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    In every family, someone ends up with “the stuff.” It is the goal of The Family Curator to inspire, enlighten, and encourage other family curators in their efforts to preserve and share their own family treasures.

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    « Brown and Obama are Cousins, NEHGS Research Reveals | Main | Organize and Preserve Your Family History Documents »

    Organize and Preserve Original Documents Used in Your Genealogy Research


    It doesn’t matter what kind of filing system you use for your genealogical research and sources, sooner or later most family historians need to file a primary document, or Heirloom Original. The easiest solution is to just file it with your census printouts and photocopies of birth certificates in binders or file folders, whatever you use. This is the method advocated in an online genealogy course I took last year.

    I am afraid I wasn’t a very cooperative student, however, and cringed at the thought of my grandmother’s marriage certificate peeking out the top of a protective sleeve in my 3-ring binder. It seemed that a better solution would be to store this original document archivally and cross-reference it in my files.  I also had other original documents such as my own children’s baptism certificates and assorted funeral programs, I needed a system for filing all of these special documents.

    In figuring out a workable system, it was helpful to consider

    The Curator’s Commandments:

    1.  First, thou shall do no harm to original artifacts
    2. AND thou shall endeavor to preserve same for future generations
    3.  Thou shall retain the original order of a collection whenever reasonable and possible
    4. Thou shall only file paper that 8 ½ x 11 inches in size in binders or in file folders
    5.  Thou shall set up a filing system that is simple and sustainable

     My own filing system consists of research and sources filed by surname in 3-ring binders. Instead of filing Heirloom Originals directly in the binder, I place an 8 ½ x 11 inch copy in the binder and write on the copy a reference to where the original is stored. This satisfies Commandments #1, #4 and hopefully #5.

    The original document needs to be preserved (see Commandment #2), therefore it is stored in a suitable archival container. My original documents come from different families, which I see as different collections. In order to keep those collections intact (#3), I set up separate file envelopes for each family. This mimics the order I use for my binders, keeping the arrangement as simple as possible (#5).

    Arline’s collection is so large that original documents are housed in several different boxes. All other family collections take up no more than one envelope each and are placed together inside one archival box.

    For example, my research lives in 3-ring binders filed by Surname with all sources in protective sleeves behind a tab for each couple. If the document is an Heirloom Original, I file a photocopy and write on the document a simple location code, the Surname or Collection and File (F) or Box (B) Number, for example, BROWN F01 or AAK B04. I don’t try to give each document a file number, although that would probably be good to do. Instead, I use an inventory sheet in the file itself to list the documents. If I digitize a document, I add the computer file name and location as well.

    Tip: I print out small white labels with the original document location to place on source copies using Avery Multi-Use Labels 5422.

    What makes a document an Heirloom Original?

    In my effort to KISS (Keep It Super Simple) I decided to consider only certain documents Heirloom Original and subject to archival preservation. Again, these criteria may not suit everyone, but I felt like I had to draw the line somewhere. Any document available only in the copy held in my hand, I deem an Heirloom Original. This includes my children’s special presentation baptism certificate, but not the official church copy. I figure that I can request that again from the church, and if I am worried about it, I can digitize the church copy and keep multiple copies of the files.

    So, state and county-issued birth and death certificates, along with census photocopies, are filed in protective sleeves in my 3-ring binders. As are modern newspaper obituaries. The only things in archival storage are irreplaceable documents and artifacts.

    One exception: Because my mom and I enjoy looking through Arline’s papers together, I also keep many documents from her collection in a 3-ring binder. Strictly speaking, I would like to keep everything from her collection in archival boxes, but then Mom and I lose the very wonderful connection of seeing Arline’s ink and paper. I use high-quality archival protective sleeves and 100% cotton rag paper for support if needed in these binders for the funeral programs, wedding notices, and cemetery locators that Arline collected. Oversize documents, like the marriage certificates, however are stored safely in an archival box.

    This system may not work for you, but what’s most important is to find a method of organizing that suits your style, your time, and your own level of control. Elyse is doing a great job reviewing ideas for setting up a genealogy filing system at Elyse’s Genealogy Blog and coming up with some good questions to ask when getting organized.

    I know that I need a system that will preserve my documents, be simple to set up and sustain, and give me some feeling of control. Works for me! What works for you?


    Photos: Edwards-Kinsel marriage certificate, Arline Allen Kinsel Papers; Privately held by Denise Levenick [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Pasadena, California. 2010.

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    Reader Comments (4)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Denise. I've been gearing up to reorganize my big mess o' papers, and you've given me some additional food for thought. Sometimes when someone else says something out loud (or in digital print, as the case may be!) you realize you've been thinking it all along but not in words... know what I mean? And now that it's said in words, I can think about it more clearly, or more specifically. That certainly is helpful.

    January 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTK

    Denise - Thanks for sharing this great idea for organizing my heirloom documents. And thanks for the mention of my blog! Great article and definitely a source of inspiration!

    January 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElyse Doerflinger

    I made copies of everything Primary, then I seperated Birth,Death,Christening,School Records,Bibles,Memorial Cards and some Pictures etc. into there own sheet protectors and (it didn't matter to me which one came first or last) then I put them in Large Tyvek Envelopes and sealed each one, noting and Numbering them on the outside of the Envelope what it contained. I have hopes to pass them onto a Family Member or if not,(say no one wants it) I'll try for the Local State Archives, Hence Storing them after that into (and I like these, they save space and are sturdy) Baby Diaper Box's and into the closet. The Copies I have in 3 Ring Binders and Sheet Protectors and work from them as I do additional Research. I've also put the Family History onto my USB Drive'(s) and work with them mostly.

    July 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCathy Roylance

    Glad to hear you are making copies of those family documents, Cathy. Be careful about the diaper boxes! Hopefully no one will think they are trash and toss them out without looking inside.

    July 10, 2013 | Registered CommenterFamily Curator

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