Where to look for family history and how to preserve what you find

Family history artifactsBy Barry J. Ewell

Over the past 15-plus years I have had the opportunity to learn a lot about my family through family history and genealogy activities.  Through my journey I have had the opportunity to uncover, organize and preserve 80,000-plus artifacts that range from photographs, vital records (birth, marriage, death certificates) and newspaper clippings to yearbooks, LP records and tapes, jewelry and family heirlooms.

When I first started doing family history, I spent the first six years searching for any and all records that would reconstruct the history of my family going back to the 1840’s.  Some of the artifacts I found in the homes of my parents following their passing which I was able to physically keep and preserve.  Many of the artifacts were in the position of family, friends and acquaintances as was only allowed to take a digital image/copy of those artifacts.  In the article I will share with you a few ideas about where to look and what you will find and introduce you to how-to take care of the artifacts you find.


I have spent 1,000’s of hours learning about and preserving what I have found.  I was faced with the need to better understand how to create, evaluate, manage, organize, and preserve content that includes audio, photography, video, film and more. I’ve learned that even the simplest decision like in which format to scan an image can have far reaching irreparable consequences if not done correctly.

The following resources includes links to over 100 resources covering a variety of digital topics you’ll need to jump start and successfully get on your road to developing your digital awareness and skills one project at a time.  In preparing the articles, slideshows, and video resources, I focused on sharing my personal lessons working with digital content as well as best practices from industry experts.

Where will you find artifacts and memories?  
The following are several simple experiences to introduce you to the concept that your family’s history can be found almost anywhere.

Look Again in the bottom left-hand drawer. My very first experience in searching for artifacts came following the death of my mother in August 1998.   Following Mom’s passing and funeral, my brother, sister, and I met for one last time in Mom’s front room. My sister’s parting words were direct and expected, “You are welcome to stay the night. Whatever is left when you leave is mine.” My sister pointed to a pile of things that were in the middle of the floor and instructed my brother and I that we could take what we wanted. Whatever was left would be given to the thrift store. And then she left to go back to her home.

As soon as she left, my brother and I knelt in prayer and gave thanks to our Father in Heaven for our mother and asked a blessing that relationships with our sister would heal in time. Upon conclusion of the prayer, there was a sense of serenity. We were both emotionally and physically drained. Where do you begin? I was standing in my mom’s home. It was just things. Mom had been a waitress at the Las Vegas Horseshoe Club for over forty years. She raised three children by herself. I always loved coming home, just to be with her. Now here I was, standing in the middle of her front room, feeling lost and in need of direction regarding where to begin. And in almost that very moment, there was clarity. My mind filled with two thoughts: First, that this would be the last night that I would ever stand in this home and, second, that I needed to preserve the record—gather photos, certificates, letters, and other related documents that would tell the history of my mother.

I knew I needed to follow the direction I was receiving. My next thought was, where should I begin? Within seconds, the thought came. I was first led to look in a cupboard in the kitchen where Mom kept coloring books. I couldn’t see anything. As I began to close the door, I felt the need to look again. In the back was a bank pouch with unused check registers. I pulled it down, and inside was an envelope with pictures from Mom’s early childhood. I was next guided to a drawer in the kitchen where I found, in a plastic bag, key photos of Mom’s life.

Next I was directed to a spare bedroom dresser. As I went through the drawers, I found them all empty except for a larger drawer that Mom had filled with paperback books she had read. I pulled out half the books, became frustrated, and put the books back in the drawer, thinking that there was nothing there. As I stood to leave, the thought came: Look again. I returned to the drawer again and removed all the books. At the bottom of the drawer was a sack filled with Mom’s important papers, such as her birth certificate, marriage license, photographs, and other documents.

Throughout the night, I went from room to room, having the same experience of knowing where to look in each room. My brother and I worked and packed until just before dawn. I privately asked for the last time, where else should I look? The answer was a total sense of peace. We were done.

Pull down that old brown suitcase. I was conducting research on my grandfather’s second marriage and had made an appointment with a distant cousin name John to learn more about the family.   During our discussion, I asked if John if he by chance had any artifacts like photos, cards and letters, and other artifacts that would help me learn about and tell the story of the family.  John thought for a moment and said that he thought there might be some photographs out in the garage.

As we entered the garage, John asked me to pull down a very worn and traveled brown suitcase.  He told me that it had been over 25 years since he last looked inside but he thought there might be one or two photos I could have or scan.

When I opened the suitcase, there before my eyes were hundreds of black and white photographs from the 1940’s and 50’s.  John was surprised as I was to find the photographs.  I was permitted to look though the photos and take any I thought were of value to me.   Together we spent the next several hours looking, finding, and remembering.

I kept a scrapbook about your mother. When I was researching my mother’s history, I was introduced to a childhood friend of my mother that until that time was unknown to me.   I set up a time to speak with Ann and during the conversation; she let me know that she had kept a scrapbook of her 50-plus year relationship with my mother. When she asked if I would like to see the scrapbook, I replied immediately in the affirmative. The scrapbook was filled with photographs from when my mom was in Jr High in the 1940’s, cards and letters that represented their life long relationship in correspondence, newspaper clippings of my mom’s marriage, my birth and much more.  The scrapbook was a tremendous find of which was permitted to scan and digitize the artifacts.

Where do I search?
You will find artifacts anywhere and everywhere.   As I started to research my family, it dawned on me that each generation had treated the artifacts of their parents just like I had with my siblings; we divided and shared what we found.  Sometimes the belongings are divided by wills, given away in private moments when you are along with parent, and/or simply found as you searched the place of residence.  The biggest mistake I made early on was thinking that all the information that existed about my family was in the possession of my parents.

When I interviewed my mom’s sisters and my dad’s brothers, I found artifacts that were given to them at the time of their parent’s death.  I asked and was permitted to make digital copies of most of the paper related items (e.g., photos, cards, and letters), LP records, images of rings, watches, and more all of which helped me organize and tell the story of each generation. When I studied all of the material I had gathered from that generation, what a story it told.  Separately the artifacts were interesting and valuable.  Together they become the story of you.

The further back I went in my family history, the more dispersed the artifacts became among family members. Great grandpa’s journal was now in the hands of a second cousin who lived across the country and similar stories and who had inherited the artifact from his mother.

So where to do you begin to find family history clues, artifacts and resources? Family history clues and artifacts are as close as your home, the home of relatives, friends and acquaintances.

The home of close relatives will reveal many treasures you are not yet aware exists. Family gatherings are an important time to reach out, get to know family and begin and/or continue family history activities. Many local, state and national resources exist to help further research

Completely search your home

  • All kitchen, desk, and storage, drawers
  • Attic rafters
  • Books
  • Briefcases
  • Closets
  • Computer and internet accounts
  • File folders
  • Garage and long-term storage
  • Purses
  • Safe or safe deposit boxes
  • Shoe boxes
  • Under beds

As permitted ask to see artifacts in the homes of close relatives and friends.  I have reached out to:

  • Mom & Dad
  • Grandma and  Grandpa on your Dad’s side
  • Grandma and  Grandpa on your Mom’s side
  • Your  siblings (brothers and sisters)
  • Aunts and uncles on your Dad’s side
  • Aunts and uncles on your Mom’s side
  • Great -grandparents, great aunts and uncles
  • First and second cousins
  • Selected neighbors & co-workers

Family gatherings are perfect time to spread the word and locate artifacts, talk about families and set appointments. Family gathering included:

  • Christmas
  • Family celebrations
  • Family reunions
  • Thanksgiving
  • Vacation visits

Where else can I search?
I have found many artifacts and information about my family in local, regional, state, and country repositories.   I had one relative who donated their entire history to university archive.  I have found pictures of my family from the early 1900’s in a local antic store that had a large collection of old photographs.  If you are really looking to learn more about your family, you can also search:

  • Local, regional, state, and genealogy libraries
  • Genealogy and historical societies
  • Court house and municipal resources
  • Religious organizations
  • Internet resources
  • Professional genealogists

Libraries and genealogical/historical societies are great starting point.  The following resource will get you started and provide you resources for all 50 states.

What information can be found in the home?
The following is detailed list of the type of artifacts I have found in my family history research. Remember you will find these types of artifacts just about anywhere.  The key for me was learning that the artifacts existed and when I was searching I was able to find much more because I knew what to look for.  I wish I had had this list when I first started.   It was only through going back to family, friends and acquaintances several times, that I was able to secure the chance to acquire or digitally record what I found.

Write down what is known about life events for your family

  • Baptism
  • Birth
  • Christening
  • Graduations
  • Marriage

Gather documents in home having potential family history value

  • Awards
  • Bibles
  • Certificates
  • Diaries
  • Histories
  • Journals
  • Letters
  • Photos
  • Scrapbooks

Genealogy information: Personal records

  • Autograph Album
  • Biography
  • Book
  • Bookplates
  • Diary
  • Funeral
  • Guest
  • Journal
  • Letters
  • Personal Knowledge
  • Photographs
  • Register
  • Scrapbooks
  • Travel Account/Log
  • Wedding Book
  • Wedding Book

Genealogy information: Certificates

  • Achievements Awards
  • Adoption
  • Apprentices
  • Baptism
  • Blessing
  • Christening
  • Confirmation
  • Death
  • Divorce
  • Graduation
  • Marriage
  • Membership
  • Ministerial
  • Missionary
  • Ordination

Genealogy information: Family records

  • Bible
  • Books of Remembrance
  • Family Bulletins
  • Family Group Sheets
  • Family Histories
  • Family Letters
  • Family Traditions
  • Genealogies
  • Letters & Postcards
  • Local Histories
  • Manuscript Histories
  • Pedigrees
  • Printed Histories

Genealogy information: Military records

  • Bounty Award
  • Citations
  • Disability
  • Discharge
  • Firearms
  • Military Service
  • National Guard
  • Pension
  • Personal Knowledge
  • Ribbons
  • Selective Service
  • Separation Papers
  • Service Medals
  • Sword
  • Uniform
  • War Memorials
  • War Rosters

Genealogy information: Legal papers

  • Abstracts of Title
  • Adoption Papers
  • Bonds
  • Contracts
  • Deeds
  • Guardian Papers
  • Land Grants
  • Leases
  • Loans
  • Mortgages
  • Summons Subpoenas
  • Tax Notices
  • Water Rights
  • Wills and Probates

Genealogy information: Announcements

  • Anniversary
  • Birth
  • Birthday Celebration
  • Death
  • Divorce
  • Engagement
  • Funeral
  • Graduation
  • Memorial Cards
  • New Home
  • New Job
  • Personal Knowledge
  • Promotion
  • Travel
  • Wedding

Genealogy information: Membership records

  • Awards
  • Member ID Cards
  • Programs
  • Publications
  • Uniforms

Genealogy information: Citizenship papers

  • Alien Registration
  • Denegation/ Denials
  • Deportment
  • Naturalization
  • Passport
  • Vaccination
  • Visa

Genealogy information: Newspaper clippings

  • Announcements
  • Home town Newspapers
  • Human Interest
  • Obituaries
  • Professional Trade
  • Special Events
  • Vital Statistics

Genealogy information: Licenses

  • Business
  • Drivers
  • Firearms
  • Hunting
  • Motor Vehicle Registration
  • Occupation
  • Professional

Genealogy information: Employment records

  • Apprenticeship / Graduation
  • Awards / Citations
  • Income tax
  • Pension / IRA / 401k
  • Retirement papers
  • Severance papers
  • Social Security
  • Union / Professional Assoc.

Genealogy information: Household items

  • Clothing
  • Coat of Arms
  • Dishes
  • Engraved Jewelry
  • Friendship Quilt
  • Insignias
  • Needlework
  • Plaques

Genealogy information: Books

  • Atlases
  • Baby book
  • Bibles
  • Foreign Language
  • Inscriptions
  • Journals
  • Prizes
  • Test books

Genealogy information: Financial records

  • Accounts / Receipts
  • Bills / Check Stubs
  • Estate records