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Spring Cleaning Helps Genealogists

Lots of people think of spring as a time to clean out the house. What better time for a genealogist to gather information?


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Lots of people think of spring as a time to clean out the house. What better time for a genealogist to gather information? Offer to help yours parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles clean out their attic, garage or basement. A wealth of information may be accidentally thrown away if you don't.

What type of documents should be saved or at least looked over? Old newspaper articles are one example. Why was the article saved? Was your mother the prom queen or the star basketball player? Was your father the star quarterback or FFA Student of the Year? These tidbits of information may be used in future years to write a family history. The paper may be yellowed and torn, but the information is relevant. Put it on a CD using your laptop, and you will have it for future reference.

Often you will find old obituaries and wedding notices, usually without dates on them. Copy the information. These articles may well lead you to another clue. At least you will have the copy of the obituary and wedding information. Usually relatives are listed in these articles.

As mentioned earlier, these papers are often roach or mouse infested. In severe cases, you may or may not want to save the actual paper. In previous years, people often laminated articles; thus, saving the paper. Unfortunately, this process does not allow you to ever take the article out of the lamination. A good alternative to lamination is encapsulation. 1 With this process, you can preserve the paper, and if you ever want to remove it, it is possible.

Make sure that old yearbooks for high schools and colleges are not thrown out during the cleaning. These yearbooks give anecdotal information about your family that will be interesting for your children and your children's children. They also list organizations, athletics, and honors that you may find useful in your documentation.

Sometimes families inherit a distant relatives memorabilia. Usually there isn't time to go through it when the relative dies, and the information sits around gathering dust. Go through the trunks, suitcases, boxes and drawers. See what information you may find. Letters are often kept by family members with information in them. They may tell about weddings, deaths, births, and other important family events. More importantly, these letters may name the churches and the towns. My own grandmother kept her mother's letters from relatives in Norway. Through them, I was able to piece together the family relationships and take the family line back to the early 1800's, and I have yet to set foot in Norway.

People enjoy keeping scrapbooks. Scrapbooks have been elevated to an art today, but people have kept scrapbooks for at least two centuries. If you fortunate to find a scrapbook, look through it and keep it. Important family information may be found in a scrapbook. If nothing else, you get an idea of a relative's life during that time period. If you intend to write a family history, the information will be invaluable.

Photographs are always found when cleaning. So many pictures remain unidentified. This is the time for you, as a researcher, to stop procrastinating and make sure that all your photographs are identified for future use. This is also the time to sit down with your parents, grandparents, or other relatives and see whom they can identify in pictures. If nobody can be identified, a place may be pinpointed. One time I was looking at a picture with my grandmother. She could only identify two of the people in the picture. Out of the blue, she told me that was her grandmother's home. I did not have the names of the people, but I had a picture of my great-great grandmother's house in north Georgia.

Other memorabilia that may be important, not necessarily to you, but to other researchers would be old city directories, advertising implements and telephone books. Before throwing these out, consider donating them. You may wish to contact your local library or college to see if they save that kind of information in a local archive. 2

Spring cleaning may be an opportunity for you to fill in some gaps in your family tree. If nothing else, it will provide an opportunity for you to exchange your information with your family to see if you can add some more.

1 Encapsulation is the condition of being enclosed in a capsule. As applies to the genealogy, this could be as simple as enclosing documents and photographs in acid-free, protective sheet covers. As Pittman's article suggests, lamination is not a recommended because items can never be removed. Additionally, the laminating material itself may be harmfu:

"Chris Lane, a ROADSHOW appraiser and co-owner of the Philadelphia Print Shop, argues that lamination breaks one of the cardinal rules of paper preservation. "Nothing should be done with old paper that is not easily reversible," Chris says. "That's the bottom line for any kind of conservation or restoration of old paper." Instead, Chris slides fragile maps and prints into plastic envelopes. "It's called encapsulation, and it's gotten more and more popular. The other thing that's nice is that it kind of clings to the paper and gives it added strength so you can handle it and bend it and turn it over. There's an even pull on the paper. It's really protected." (, Antiques Roadshow: "Is Laminating Old Paper a Good Idea?"

2 Genealogy Today also accepts donated items, with the aim of connecting personal items to descendants or other family members. You may wish to see the Funeral Cards Online and Ephemera with Family History pages for examples of collected items.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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