I just moved in to live with my grandmother. There is a ton of ephemera around, especially from the good old days when local newspapers reported on everything from illness to vacation. How can I catalog, preserve, and share this ephemera in a way that's consumable both physically (think scrapbooking, not food) and digitally?

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    There is now a free eBook in PDF format available from here all about preservation of records that is well worth downloading and reading imho.
    – Colin
    Commented Mar 28, 2013 at 6:15

5 Answers 5


I would start by investing in some (archival-quality) plastic binder pockets. For digital storage, a small flatbed scanner will get a better image, but a digital camera is also fine for recording a digital copy. Try to organize as you go (slip an article into the plastic, scan/photograph it, and then record any additional notes about it), although I would prioritize physical organization if you're finding it overwhelming or you're facing a time constraint.

The great thing about using binder pockets (assuming things will fit in them) is that it's simple to:

  • take the binder to a family reunion and let everybody page through it
  • drastically reduce the possibility of damaging something while
    • scanning
    • reading
    • taking it along to a library or other archive to look up vital records
  • reorganize the order
    • group by event (wedding, death, birth, etc.)
    • group by family
    • group by generation
    • change your mind halfway through and switch your organization around!

Try to include your grandmother in the preservation process as much as possible -- hopefully she'll be thrilled that you're excited about your family history and want to share all sorts of stories about the newspaper articles, photographs, etc. (Ironically, this makes the job of "family historian" harder, since you not only need to preserve the physical object, but also organize associated stories -- but it is so, so worthwhile. The number of details and even new family relationships that I learned about when reading through newspaper articles with my grandmother was astounding.)


Ephemera comes in all shapes and sizes. I am including a screenshot of Janet Hovorka (The Chart Chick)'s recent blog post in which she discusses using The Heirloom Registry to preserve the stories attached to ephemera found around the house. Some of your grandmother's stuff, she may still be using (like her recipe cards), so she doesn't necessarily want you to file them away!

enter image description here"The online registry allows users to preserve and share the stories behind family heirlooms and precious belongings. You can see the Heirloom Registry sticker on the bottom of my teacup in this picture."

As another person mentioned, digital records --> as simple as taking an image with your cell phone, are a good way to capture the information. I have done this with great success in photographing an old scrapbook full of newspaper clippings my grandfather made. I can zoom in and read all the text in the article clippings. The challenge with this is HOW DO YOU ADD CONTEXT AND METADATA TO A DIGITAL FILE? And therein lays the crux of your question. I would suggest that you do as the archivists would do. Assign each piece of ephemera it's own unique identifier (number) and then in a separate document (notebook, text file or database) record the number and then all the contextual information you know about it. Like "Grandma clipped this out of the Washington Post when Aunt Mabel died" or "Cousin Grace gave Grandma this muffin recipe in 1960 - Grandma made it once, but thought it had too much baking soda, so she adjusted the recipe. She said it was Grandpa's favorite :)"


Most ephemera can be effectively handled by putting them in inexpensive polypropylene sheet protectors, and keeping these in a binder. The two clear sides of the protectors allow viewing of the items without destructive handling. Typically newspapers would have the relevant item cut out (either including the newspaper name, date, and page from the same sheet, or with that information noted on the retained item). Most items will fit into letter-sized protectors, but some may need some larger format.

Digital preservation is important, since the information can be better preserved and shared by having multiple backup and distributed copies. Flatbed scanners are usually the tool of choice to generate the images. 300 dpi (dots per inch) scan resolution is a good rule of thumb, although it may be more than needed for newspaper-like items. I like to name each scan file with the year, person and short subject indication. For cataloging, I usually rely on the descriptive filenames, which can be viewed and searched via the computer's normal mechanisms. For a few kinds of items for which it seems important, I make text files with greater detail about the contents.

  • 6
    DON'T use the cheap plastic envelopes to keep your original paper records in. The chemicals in them destroy the contents over time. Use proper archive quality plastic envelopes if you wish to keep them in good order for future generations.
    – Colin
    Commented Mar 20, 2013 at 7:26

I've been scanning the family photo albums and doing some acid-free repair as I go. I have a high quality flatbed scanner and have done the photos separately (both sides if there's anything on the reverse) and transcribed any writing on the photo, photo back or page captions into the jpeg files information.

Then I set up a camera and photograph the entire album page with all photos on it. Contex can be important.

After I have a set done, I put the photos up on a photoshare site (SmugMug in my case) in a private gallery so I can share them out and have an online backup of the information.

My next project is all the stories my grandmother handwrote to my siblings and I when we were children relating her growing up in Texas and New Mexico during the great depression. They are priceless to all our family.


There are a lot of good answers already, telling how to preserve the original piece of ephemera, and how to make a digital images of each piece. My answer relates mainly to the way it could be recorded in a database, linked to family members and retrieved.

Firstly, you need to know where the original piece will be located; where exactly will you locate that picture / certificate / brooch / cup / hat pin etc. It doesn't matter where you locate it just so long as you'll be able to find it in the same place every time. Using the analogy of a paper file, if it is always stored in a cabinet in a folder 79/12/a, that's where it must be returned after each person has examined it.

Secondly, you need to create the digital file. This digital file can have any filename; it's not important what the filename is, only that it will not be changed later. In the same way that web pages cannot be found if they are renamed it will be impossible to use a computer to find a file if you rename it without telling your computer what and where the new name is. Once you have the digital file it may be far less important where the original item resides - that becomes a matter for a physical storage and retrieval.

Next you need to record information about the file and the piece of ephemera in a database. I created XY Family Tree precisely so that it works as a database. Using XY Family Tree (it's free) you can record information about your ephemera using text and keywords and link the piece to any, or many, individuals in your family tree. Taking an example a newspaper cutting, you could create an image of the piece as a jpg file named "item 44 newspaper cutting 1888 09 23.jpg" (The original piece being filed as item 44). In XY Family Tree you would link a person to this file. In doing so you would describe the piece and you would describe the connection to the piece. The piece could be described thus: "a cutting from The Times, September 23, 1888, showing the opening ceremony for the fire station at Sometown". The personal connection to the file could be described: "John is the 3rd from left in the photograph. He was only 14 years old in the picture but later became head of the fire service." If there was another person in the photograph she could be ascribed: "Edith, mother of John, is the person with the large hat, stood in the middle.". Using the search features available in XY Family Tree it is then possible to find a link to the ephemera by searching for any of the words in its description: "cutting / 1888 / the times / fire station / sometown". Once found, you can see all those linked to that piece, here John and Edith. Or you might be looking at John's information and see the link to the ephemera, which would also link to Edith.

The example material included with XY Family Tree uses a movie file of a spinning top to link two brothers, Lorenzo and Giuliano. This can be seen at http://xyfamilytree.com/help/search-in-notes-attached-to-sources/ The spinning top is the ephemeral piece.

How do you share this ephemera physically? I think the only way to allow physical access to the actual item is to curate it in a museum or safe physical storage. Really, that's down to you how you can manage access to the original piece.

How do you share this ephemera digitally? XY Family Tree has a feature that zips all files in a family folder into a single XYXchange file. This is simply a zip file containing all the digital material for a family and the XYXchange file can be emailed to anyone else with XY Family Tree and imported. You can share it with as many people as you like in this way without it requiring to be displayed on the Internet.

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