Organizing Documents And Photographs (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Organizing All Your Precious Documents And Photographs[edit | edit source]

At a certain point during your research project you should consider taking the precious documents and photographs collected through your project and displaying them for friends and family to view and enjoy.

What’s the point of accumulating so many interesting items if no one will ever see them?

Albums[edit | edit source]

We are all very familiar with the album style to display our photographs. We will now describe an easy and inexpensive way to create a family album for all to enjoy. Remember, we are also concerned about protecting these precious items.

You will hear about acid-free storage methods and a variety of plastics while enjoying your hobby of genealogy. Acid-free refers to the best long term preservation materials available to store your items in. And yes there are various plastics available. But don’t be fooled, just because something is expensive does not necessarily make it better!

I’m not going to suggest that everything you find should be protected. This is a very personal decision. Yes, it would be great if all our precious findings were available for our future descendants to enjoy, maybe 100 years from now. But how realistic is that...

You must first decide what you want to protect and use available materials to protect those items. If you are not concerned about protection, then less expensive materials can be used to create your album.

But whatever you decide, you will still create your album in the same fashion. You will simply use products manufactured differently to display your items.

Again, I like to use the three ring binder method. Why? Well you are not finished collecting precious documents, so if you use the traditional bound albums, you won’t be able to insert an item in its proper location without removing and reorganizing so many other items.

With the three ring binder method, you just choose where you want to insert your item and you simply insert it.

Creating the Album[edit | edit source]

To create the album, these are the items you will require:

  • Three Ring Binder to organize your finished album. Choose a binding a little larger than what you need to give room to easily handle the pages. A D-Ring binder is better than a C-Ring binder.
  • Mounting Boards to place your items onto. This also gives you the ability to write pertinent information regarding that particular item next to it.
  • Mounting Corners to fix your items in place. You may need to remove something at a future date, for example to make copies for other family members. You may also wish to insert the items as part of a family book or a family video. You must be able to remove it. Also, more importantly, we want to do whatever we can to preserve the life of all items we handle, even if we are using less expensive methods. So gluing, stapling or taping items to the mounting board is simply not acceptable.
  • Protective See-Thru Envelopes are also required. You want to prevent the oils from fingers eventually damaging your collection. These see-thru envelopes will permit you to view what you have, yet your fingers will not be touching the documents. Protective envelopes will also provide the support required to view fragile documents.
  • Cotton Gloves to handle your documents. Your fingers have harmful oils that can damage precious documents. You should always wear cotton gloves when handling precious documents. Have you noticed finger marks on your newly developed pictures?
  • Pigma Pen or Soft Lead Pencil to write on the back of pictures. Never use a ball point pen or other marker type pens. The inks can eventually go through to your picture or pens will leave indentation marks on your picture.

We traditionally think of albums for photographs. In your album include not just pictures, but also all other precious documents or copies of them you have collected. Look for postcards, newspaper articles, birth, marriage or death certificates, school awards and certificates, telegrams, in memory cards, letters, envelopes, etc., etc. The more you can include the more interesting your album will be!

An easy way to organize your album, is to divide all your documents in the same fashion in which you have them filed. Create a binder for each of your grandparents’ families. Then use section dividers for each of the children’s families. You may also want to create secondary sections within each child’s section for their children.

Photographs or documents that relate to an entire family or to several members of that family should be placed at the beginning of each section. Then the materials, photographs and documents, for each individual sibling and their family can be grouped together. Try to organize all your documents in chronological order. This will make more sense when viewing your albums later on. It will also make it much easier to find something you are looking for.

Additional Albums/Binders[edit | edit source]

A suggestion, create three additional albums/binders:

  • One for your paternal grandparents
  • One for your maternal grandparents
  • One for your parents

Just like your family group record forms, you do not want to duplicate information. Simply cross-reference your four great-grandparents’ albums/binders with a note indicating that the section for the sibling is found in its own album/binder. Usually, as we get closer to our immediate family, we will have gathered many more precious documents and photographs.

The steps to organize your album are easy (remember to wear your cotton gloves for all these steps):

  1. Separate all your pictures and documents into major family groups.

  2. Working on only one of the major family groups above at a time, further separate the pictures and documents into groups for each sibling. (If one sibling has a large number of items, you may want to separate the items one more level.)

  3. Working again on only one of the smaller family groups above at a time, sort the items in chronological order.

  4. Title each mounting board with the name of the family whose documents will be displayed. (Make a title page even though you may not have items for that particular sibling. This way, when you attend a family gathering, you are reminded by the blank page that you should request some pictures.)

  5. Now you’ll start the creative part—display your pictures in an appealing and attractive way. Don’t over-crowd the page. Leave ‘white-space’. Try to capture an event by having pictures and documents that all relate to the same event together.

  6. As you are placing your pictures, make sure the name of those in the picture is indicated on the back of the picture as well as the date the picture was taken if known. You should also write this information on the mounting board next to the picture so those viewing your album do not remove the picture to see who has been photographed.

  7. Use mounting corners to hold your documents in place. (I found that using only two per picture was sufficient to hold the document in place.)

  8. Once you are satisfied with the look of your page, insert the mounting board with all documents into a see-thru envelope or page protector and then into the binder.

Discussions often start whether to display originals or copies. This is just my opinion—I find people enjoy looking at the ‘real thing’. So let’s enjoy our precious documents that we have worked so hard at finding. For example, I will make photocopies of newspaper articles or telegrams on acid-free paper and store them for safe keeping, but in my album the original article is displayed. (Newsprint is the cheapest form of paper, it will deteriorate so enjoy it while you can!)

If I have a very precious photograph, I make a negative of it for safe-keeping but I display the photograph. Scanning documents and photographs into your computer is another storage option.

When I borrow pictures from relatives, if they are ordinary pictures I duplicate them on an inexpensive photocopier using a Photo Mat for better reproduction. If they are a more precious photograph, I will duplicate them on a laser photocopier for a better reproduction.

By creating albums of this nature, you will be able to easily identify those families you should communicate with for additional visual items. When the time comes that you will want to write your family book or produce your family video, you will have what you need to make it much more interesting and complete.

Major Disasters[edit | edit source]

Unfortunately, floods and fires do occur. As part of your organizational efforts you should consider having an off-site copy of your precious information.

This hobby will become a passion. But if a disaster strikes, will you have the same passion to start over from scratch? Think about it...

Consider having recent backup copies of your computer files stored somewhere off-premise. Photocopy precious documents, or better yet prepare gifts for your family that include these items. Prepare wall charts, and family books with all the factual information. Share, share and share again. You will be pleased you did should a major disaster occur.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.