Friday, June 10, 2011

Open Discussion Weekend: Letting Go of Family Artifacts

In recent weeks, I've been faced with a challenge that many of us face at some point. Growing Older. Downsizing. Moving On.

It's time for me to sell my house and move on. So over the past few weeks, I have been going through several decades accumulation of my own Stuff, as well as various items of Stuff that belonged to my ancestors. Stuff is spelled with a capital S because at some point Stuff takes on a life of its own.

Okay, so what genealogist isn't a pack rat when it comes to their family history Stuff? We've all got those photos, letters, documents, artifacts - whatever it may be - all tucked away and treasured as if it were the Holy Grail.

I have boxes and boxes of family archive paper ephemera. What has amazed me in going through the remaining boxes of my own Stuff has been the additional family archive Stuff that I probably knew I had at one time, yet had forgotten about. At least two additional boxes of goodies have emerged. Sorting through all of this will probably be my project for next winter.

But my primary goal is to downsize, lighten my load, give myself some Freedom from the shackles of Stuff. I've been telling myself that the eventual goal is to downsize to what would fit in a two-bedroom apartment. It's kind of like starting over from scratch. By the time this weekend is over, I will have emptied my house of at least half of my Stuff. I already feel lighter.

During this process enters the moment of truth. Does some of the Stuff I've been hanging on to, moving, packing and storing for decades still have any purpose in my genealogical journey? In some cases, the answer was No. Hard as may be to believe, I have let go of several items that had belonged to my ancestors. Truth be told, they were junk. For thirty years, I had thought about restoration, but it never happened. And I knew that it wasn't going to happen. I let them go. And it was a much easier decision than I thought it would be. The items really served no function in my research. No other family members have interest in the items. The items had become a burden. They're gone.

It's not like I don't have boxes and boxes of photographs, letters, autograph books, Bibles that I will continue to curate for my own pleasure. I do. And I have no regrets over what I let go. Besides, I still have a LOT.

Open for Discussion:

  • Have you let go of family artifacts? If so, did you have a clear conscience or live to regret it?
  • Could you never dream of letting go of anything once owned by an ancestor?
  • Do you believe that you can separate your research from physical items?
  • Are you weighed down by Stuff you don't want to part with?
  • Are those items really a treasure or just a bunch of junk?
  • Have I committed the worst sin that could ever be committed by a family historian?

Please add your thoughts in the Comments section below.


  1. I have 25 bankers' boxes of family archives going back 120 years. My brothers and I organized the boxes about 11 years ago and created an Excel spread sheet of what's in each box. It really comprises a history of the last century -- so I feel it is valuable beyond my own family (besides I know my kids will not deal with this amount of stuff). I've met with a highly-respected research library in Chicago -- and they want the collection for their archives. I'm still working with them, but I'll put it in my will -- that's where it all goes My kids can always find it there where it will be carefully preserved and cataloged. Perhaps you have a library nearby that would be interested in some of your historical data. We just can't know if our descendants will be genealogy-philes or not.

  2. You are a brave lady - I still don't have the courage to face this. And in relative terms, I don't really have that much stuff.

  3. I wish I had old Stuff! Most of my relatives have ruthlessly tossed old things. We don't have a "family homestead" where heirlooms of days gone by site waiting to be rediscovered in the musty attic.

    Linda Gartz: you might consider printing out your box contents for each box and either attaching it to the outside or placing it on top on the inside of the box (or both). Then even if an EMP destroys all your digital data you still know what's where! :)


  4. This is a hard one! I love all the old stuff, but can't keep everything. I am inclined to keep old stuff of my parents and grandparents, but throw away my own. Will someone be interested in my old stuff someday? Probably not. The dilemma continues..... Judy Shutts