Thousands of books, blog posts, and podcasts offer downsizing tips that don’t work, at least when it comes to reducing your possessions to preserve your family history. If you want or need to downsize your home, apartment, or other living situations, you need to do three things.
Two of the most egregious downsizing tips that don’t work when you are also trying to preserve your family history are:
If you haven’t used it in 6 months, throw it out.
If it doesn’t bring you joy, throw it out.
Item of historical or genealogical value lack frequency of use. How often do you use a death certificate for your 2nd great-grandfather?
Do you remember that you have a certificate from your 2nd great grandfather?
Not every sentimental item brings you joy. Sometimes you feel sadness, guilt, or regret. Should you throw out a Family Bible that documents your slaveholding ancestors?
Yes, I went to the extreme on that one, but you get the idea. Traditional downsizing tips fail to help you sift through items in your home with an eye geared toward preserving your family history.
Tip #1: Give Yourself Enough Time
When you downsize your home or your genealogical files, you need to give yourself enough time to make the best long-term decisions. Your biggest roadblock when downsizing is nostalgia.
When you attempt to decide whether to keep your grandmother’s sewing box, your grandfather’s antique clock collection, or your aunt's family history, you need to brace yourself for the memories that flood your mind and cloud your judgment.
Plan on nearly twice the amount of time you would use to decrease your room's functional items to process your sentimental. For instance, I spent 4 hours downsizing my daughter’s shared bedroom. The majority of the items sorted involved clothes, books, make-up, and old school papers.
The sentimental decisions took twice as long as we needed to find ways to preserve the memories before we could part with many of their treasures.
Give yourself enough time to process nostalgia so you can downsize with more success.
If you have a short timeline to downsize, you need an action plan to keep you on track even while nostalgia creeps in. That’s why our book, Downsizing with Family History in Mind, has timeline-based action plans to keep you focused and help you achieve success whether you have 1 hour, 1 weekend, or 1 year to downsize.
Tip #2: Use the Right Boxes
The most common tip for downsizing that doesn’t work relates to the boxes used to sort your possessions. If you use the correct boxes, you will succeed in reducing what you keep in your home and preserve your family history at the same time.
Typical downsizing boxes are KEEP, SELL, DONATE. Some organizing experts will add other boxes, but they are derivatives of these three boxes.
Most people who downsize begin with gusto sorting items from their garages, attics, sheds, barns, storage units, and homes only become easily defeated. They can’t determine in which box to place family and personal history items.
These boxes do not help you when you have to process your sentimentally, historically, and genealogically significant artifacts and papers. So do something different!
When downsizing with a focus on preserving your family history, you need different boxes. You need boxes labeled KEEP, GIVEAWAY, PROCESS, and TRASH. The difference between success and failure in downsizing is that process box.
On your first pass of sorting your possession, there are items that you will:
KEEP items due to their functionality and usefulness in your life right now. Items that have a strong family history value.
GIVEAWAY items that you no longer wish to be the caretake of but still have family history value to someone else.
PROCESS items that have family history value need to be digitized before the physical item can be given away or trashed.
TRASH items that have lost their value and are not valuable to other family historians.
Notice how the Process box helps you place the items you are unsure of whether you should keep it or not until you can make a final decision. You can make that final decision after you photograph the item, scan the papers or photos, convert slides, negatives, old audio, and video media to a digital format. You can also migrate genealogy research notes to a digital family tree.
Once you have processed the items in the ‘Process’ Box, you’ll know for certain whether to keep, trash, or give away these items.
If you need guidelines to help you know how to evaluate your genealogical items, use the reference guides in our book, Downsizing with Family History in Mind.
Tip #3: Make Use of Archives and Repositories
One downsizing tip that doesn’t work in genealogy is selling your family history at a garage sale or taking everything to a charity facility. Instead, you need to take advantage of archives and repositories for your collection of materials.
One reader wrote about her great aunt’s papers, plaques, business ledgers, guest books, and photos. She wanted to know where she could preserve these items because her family did not want the great aunt's information with no children. We created this list based on further details:
City Historical Societies & Museums (especially for a large city)
County Historical Societies
County Genealogist Societies
State Archives and Libraries
University Special Collections in the area the ancestor lived, worked or died.
Ethnic History Museums in the area her ancestor lived or any ethnic history museum in the US.
Military History Museums, especially ones with collections about women in WWI.
National or Regional Genealogy Libraries
Whew, that list is not exhaustive, but the point is clear. There are numerous places where she can give her collection to preserve her aunt’s legacy. My neighbor has everything organized, identified, and even made a spreadsheet for museum curators to review before they decide to accept the collection.
Please use archives and repositories for your family history to ensure the content will be available when your posterity wants to access it.
Ignore Downsizing Tips That Don’t Work
Genealogists have a habit of being borderline hoarders but definitely pack rats. However, if we don’t take time to downsize with family history in mind, those tasked with taking care of our household after we pass away will likely throw everything into the trash. Therefore we must act and act with wisdom.
Avoid the downsizing tips that do not help preserve your family history. Instead, give yourself ample time, use the correct sorting boxes, and make use of archives to preserve your family treasures.