6 tips to help you sort through your family keepsakes

Our keepsakes are tangible proof of our experiences, and they carry a significant weight of meaning and tell a story of their own. Many of us have boxes, or even rooms, filled to the brim with these keepsakes: family heirlooms, your grandmother’s birth certificate, baby clothes or your children’s artwork from kindergarten.

The truth is, a lot of the things we save can be thrown away. But if the item has a story attached to it and you’re willing to put in the time to archive the item and its story, then save it! Your children will especially love to look back on their childhood when they are about to head off to college, and future generations will be able to have the items that complement the story of your family’s history. The boxes of keepsakes in our basement, closets and attics don’t have to stay hidden and unorganized anymore. Here are six tips to help motivate you — while easing your fear — to organize and archive these precious treasures.

1. Sort through the keepsakes. You may have started your collection of keepsakes by just throwing a few items in a box — leaving the box’s contents in a state of chaos. That’s why we must first comb through and organize what is truly worth keeping.

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If there’s a story, keep it! If not, take it out of the box and get rid of it.

By the end of this sorting process, you want to make sure your boxes are organized in a way that other people can go through the box and know the stories behind each item.

For example, my son Joshua carried around a stuffed animal — a lion he called Baby — as a child. Everywhere we went, Baby was there too. If Baby was ever out of sight, Joshua would sink into despair, so we didn’t even question driving back to a restaurant in the middle of a blizzard to retrieve him.

The years passed, and eventually he only slept with Baby — too embarrassed to carry him around. Finally, the day came when I found Baby tucked in a drawer, and I knew my little boy was growing up. I lovingly picked up the well-worn stuffed animal and placed him in a keepsake box. I know Baby isn’t important to Joshua now, but Baby is important to me because of all the memories it holds of my son’s childhood. And perhaps one day, Joshua’s son will love the lion as much as Joshua did.

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2. Document the memories. Write down the stories of your items. The stories are the most important reason why we keep these things, so take the time to do this. Not only did I write down the story of Joshua’s lion, but I also wrote down the stories attached to his first hiking boots and the outfit he wore home from the hospital. I recommend typing the story up on a computer, printing it out and attaching it to the item, so there is an understanding as to why you kept it. You can also use twin check labeling to further organize your items and their stories, which I will discuss in the sixth tip below.

3. Organize in boxes. A great resource for the purchase of boxes and further organizational items is Archival Methods. You can purchase portfolio cases or a new box made for archival purposes.

Savor is another excellent resource, as the company offers colorful keepsake boxes (starting at $69.95), and these boxes can fit right on your bookshelf for easy access.

With your new supplies, you can organize these boxes to best fit your needs. For example, if you have kids, you can assign each kid a box. Then, using hanging folders, store keepsakes such as artwork, certificates, trophies and baby shoes as the years pass by. This makes it easy for children to go through and see these tangible objects whenever they please. And then they can share these items with their own children one day.

You can also organize your boxes by year, gathering items to archive each New Year’s Day. Of course, you can also organize your boxes by items, such as clothes in one box, artwork in another and so on.

4. Photograph items. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the number of keepsakes you have been storing for so many years, you can always take photos of them. Then give the items to family members who would be interested in them.

This is also a great way to keep some digital form of your keepsake. One of the best ways to achieve quality photos of your keepsakes is by using a small light studio, such as Shotbox. The company’s base unit costs $109.

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5. Collect artwork digitally. Keepy is an app with a creative mission and the archival method for the 21st century. It allows you to archive your children’s masterpieces digitally with your phone or tablet.

When storing, you can save the content with your child’s age within the app, and you can also do a voiceover to attach to the photo of the item. This keeps the story with the digital artwork. For example, if you take a photo of your child’s artwork, your child can record in his or her own words what it is. You can also share the artwork with friends and family members, who can then respond via video. This data will remain attached to the artwork within the app.

Of course, you can still keep the physical items and use Keepy as the digital complement to the real artwork.

6. Label. Twin check labeling is a method to use when you are in further need of organization. It’s especially useful if you decide to digitally archive your items and their stories, and you still want to keep the actual items themselves.

Here’s how it works: You use two labels and write the same number on each. Say you store your stories in one file folder and the items in a separate box. You would place one of the labels on, say, a pair of baby shoes, and then the corresponding label on the paper with the story on it. This can help keep your boxes organized, and not a heaping mess with papers and items all jammed together. Instead, you’ll have a box of numbered items and a corresponding label on a sheet of paper in a folder.

The rewards of organizing your boxes will increase over time. As the years pass, these items will only gain more value in the timeline of your family history. Your children and your children’s children will be grateful you took the time to organize and tell the story.