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My mom and I created two big picture history books of her life over the four-year period I cared for her before she died. In the process I learned a bunch about gathering and organizing ninety years of pictures and memorabilia; I’ve been applying what I learned ever since as I organize my own. I’m still not finished (organizing is an on-going process) but I’m a lot further down the road than I was fifteen years ago. I’d like to share what I’ve learned all along the way, especially tips for simplifying the process.

Begin at the Beginning

Each individual situation will be different, and many people now do most of their picture history work electronically, but you can pick and choose from my experience those tips that best apply to you. The important thing is to begin. Most of your gathering may be on your computer, but when Mom moved in, she brought with her many old photo albums that were literally falling apart, boxes of slides, pictures, and memorabilia of all sorts. Some of her albums were chronological, so we had a head start there, knowing what time period they fit into. I’ve listed the process we followed in nine steps. However, we worked on many of these steps concurrently.

Nine Steps to Organizing a Picture History

  1. Gather

You can’t organize what isn’t gathered together. Finding the family history stuff you have and gathering it together in one place is an ongoing process. For years I kept finding and gathering things I felt should be included in Mom’s books. If I have old pictures tucked in the bottom of a jewelry box, or important certificates in the bottom of a sock drawer, those things need to be “gathered” to a central location.

  1. Create a Timeline

Here’s a sample of the first 30 years of my mom’s timeline:

1909: Fern’s birth. Her childhood and large nuclear family. Summers on the farm.

1915-1926: Fern’s school days. Her father’s untimely death in 1923. Move to Mantua the next year and newfound popularity. Dating, dances, plays, and graduation.

1927-1931: Becoming a maid in Salt Lake City. Unpleasant dating experiences and fear of never marrying. Meeting Arland, courtship, and engagement.

1932: Fern’s marriage. Settling down in Logan. Living in Preston with Arland’s folks.

1933: First child, Arlene’s, birth. Health problems. Several moves.

1935: Second child, Bob’s, birth. Sharing daily life with friends in Logan. Buying ice cream store in Blackfoot and having to work.

1939: Third child, Delray’s, birth. Joy of staying home with children.

You get the idea. This timeline outlines the major time periods and events of a person’s life. Some people keep their timelines on the wall close to where they are working. We kept ours in a notebook close at hand. Referring to it often helped us immensely when we were trying to organize materials chronologically.

  1. Obtain and Label Folders

We made hanging files for each time period. For extensive histories, you might want to have a separate file for each year, or at least a file folder for each year.

  1. Sort

We sorted the material into the appropriate time periods. Note: I learned not to drive myself crazy being a perfectionist about chronology. While birth and death dates are important, the exact date of the trip to Yellowstone is not!

  1. Shop

We purchased acid-free materials: two big binders, page protectors, stickers, different colors of paper, etc. (Those of you who will be doing your picture histories on the computer can, instead, choose and purchase the computer program and begin scanning.)

  1. Divide into Pages

Focusing on one time period, we sorted and made preliminary decisions of what would fit on each page. I put the group of pictures for each page in a separate sheet protector, placing the date if we knew it and it seemed important, on a post-it note inside.

  1. Simplify the Design Process

By getting several pages sorted ahead of time, we were able to grab a page and work on it whenever we had a few minutes. This was the single best thing I learned to keep me from procrastinating. When I looked at the whole project I felt overwhelmed, but when I could grab one page protector which contained pictures I had already decided on, I could easily design that one page in a small amount of time.

  1. Compose Text

Type and paste or write the words you want to describe that page—or in the case of the computer format, type it into the page. For Mother’s books, we had a lot to refer to augment her memory—the script from a two-hour video we had done of her life, as well as excerpts from journals. Along the way, we included several pages of written history when it seemed appropriate and necessary.

  1. Keep Doing it!

You will surprise yourself at the progress you’ll make when you keep going back to the project, even a few minutes at a time. Just think, if you finish just one page a week, by the end of a year you will have 52 pages! But consider too, that if you do nothing for those same weeks 0 x 52 = 0!

Passing Along the Materials You Are Not Going to Use

After we decided which pictures we wanted to use in Mom’s history, we took all the rest and divided them into folders to give to each of my siblings. They were happy to receive them, and I was happy to get them out of the house and lighten my load!

The Satisfaction of a Well-Documented Life 

Over a period of months and years, the book of finished pages grew into two thick books. One of the joys of my Mom’s last days was looking through her books and knowing that her life was well documented. It was part of her legacy, and that gave her great satisfaction. Working on my own books gives me a heightened sense of purpose on days when I feel I’ve been put out to pasture.

Moving Ahead with My Own Picture Histories

After Mom’s death, I became more serious about moving ahead with my own books and soon realized I had decisions to make. My life has been more complicated than Mom’s was, and I have collected a lot more memorabilia. Before I could even begin gathering for a book, I had to decide what I wanted the book to be and whether to divide my life chronologically or categorically.

What Will Happen to My Books When I Die? Simplifying the Process 

Years after I began gathering materials for chronological books, I realized that I needed to simplify the process of dividing the books when I’m gone. Frankly, I was afraid that if I just had a many-volume picture history of my life, including all the pictures with children and grandchildren, dividing them up would be difficult. I ended up dividing almost all pictures from the date of my marriage until all children were grown into separate books for each of my grown sons, and later for each grandchild. Now, each one will be given his or her own book and most of my treasured pictures will have a home.

Other picture history books I’m making are:

  • My life from birth to college
  • History of my college days and mission
  • My career scrapbook
  • My favorite pictures of children and grandchildren
  • Two volumes of my second husband’s life and our life together

Your division might be very different. Just do whatever works best for you.

Several of my books are now completed, the rest mostly in the stage of material gathered somewhat chronologically—some sections in each book designed and finished, many others in page protectors ready to design. Why am I not further along on this project when it’s been in process for years? Because I can find a million other things to do, and because every year I have many more pictures printed to add to current books. But hooray! I’m happy to report I’ve found a partial solution to dilemma of conflicting priorities.

Eating the Elephant One Bite at a Time

 Over a decade ago I found a scrapbooking partner, Joy, who comes to work with me whenever possible and leaves many of her materials here. I have a scrapbooking area where we can leave everything out, which has also simplified the process immensely. For instance, I have all my background pages spread out on the top of a cadenza, so I can quickly see the possibilities and choose what I need. Our goal is at least an hour a week, but many times we haven’t been able to get together. Still, we keep coming back to our projects. When Joy is here, I focus on my picture histories. I don’t get distracted or decide to do the laundry! We keep each other on track. We’re making regular, even though slow, progress. The best fringe benefit is that Joy and I have become close friends!

Buddying up with even one other person and setting a time each week—or even each month—can help tremendously. For a while, my sister held a scrapbooking date with her daughters monthly; they all enjoyed it and made progress. For electronic scrapbooking, finding someone with different skills and finding ways to help each other and share tips can work well.

You might find other ways to schedule your picture history project into your life. Whatever works for you, keep the process as simple as possible, and just do it. Eat the elephant one bite at a time. Step-by-step, little by little, wonderful things can happen. You can leave a picture history legacy that your children and grandchildren will love!