Book review: How to Archive Family Keepsakes by Denise May Levenick


Overall this book is designed for someone who has recently inherited an unorganised collection of ‘stuff’ that includes boxes of documents and/or entire houselots of stuff. If you’re in that situation and a bit bewildered as to where to start, this is the perfect book for you.

If you’re like me, and you’ve inherited a few small heirlooms or photos at a time from one grandparent or the other and maybe accumulated your own lifetime’s worth of stuff, this book is less relevant. There were still sections in it that I found useful though.

However, none of the links I clicked on worked. I clicked half a dozen, mostly for the worksheets that the author referred to and expected the reader to complete, and a couple for external sites. I understand that the author can’t be blamed if an external site goes offline or changes their address, but it was very frustrating not to be able to access the worksheets, especially when the author generally didn’t describe the contents of the worksheets. The reader is told to ‘complete checkpoint such-and-such by doing the worksheet’ but without the link working, there’s no way for the reader to know what they were supposed to do. For instance, inventory your collection without cataloguing it. What does that even mean?

There’s a lot of information on how to care for different types of documents and items, everything from photographs and slides to books and garden tools. There was a LOT of repetition. Personally, I learned to remove the staples, paperclips, etc. from paper documents, to store letters flat instead of folded in envelopes (but still with the envelope) and to take a copy of newspaper articles and store the newspaper clippings far from all other documents. I don’t have much that isn’t from my own lifetime, but I know my mother-in-law has some of her grandfather’s letters and documents.

The paper/digital filing system discussion was somewhat interesting. The recommended digital organisation system is not significantly different to what I was already doing, although I don’t have a ‘database’ of my digital documents. I’ve maintained some level of digital filing system since I started doing genealogy, so I’m pretty au fait with that side of things. I’ve been more concerned with the non-digital stuff. I can see that some would need the guidance on this aspect though.

I thought the sections on genealogy research were really beyond the scope of this book, and as it’s such an extensive topic, it didn’t seem particularly useful to skim over it in a book about archiving family keepsakes, especially when the author had already covered what to do if you inherited someone else’s genealogy research. What with the sections on what spreadsheets programs to use and what tasks to use spreadsheets for, how to do citations, when to use a database and which one, what to consider when choosing your genealogy software, how to subscribe to genealogy blogs, etc., this felt more like this book should have been called ‘Everything you need to know when you’re suddenly appointed as the Family Historian’.

As I say, if you suddenly find yourself with boxes or houselots of things to sort through and/or you suddenly find yourself the Family Historian with no previous experience or knowledge, this book is perfect. For someone who has a slowly growing collection of heirlooms that she just wants to catalogue, it was only somewhat helpful.

I did take some notes which I include here for those interested in a deeper look at my own learnings from the book:

People who inherit family archives often take on one of three roles: the Curator, the Creator or the Caretaker. Look closely at each role. When you identify why you have the archive, it is easier to determine what to do with your inheritance.

I’m a little of each, honestly.  But mostly a creator, I think.  I don’t want to just pass on the items to the next person (caretaker) because I want to combine them all in a way that makes sense, that tells a story.  So some version of curator and creator, probably leaning more towards creator.

The first level of your archive is your overall collection—the entire content. Start thinking of your inherited archive in terms of an official collection. Give it a name.

This is actually super tricky.  We have items from my mother-in-law’s family, both my father-in-law’s families, my father’s and my mothers, plus loads from my own life.  Honestly, at this point I’m not sure what the purpose of naming my collection is.  Just to make it sound more official?  Why bother?  But whatever, I’m moving through the book sequentially, so this is the next step.  What about the Elle Schroder Collection?  Ooh, Elle’s Ephemera!  Hmm, ephemera literally means things that aren’t meant to be kept. But can include things that were meant to be short-lived and are now collectible.  I dunno.  I like the alliteration of it.  A lot of my personal stuff is ephemera – movie tickets, letters, postcards, receipts, etc.  Are we going to be naming subsections?  My memorabilia is probably better known as Elle’s Ephemera, although I’ve been calling it ‘My Memorabilia’ for as long as I can remember.  Maybe something more encompassing for the overall collection including heirloom china, etc.  None of the family surnames start with vowels, so it’s tricky to make an acronym that works.  What about Elle’s Heirlooms?  It looks like it doesn’t work, because of the h, but as the h is silent, it sounds like alliteration.  They’re not all mine though.  God, why is this so hard?  How about the M R S Heirloom Collection?  M R and S are three of the main family surnames.  No, wait, I need a B in there and then I’ll cover the five main ones.  The B M R S Heirloom Collection.  Done!  I’m calling it!

In checkpoint 1 (found at, name your collection and write a brief description that includes how you came to inherit the materials, the number of boxes, and the general type of items it includes. Then go on to determine your overall goals and objectives.

I’m sorry, there’s no way to encompass the whole collection in one brief description.  I’m not talking about one box from one ancestor, I’m talking about an overall collection of things that have been passed down (mostly one at a time) over a space of years, from five different sets of grandparents.  I mentioned this to my mother-in-law when I was telling her about the book and she said ‘Well, I suppose you have multiple collections.’  In that case, a single collection might be three pieces of jewellery, two pieces of crystal and four plates.  I don’t want to do this whole exercise for each lot from each grandparent, although I fully intend to itemise each heirloom.  I want to put together a cohesive catalogue.  In this sense, I want to be the curator.  So I guess my brief description is ‘A collection of photos, medals, personal items, jewellery and household items from five different sets of grandparents, plus the ephemera and other items from our lives.’  That’ll have to do for now.

My goal or objective is to ensure that the items are passed on to future generations in as good a condition as possible, with as much of the provenance as possible, thereby creating an overall story of the family history.

Transfer your objectives to checkpoint 2, available at, and add specific ideas or objects.

Wow, you make it sound so easy.  Like, this is literally just a paragraph in the book, but it’s one of the most mammoth tasks for me.  I’m guessing it would be a lot easier if the link worked.  Um…

  • Catalogue all the items in the collection
  • Write up as much information about each item as is currently known by living family members
  • Create family history ‘books’ (not sure of format at this stage) that provide an overview of the family members and that put the photos and documents into context.  Expand to include all known ancestors.
  • Collate my journal entries, blog posts, poems, stories and memorabilia into annual books to provide a record of my life.

List your name and the names of any other family members who you think might be interested in working with the archive. In chapter three, you will find ideas for pulling in assistance and sharing tasks.

Time. Next to each person’s name, indicate the amount of time per week they might be able to contribute to the project.

Myself, my mum and my mother-in-law.  No one else is particularly interested in helping.  My mum has time to spare as she’s retired, but she’s not interested in working on it solo, although she is working on writing her memories of older family members down, so that’s good.  And my mother-in-law works, but again, isn’t really interested in doing it without me, so it’s a matter of what time I have free.  Perhaps a few hours each weekend, or a few hours a couple of nights a week.  Realistically, it’s going to be a few hours a week.  In terms of information that I need to acquire, I still need to do more genealogical research, I still need to interview more family members, and I still need to do more research into how other people have presented their completed family histories (e.g. as printed books vs binders, etc.).


Nope.  I’m only doing this to please myself, no one is making me and the truth is, no one is especially interested, although I’m sure they would be in the completed family history.  Not the catalogue.  The catalogue of the heirlooms is just for me.  So I’m not setting myself a deadline.  It’ll get done when it gets done.

Use checkpoint 3, available at, to inventory your archive. The purpose of this preliminary survey is to get an overview of the size and scope of your archive. We won’t be sorting or cataloging today.

I got so confused here.  There’s a link to a document or website or something that may have helped clarify, but the link is broken.  Very frustrating.  How do I inventory but not catalogue?  Do I just say ‘photos’ or do I list every bloody photo in my possession?  This is so confusing.

Checkpoint 6, available at, will help you sort and organize your archive.

This is the whole reason I bought this book, and the link doesn’t work. Unbelievably frustrating.

You probably know where you need a little help to become a more productive genealogist, whether it’s developing a research plan, organizing paperwork, or cleaning up your computer. Jump right to the chapter that addresses your current roadblock and find ideas to help you become a more effective researcher today.

I thought this book was about looking organising and storing heirlooms and documents. Why are we now learning about how to do genealogy? That’s a mammoth subject that seems to be outside of the scope for this book.

Always take time to document your sources, one never knows what the future will hold.

This is great advice. As with the above, I think it’s outside the scope of a book about looking after heirlooms, but all genealogy/family history researchers should document sources. It saves so much time later on.

I came back from Melbourne, Australia, recently, where the whole family (on my dad’s side) had met up at my grandmother’s house, which was finally going on the market a year after she passed away.  I only had a couple of hours to choose what to take back to New Zealand.  If I’d already read this book, would it have changed how I handled things?  I might have allowed more time, but honestly, it wasn’t all in my control.  So as it was, I was not the executor of the estate, and I only had a few hours to gather up what was coming back to my dad’s little family – my dad, my sisters and I.  It did include a bunch of photos, some documents, etc., as well as some treasures (jewellery, china, etc.).  I think a lot of what this book is about is collections of such things like the photo albums or loose photos, the documents, the card collections…  Well, we did exactly what this author told us not to, and divvied it all up between her four children.  And with the limited time, and limited authority (being that neither myself nor my dad were the executor), I don’t regret it.  But I can see that if I were the executor of an estate, a lot more of this book would be applicable.  And I can see how others could get more useful information out of it than I will be able.

The recommended digital organisation system is not significantly different to what I was already doing, although I don’t have a ‘database’ of my digital documents.  I’ve maintained some level of digital filing system since I started doing genealogy, so I’m pretty au fait with that side of things.  I’ve been more concerned with the non-digital stuff.  I can see that some would need the guidance on this aspect though.

So there you go.  Overall, not as helpful for my situation as I’d hoped, and I think if the links had worked, that would have made a big difference, but I’m only guessing as I haven’t seen any of the worksheets or whatever that were linked to.

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