FINDING YOUR NIKKEI ROOTS: Preserve your artifacts


We all have family heirlooms, photo albums, memorabilia. Some of us have a lot, some of us have very little. As the designated family historian, you may find yourself the keeper of family heirlooms. That can be a daunting task, both because of the sheer number of items, and the sense of responsibility.

Getting Started
Begin by sorting your treasures. Think about what value they hold for you, your family members, your future descendants or your community. Do they have financial value? Sentimental or emotional value? Historical value? Each person or family has a different collection of family treasures, and each person or family has a different sense of what items are important or valuable. But the items you choose to keep, record and preserve, are only as valuable as the stories that go with them. A threadbare sweater may hold more stories than the expensive strand of Mikimoto pearls.

Sample Items of Interest (everyone has a different collection)
Ceramics, crystal, dishes
Gravestones, butsudan
Musical instruments
Photographs (originals, slides, negatives)
Paper (letters, deeds, books, scrapbooks, yearbooks)
Recorded memories (home movies, videos, audio tapes)
Textiles (kimono, obi, wedding dresses, quilts, baby clothing, shoes)

Create a Plan
Having a plan and getting organized can make the process manageable. Find a clear workspace, such as a dining room table. Only tackle what you can finish within a reasonable amount of time. If you try to archive all your memorabilia at once, you will get frustrated and may never complete the task.

Ask yourself the following questions:
What are your goals?
What is your timeline?
Where will you work?
How will you organize your objects?
What will you keep? How and where?
What will you give to other family members?
What will you donate?
Will you donate to a museum? A university? A thrift store?

Before you begin to curate your family heirlooms, remember the oath that physicians take, to do no harm. In this way, the family historian is a bit like a physician. Whatever you do with the treasures, make sure that you are preserving them for future generations, that you are storing them in a safe manner, and that you back up all your digital images (to the cloud, to an external hard drive, etc.).

Organize your project in a way that makes sense to you. Maybe that means gathering all the objects related to one person or one family group or one surname. Or maybe that means working with one type of object at a time, such as clothing or furniture.

As you gather your items, think about what you want passed down. Try to keep sets of items together. Photograph and catalog every item BEFORE you give it to a relative, friend, or donation station.

PLEASE be sure to wash your hands before working on your project. Make sure your workspace is clean, as well.1

The Library of Congress recommends wearing “fitted, clean, lint-free cotton or nitrile gloves when handling photographs.” Most archivists no longer suggest gloves for all archival material, unless it is especially fragile.

Think about how you will photograph an item and how you will write about it. Keep a log or inventory of all the items you are cataloging. And keep the stories and labels attached to their items.

For those items that you want to keep, think about how you will store them. Keep items away from heat and sunlight. Use acid free and lignin free materials. Purchase archival supplies for each project. You don’t need to buy supplies until you know exactly what you have and how you want to store them.

For those items you choose to pass on to other family members, make sure that the written story stays with the object. Many of you may be getting ready to downsize. Before you do, make sure that you take the time to record the stories before giving everything away.

Archiving Photos
This is a category in and of itself. Old photos. Damaged photos. Mildewed photos. Thousands of blurry photos stuck in old albums from the 1970s. Photos of people you don’t know. The process of cataloging and preserving photos is daunting. Go through the photos and don’t be afraid to throw some (a lot?) away. Save what you love and scan the best ones as TIFF images. Make sure you have a naming convention which you can stick to. When you share the photos with friends and family, send them as JPEGs, but keep the originals as TIFFs. If you need to photoshop the images, edit the copy, but save the original scan untouched. Then catalog and store the originals. As with artifacts, add stories to the images, so the memories will be passed down through the generations.

We don’t usually think of gravestones as something to archive, but it’s important to consider their preservation. Never use harsh chemicals, scrapers, or wire bristles to clean the stones. Water, soft cotton rags, and brushes with soft nylon or natural bristles is usually all you need. It’s always best to use the gentlest materials and efforts. If a cleaning solution is needed, many conservators recommend D2, a biological solution. For more information on best practices for gravestone care, see the Cemetery Conservators for United Standards

Once your artifacts or photos have been organized, scanned, or photographed, and you are waiting for the archival supplies to arrive, it’s time to write the stories. You can even combine your stories and your artifacts with documentary evidence, such as passenger manifests.

Ichimaru Okazaki was just seventeen when he boarded the Chiyo Maru in Kobe on 31 July 1912. It was a nineteen-day voyage across the Pacific Ocean. He was temporarily detained, likely on Angel Island, before landing in San Francisco. The flat top of his heavy wooden trunk was a sure sign that he traveled in steerage.

If you want to learn more about archival preservation of your family treasures, plus other ways to document your family history, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California is offering a nine-part monthly genealogy series. All sessions are recorded for paid attendees and will be available for one year. Please contact The Center for details.; (415) 567-5505

Densho: Genealogy Webinar and Handout: Preserving Your Family Archives

Levenick, Denise May. How to Archive Family Keepsakes. Cincinnati, OH: Family Tree Books, 2012.

Levenick, Denise May. How to Archive Family Photos. Cincinnati, OH: Family Tree Books, 2015.

Library of Congress: Preserving Your Digital Memories

National Archives: Preservation (mostly about photos)

Okazaki, Linda. “Finding Your Nikkei Roots: Preserve Your Treasures Before It’s Too Late.” Nichi Bei Weekly, 24 October 2019, (

Taylor, Maureen. Preserving Your Family Photographs. Picture Perfect Press, 2010.

Yip, Linda. “How to Tackle Your First Big Photo Scanning Project – My Collection of 5 Blogs About Scanning.” Past Presence, A Site for Genealogists and Family Historians. 1 August 2019, (

Where to Buy Supplies
Archival Methods
Brodart Library Supplies
Gaylord Archival
Hollinger Metal Edge
University Storage

1“Preservation,” Library of Congress, ( : accessed 30 October 2022).


Linda Harms Okazaki is a professional genealogist who is past president of the California Genealogical Society. She specializes in Japanese American records. If you have a genealogical question which might be answered in this column, send an e-mail to The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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