Have you ever had to go through a deceased family member’s records, and wondered what you should be saving? When there is little to no context, it can be difficult to determine what was important or not important to the person who saved it in the first place. Here are some examples of documents and other records that you might find:
- vital records (birth, marriage, divorce, death certificates)
- old receipts and bills
- old newspapers and magazines
- funeral guest books
- diaries and letters
- old calendars and catalogs
- greeting cards from over the years
- U.S. Presidential birthday and anniversary cards
- tax returns
- a stack of 3.5 floppy disks
The following is not a clear-cut list of what to keep or not keep. However, here are some general guidelines that you can follow during the sorting process to help.
- Your knowledge of the person. Was the person involved with local civic clubs or had a profession such as a preacher? The trend in history used to be to collect information only from “important people.” Now, there are groups and local historical societies who might be interested in your family’s (or friend’s) story. Give them a call and see. There are also archives that collect original material on specific topics, such as The Vietnam Center and Archives at Texas Tech University.
- Common sense goes a long way. Just because your grandfather saved the receipt of when he sold someone a tire in 1989, does not mean that you necessarily need to keep it in perpetuity. More comprehensive business records would be interesting to a local historical society. A stack of receipts from the business would not necessarily be as interesting. A mail-order catalog from the 1980s can probably find it’s way to the disposal pile as well.
- Personally-created records are unique. Finding a diary is often very enlightening, but there might also be letters from family tucked away. These documents can illustrate events from long ago, and are irreplaceable (and sometimes fun to read). Even if the letters do not contain drama or scandal, a quiet life well lived would be a wonderful thing to show through the letters. If no one in the family is interested in them, try to find a home for them at a historical society.
- Practice the sampling technique. You may come across a huge stash of greeting cards and not know where to start. There is a technique used in archives called “sampling,” where you select and retain enough items to represent the collective whole. Pick out cards from notable people, friends of the family, interesting picture postcards, and such to keep. If the cards are blank or generic, it’s probably safe to toss them.
- Consult the family. Do not try to sort all these items by yourself. You will get burned out and frustrated with the process. Talk to family members and see what their thoughts are on specific documents. Older family members may be able to give you the context you need to help you with your decisions.
If you need help finding a local historical society or archives, please feel free to contact PRD. There is no guarantee that any institution will take your materials, but opening a dialogue can be very useful. You can also learn more about local history and groups or organizations through this experience.
Please do remember that these items were there for a reason, and you are now the custodian of these records. Exercise due diligence and care while you are cleaning out the attic, and make your decisions in good faith. Do the best you can with the information you have.