How to Read Your Ancestor Like a Book

I am delighted to welcome Denise May Levenick, The Family Curator, and author of How to Archive Family Keepsakes to the Gazette as part of her Blog Book Tour. She has brought a bit of her expertise with her to share with us here. After reading her article, stop by Moultrie Creek Books to check out my earlier interview with Denise and my review of her book.

Moultrie Creek and The Family Curator share a love of tech gadgets, e-readers, and most especially, books! When Editor Denise Olson and I chat about blogging or family history, somehow the conversation always turns to what we’re reading and what’s waiting for us on our bookshelves.

Inherited books bring new challenges and new information to family historians. Experienced genealogists recognize the value of noting literacy from census records and document signatures, but have you considered what you can learn about your ancestor from the choice of books in their library?

Not all books survive through generations, of course, but if you are fortunate enough to inherit a few bookshelves or boxes of books, you might learn something about the interests and activities of your ancestor.

When you first encounter a person’s library, it’s a good idea to take some notes about book arrangement. Are the books grouped in any order, by author, subject, size, or binding? Take digital photos and list the books in order. It can be interesting to consider why books are grouped as they are. Poetry mixed in with travel? Maybe the books were grouped for inspiration or take-along reading material?

If you find the books in a person’s home, note what rooms contain bookshelves. Some people live with books in almost every room, others have very few volumes. You may be able to determine how your ancestor spent his leisure time – perhaps  reading novels, planning travel, or studying the lives of great leaders.

Fewer books doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is illiterate or uneducated. Many entrepreneurs or business owners had little leisure time, others may have pursued golf, woodworking, or sewing in their free time; many people choose to read newspapers and magazines. Digital libraries of the last decade will leave a very faint footprint; you may need to investigate an e-reader booklist to analyze a techie’s library.

Many families own an heirloom Bible or other religious books that are passed on from generation to generation. Carefully look through the pages to see if newspaper clippings or funeral cards have been tucked between the pages. Sometimes an obituary may be placed as a bookmark in the pages of the deceased person’s favorite Bible passage. Protestant Bible owners may use their Bible as a personal journal to record their spiritual conversion and testimony.

My uncle, a Protestant minister, used his primary “study” Bible as a sort of scrapbook journal. It contains photos, news clippings, handwritten notes, and carefully marked passages.

As you begin to examine the books, carefully leaf through the pages. You may find pressed flowers, theatre stubs, or any kind of item pressed into service as a bookmark. Make note of what you find and where. If you want to leave the item in the book but see that it is causing damage, consider encapsulating the item in archival plastic to protect the pages from acid migration.

If you choose to incorporate family books with your own volumes, you may want to set the books apart on a separate shelf or mark the books with the name of the original owner. You could insert an acid-free identification card inside the book or inscribe the flyleaf in pencil with the owner’s name and dates. Keep a list of your inherited books with your family archive so you remember where they are.

Store damaged or fragile books flat inside archival folders or closed boxes with your other family archive materials.

Find more ideas for sorting and organizing inherited family treasures in How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia & Genealogy Records by Denise May Levenick (Family Tree Books, 2012).
Format: Paperback Digital: eBook PDF

Copyright, 2012, Denise May Levenick. All Rights Reserved.

Add your questions or comments to this post for a chance to win a free copy of How to Archive Family Keepsakes in the Blog Book Tour giveaway.

Join the Blog Tour

Join the Blog Book Tour for How to Archive Family Keepsakes January 10-26, 2013 for author interviews, book excerpts, giveaways, and more. Visit the Blog Book Tour Page at The Family Curator for the complete schedule <;.

Proceeds from the sale of How to Archive Family Keepsakes during the Book Tour will help fund the 2013 Student Genealogy Grant founded in 2010 in honor of Denise’s mother, Suzanne Winsor Freeman.

Blog Book Tour Giveaways

Comment on daily Book Blog Tour Post
Tweet the Tour Twitter @FamilyCurator #keepsakebooktour
Share the Tour on FaceBook, Google+, Goodreads

It’s easy to enter to win a free copy of Denise’s new book or one of the weekly giveaway prizes. All you have to do is leave a comment to the Blog Tour Post hosted at one of the official tour blogs. Random winners will also be selected from social media comments on Twitter, FaceBook, and Google+.

Each blog tour post comment gives you one chance to win; one entry per post per day, please. Leave a comment at each stop on the blog tour and increase your chances of winning. The lucky names will be announced each Saturday during the tour at The Family Curator.

About the Author

In every family, someone ends up with “the stuff.” Denise May Levenick is a writer, researcher, and speaker with a passion for preserving and sharing family treasures of all kinds. She is the creator of the award-winning family history blog, The Family Curator ( and author of the new book How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia and Genealogy Records, (Family Tree Books, 2012).

21 thoughts on “How to Read Your Ancestor Like a Book

    1. Hello Kathleen! Great question about book boxes, and an emphatic yes! I do recommend archival boxes for heirloom books, and suggest you purchase from an established company that supplies libraries and museums. I have had good experiences with Hollinger MetalEdge, Brodart, and Gaylord. Look for “acid-free” and “lignin-free” or “low lignin” boxes and supplies. Some companies also offer reasonably-priced custom sized boxes for special items.

      Select a box that is about two-inches larger on all sides than your book. This will help reduce damage from sliding and shifting. You may want to enclose the box in a folder or sleeve made from lightweight acid-free lignin free card stock before placing it inside the box. Special book boxes, or drop spine boxes make it easier to remove the book from the box.

      If archival boxes are out of your budget, you can also carefully wrap an old Bible or book in a piece of 100% cotton muslin, such as an old pillowcase or sheet, to protect it from dust. Whether it’s in a box or wrapped in cotton, keep your heirloom book in a location that is moderate in terms of temperature and humidity. A closet inside your home living area is a good choice. Avoid attics, basements, and garages.

      I hope this helps with your book storage. Chapter 6 of my book offers a comprehensive list of suppliers and more ideas for storing and preserving specific kinds of paper keepsakes, including baby books, photo albums, scrapbooks, newspapers, and printed books.

      Thanks so much for visiting Moultrie Creek on the Keepsake Blog Book Tour
      ~Denise Levenick, The Family Curator


  1. I have looked into the archive boxes but have not purchased anything yet. I have old books and papers I need to store. I know the boxes are archival safe but I worry about them getting wet. Is there any type of storage that is safe and water proof? (That doesn’t cost an arm and a leg? 🙂


    1. Hi Tina, Another good question here. The location of your Family Archive is an important decision. Ideally it should be somewhere that is not in danger of damp or excess humidity. If you are worried about potential flood damage, there is probably nothing very safe from that kind of natural disaster. Plastic bins or storage containers have their own risks: any moisture that gets inside is locked in with your treasures where they can cause mildew or mold.

      You don’t say how many books or boxes you need to preserve, or where you plan to situate your home archive, but I would suggest that you prioritize the items and purchase archival storage boxes for the most precious (to you) first. Place the books or papers inside the boxes and store in an interior closet in your living area. It is surprising how much each box can hold. If you are on a tight budget, watch for sales and add boxes a one or two at a time.

      The best insurance against losing everything to a natural disaster is probably donation to an archive and/or digitization. Back up copies of your scanned images to an online service like Dropbox or Mozy, and keep copies on external hard drives with relatives who live in other regions.

      Good luck, and thanks for visiting Moultrie Creek for the Keepsake Blog Book Tour.
      ~ Denise Levenick, The Family Curator


      1. That’s a new one to me, Kathleen. You don’t say where the freezer is located, but if it’s in a basement or outside, the freezer probably gets very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer… whatever is inside is subjected to the fluctuating temps just like a pet left in a car with the windows rolled up tight. Paper, photos, and albums all need a stable environment for the best preservation. Other considerations are the moisture content inside the freezer — any humidity at all could lead to mildew and mold — and the materials used in the freezer itself — old plastic, rubber, or metal shelving could be leaching poisons into the “storage chamber” and damage the albums.

        Maybe it’s time to “thaw out” those albums and encourage your aunt to consider other storage options.

        Good luck! and thanks for visiting us on the book tour!
        ~ Denise Levenick, The Family Curator


  2. When my grandmother died in 2009 I helped to clean out her home. I found several cookbooks, school books and novels. it was fun to see what she had kept and in some cases the notes she had written in them. I treasure these books and will preserve them for the generations that come after me.


  3. Lucky you, Cheri! It sounds like you found some real family keepsakes.

    For my own inherited books, I’ve found it helpful to write the previous owner’s name on the flyleaf, along with the date I brought them home and my own name. That way, I can keep them with my own books yet know that my children will be able to identify the inherited books someday.

    Thanks for stopping by Moultrie Creek for the Keepsake Blog Book Tour,
    ~ Denise Levenick, The Family Curator


  4. Great points! gee, I wonder why I had not thought of the books that I have from relatives as a part of my genealogy before? I certainly cherish the books that I am fortunate enough to have — but had not thought about the “stories” that they can add to my genealogy pages. Thanks Denise! loving the Keepsake Blog Book Tour!


  5. I have some older books that once belonged to family members. Do I write inside the book “This once belonged to…” or is that bad for the book? How else can I add a note to a book so the future will know who owned it?


    1. Colleen, I like the idea of identifying books with the names of the original owners. Whether you use ink or pencil is a matter of preference, but a soft #2 pencil is considered “archival” and would be a good choice. An alternative is to write the information on a piece of good rag paper: either a sheet of resume paper available in stationery stores or acid-free scrapbook paper. Place your notepaper inside the cover where it will be easily found.

      It might be helpful to include the birth and death date of the owner, and where they lived, or even a brief biographical note about them and your relationship. Remember to include your own name, where you live, and your birthdate.

      Sounds like a fun project. Thanks for joining us on the book tour. ~ Denise


  6. I have just finished transcribing a journal of a Great Aunt and have found a leather-bound book of sermon notes belonging to my GGrandfather. These are fascinating books, but now I realize that I need to store them properly. Thank you for the information.


    1. Hi Mary. Leather-bound books need a little extra care and protection from dust and environmental damage. Leather dressings (Neatsfoot oil, etc.) are unnecessary and can leave your book greasy. Instead, if the leather is in relatively good condition, store the book in a close-fitting book box or wrap gently in acid-free paper and lay flat on a shelf in a location that is free from extremes of heat, cold, and moisture.

      What a treasure you have found. Thanks for sharing! ~ Denise


  7. Robyn

    I appreciate the advice on how to care for heirloom books. I have inherited a number of very old diaries which are fairly fragile. I have one from my mother when she was a teenager during WWII which is really fascinating. I really need to get some archival boxes to put them in. I would hate for anything to happen to them.


    1. Robyn, you are wise to take steps now to preserve your old diaries. We may be seeing fewer and fewer written works as email and computers replace paper and pen. I’ve scanned my father-in-law’s WWII journal and made it into a reproduction book so that family members can read it. The project didn’t take very long to do, and my husband loves it!
      ~ Denise


      1. Robyn

        That sounds like a great idea. I would think that diaries and books end up being put away to preserve them, but then parts of the family may never get to see them. I guess that’s where being a creator as well as a curator comes in! Thanks!


  8. Pam H.

    I have a few old books that are missing a cover that was lost over the years. Do you have any advice on the best way to keep them? Also what about books where the covers are coming loose – should they be left alone or mended?


  9. Larry

    I have a few books from my mother, mostly diaries, and her small bible she used all the time. Well worn but lots of her writing within. Good ideas on what to do with these in the future.


  10. Hi Pam: If these are old family books that you want to save, I suggest purchasing book boxes and storing them flat in your home archive.

    Whether your books are old printed books that are mostly interesting because they were owned by your ancestors, or family diaries or journals, you can easily and economically store them in individual archival boxes or in a book box which gives additional support to fragile books. See suppliers like or for some options.

    Good luck. ~ Denise


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