absolute. For example in the case of my dad’s military records he kept them in various file folders by record type, examples include but were not limited to orders, training, evaluations, and awards. While these worked well when he was in the military and while he was alive. It does not work well from a historical perspective. A historian or genealogist wants to see things in chronological order to see the historical context for a given time period or place.

How does a family genealogist organize their family archive?

Traditional archives use a basic hierarchical arrangement for organizing the records of a collection. This same arrangement can be used in a family archive.

Basic Hierarchical Arrangement for a RG/Fond

  • Collection
    • Series
      • Sub-series/Folder Groupings (optional)
        • Folders
          • Items

“The most commonly seen arrangement within a collection is a Series containing folders.” 1 The folders contain a single item or a group of items based on the title of the folder.


Step One

Think about and inventory what you have. What types of documents do you have? What kinds of photographs? Do you have home movies? Are there any 3-dimensional items like clothing, jewelry, furniture, old ashtrays or artwork?  Are there logical groups of documents or items? Which items should stay together? Will they be a separate series or sub-series?

I made the decision to archive original items and items that are not easily found in the various online databases. An example of this is I had almost 1000 paper copies of death certificates from Minnesota. While they are not on-line none of them are originals and they can be ordered directly from the Minnesota Historical Society. It made more sense to scan them into the computer and then toss all of the paper files.

Below is the beginnings of a list listing the types of items I want to archive. As I progress through this process I can always add or delete items from this list. Eventually, this list will become the titles for the various Series or a Sub-series in my collection.

Military Papers
Vital Records, Originals
Church Records, Originals and hard to find copies.
Funeral Artifacts
Marriage Artifacts
Personal Artifacts
Cemetery Records (Plot maps & listings)
Land Records
Court Records
Educational Records
Medical Records
Travel Records
Biographical Items
Audio Tapes/Video Tapes/ Home Movies
Digital Files
Oversized Items

Step Two:

Next, I started thinking about what if any sub-series I would have.

This is a list of what I have come up with so far. Note some of the Series numbers will more than likely change once I settle on the actual arrangement. As you will see I haven’t settled on the arrangements for several of the series I am planning on including in my personal family archive.

  • Series 1. Vital Records
    • Sub-series A. Civil
      • Folders: (by location then alphabetically, within the folder by surname)
    • Sub-series B. Parish/Church Records [These are the ones that are not available on-line]
      • Folders: (by location then alphabetically, within the folder by surname)
  • Series 2. Birth Artifacts (Showers, announcements)
      • Folders: (by person alphabetically, one folder per item)
  • Series 3. Marriage Artifacts
    • Sub-series A: Paper (Mass booklets, programs, invitations)
      • 3 Ring Binder Box: Paper (Filed in archival page protectors in 3 ring binder boxes.)
    • Sub-series B. Mom’s wedding dress
  • Series 4. Funeral Artifacts (Programs, Funeral Mass Cards)
      • 3 Ring Binder Box:  Filed in divided archival page protectors in 3 ring binder boxes)
  • Series 5. Correspondence
    • Sub-series A. Personal Letters/ and postcards (Letters & postcards to and from immediate family members ie. letters written by mom & dad)
      • Folders: (Each letter has its own folder and is filed chronologically)
    • Sub-series B. Genealogical Evidence (Letters pertaining to evidence. Letters from a relative telling me their stories)
      • Folders: (each letter has its own folder filled alphabetically by the letter writer.)
  • Series 6. Military Papers
    • Sub-series A. Gilchrest John D (Dads papers)
      • Folders: (by assignment filed chronologically)
    • Sub-series B. WW II (One set of these documents is from NARA. The rest were passed on to me)
      • Folders: by person filed alphabetically
    • Sub-series C.  WWI (These documents are primarily from NARA but there are some that have been passed down)
      • Folders: (by person filed alphabetically)
    • Sub-series D.  Civil War (These are documents from NARA)
      • Folders: by person filed alphabetically
    • Sub-series E.  War of 1812 (These documents are from NARA)
      • Folders: (by person filed alphabetically)
    • Sub-series F.  Revolutionary War (These documents are from NARA)
      • Folders: by person filed alphabetically
    • Sub-series G.  Foreign Wars (These documents are from Canada, UK & Austria.)
      • Folders: by country then by person alphabetically

While dad’s papers fill a 5-inch-wide legal-sized document box. The remaining sub-series will all be in one document box. Gaylord Archival makes dividers for document boxes. These dividers will be used to separate the sub-series from one another decreasing the need to purchase additional boxes until such time as they are needed to expand the series.
End Sidebar

  • Series 6. Education Records
    • Sub-series A. Report Cards, Transcripts, Diploma’s & Contracts
      • Folders: 1 each of Report Cards, Transcripts, Diploma’s & Contracts
    • Sub-series B.  Announcements & invitations
      • Folders: by person filed alphabetically
  • Series 7. Court Records
    • Sub-series A. Civil Lawsuits
      • Folders: (by case)
    • Sub-series B. Criminal Cases
      • Folders: by case
    • Sub-series C.  Probate/Settlements
      • Folders: (by person filed alphabetically)
  • Series 8. Land Records
    • Sub-series A. Land grants, Patent Records & Homestead papers
      • Folders: (by person)
    • Sub-series B. Title Abstracts
      • Folders: by person
  • Series 9. US Government Records
    • Sub-series A. Naturalization Records
      • Folders: (by case)
    • Sub-series B. Patent Records from the Patent Office
      • Folders: by patent
    • Sub-series C.  Passports (Should these be in the travel sub-series under biographical material?)
      • Folders: (by person filed alphabetically)
  • Series 10. Medical Records
    • Sub-series A. Shot Records/ Medical Records
      • Folders: (by person)
    • Sub-series B. Asylum Records
      • Folders: by person
  • Series 11. Biographical Material
    • Sub-series A. Journals
    • Sub-series B. Diaries
    • Sub-series C.  Personally, written Biographies
      • Folders: (by person filed alphabetically)
    • Sub-series D.  Resumes
      • Folders: by person filed alphabetically
    • Sub-series E.  Awards & Certificates
      • Folders: (by person filed alphabetically)
    • Sub-series F.  Autograph Books/Items
    • Sub-series G.  Travel I (Tickets/itineraries)
      • Folders: by the trip.
  • Series 12. Calendars
    • Sub-series A. Grandma Schindler’s calendars
    • Sub-series B.  Dad’s Calendars
    • Sub-series C.  Mom’s Calendars
  • Series 13. Employment Files
    • Sub-series A. Ann’s work files FAA & the Theater
    • Sub-series B.  Dad’s Del Monte Files
    • Sub-series C.  Mom’s Hope Hospice Files
  • Series 14. Ephemera
    • Sub-series A. Receipts (3 Ring binder boxes)
    • Sub-series B.  Military Base directories, pamphlets, & information.
      • Box 1: Elmendorf AFB
  • Series 15. Photographs/Images
    • Sub-series A. Ann’s Prints
    • Sub-series B. Ann’s Slides
    • Sub-series C. Ann’s Negatives
    • Sub-series D. Mom & Dad Prints
    • Sub-series E. Mom & Dad Slides
    • Sub-series F.  Mom & Dad Negatives (3 ring binder boxes)
    • Sub-series G. The Schindler Girls’ Prints
  • Series 16. Scrapbooks
    • Sub-series A. Ann’s Scrapbooks
    • Sub-series B. Mom’s Scrapbooks
  • Series 17. Tapes (Audio, video, movies)
  • Series 18. Dimensional Artifacts (Items handed down in the family, dishes, jewelry, pottery, etc.)
      • Folders: (Containing descriptions and photographs of the physical item cross-referenced to the location of the items.)
  • Series 19. Cemeteries (maps, plot drawings, plot data.) Maybe combine this with Funeral Artifacts?
  • Series 20. Case studies & Proof arguments
      • Folders: By item.
  • Series 21. Portable Hard Drives containing digital files of all documents and genealogy databases. It also serves as one of the backups to my working files.
  • Series 22. Oversized Items

WORKFLOW For Documents and paper files.

While I haven’t totally committed to the above series titles and order I do need to do so soon. As I wrote earlier I have almost finished scanning dad’s military records. Due to my workflow, I will need to decide what series number the military records will be.

Step one: Scan the documents into the computer. I have been scanning these as PDF/A files. Basically, a PDF/A is a standard that has been established to ensure that the file will be able to be opened in the future. When you open a PDF/A file you receive a warning that it is not editable. If it is edited outside of the standard and not re-saved as a PDF/A it may not open in the future.

Step two: Add the document to Zotero and create a link to the document on the computer.

Step three: Add any relevant information about the document to a note in Zotero. For example, how did the item come into my possession? Who owned it? The items story. One of the fields available in Zotero is Loc. In Archive, this field is where I am planning on entering the original items’ location. For example, Series 6 Military Records Sub-series Gilchrest John D, Folder [number].

Repeat the above steps until a box is full or the series is completed with the items you currently have.

Step four: Print out a report from Zotero of the box contents and place it in the front of the box. This step will need to be repeated when you add more items to a series or box.

Step five: Create a label for the box identifying the collection name, series, and if necessary the sub-series and the box number for that series.

Over the next several months and more than likely years, this plan will change and be refined. I am optimistic that the basic structure will be up and running in the next month or two and several of the Series will be organized, labeled & shelved.

Have you made a plan for your family’s archives?

Part 2  No Plan Survives First Contact The Gilchrest Family Archive Series 6 Military Papers is now Series 4 Military Service

Useful Links 
The Smithsonian Archives of American Art  There are many examples linked to this web page.

The Arizona State University Archives and Special Collections has a manual online. Manuscript and Archival Records Processing Manual  Pages 9-14 of this PDF gives examples of series and extensive information about processing a collection including how to label and number items within the collection.

A YouTube video Introduction To Arranging Archives by the Archives Association of Ontario contains more examples for series titles.

Archival Suppliers, I have used

University Products  
Gaylord Archival  
Archival Methods  
B&H Photo  

eBay: Columbia Sports Card  For sleeves postcard size, 4 x 6, continental postcard sleeves, 8.5 x11 sleeves, various 3 ring binder sleeves for binder boxes.
eBay: Pens n More  For HOLDit! label holders
eBay Ready-Set-Collect  For legal-sized sleeves Mylites 2
eBay Forwis Sales  For Carte De Vista Sleeves, Stereoview Sleeves, and Cabinet Card sleeves

The Family Curator Denise May Levenich
The Genealogist in the Archive, The Archive Lady

  1. Processing Guidelines: Chapter 3, Archival Arrangement at the Archives of American Art Smithson Archives of American Art (Link : accessed 8 February 2019). 

6 thoughts on “Setting Up The Family Archives

  1. debranewtoncarter

    This post caught my attention because I am working toward the launch of a new business related to military research. Was your dad career military? Neither my dad’s nor grandfather’s service generated so many documents.

    Also, I see only a slight difference in how I’ve organized my digital files, but I think I like your way better. It would keep me from having to repeat the type of document step over and over again.


    1. agilchrest

      Yes, dad was career military. He was active duty for 22 and a half years and inactive reserve for 7 and a half years. So far I have filled one 5″ wide document case and have started on a 2.5″ wide box. I just hope that it all fits otherwise Dad’s military papers will be in two 5″ wide boxes.

      The military has a saying. No plan survives first contact. I think that saying could be used by genealogists in there attempt to organize their research!

      Dad’s military papers are complex in the number of years covered and in the types of records. I have made a few adjustments to my original plan and will probably do a post about what I changed. I don’t know if you are aware of this or not but whenever dad had a PCS (permanent change of station) the entire family received orders. I wasn’t even a year old when I received my first orders.


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