U5.3 How to do it – Sort & organise

This is when you start to actually get to grips with the objects, and the things and places they are stored in.

An initial look

You might first investigate the items a little further to get a better feel of what there is, without actually doing any sorting. This can be an exciting time of discovery if you are not familiar with the material you’re dealing with. While you’re doing this, you should also be keeping an eye out for where the sorted material will eventually be stored, and be thinking about what containers and storage arrangements will work best. As you subsequently start to sort through the objects, you’ll be able to build upon this germ of a storage plan in your mind, and your storage ideas may actually affect some of your sorting decisions.

General Approach

The general approach to sorting & organising is summed up in the following extract from the two-pager on ‘Practical approaches to Order from Chaos”:

“A very useful technique for this is to do a quick sort through of everything, placing different sub-categories of things into different piles, and, at the same time, setting aside anything that needs throwing away or that you know definitely that you don’t want to keep. If the sub-categories aren’t obvious when you start, that’s no problem – they’ll soon start to emerge as you continue to sort through the material. After this initial sort it will be clearer what different types of things you have and what different types of storage you’ll need for different sub-categories. For example, if your boxes contain lots of documents and various artefacts, then one approach would be to put the documents into display folders and the objects into a wall display cabinet (IKEA has a good selection of these as well). Having done the initial sort through, you can then tackle each sub-category pile and do a more detailed sort, perhaps putting like with like or sorting things by date – or whatever’s appropriate. Things can be put into their storage locations/containers as you go through this process or after you’ve dealt with each sub-category pile. As you may have gathered already, this whole process is designed to gradually turn a disordered set of material into more coherent organised  groups of things. The further you get through this exercise, the less daunting the task becomes as Order starts to appear from Chaos. Right from the beginning of the quick sort, you will, little by little, have a better handle on what you have and what you need to do with it.”

Of course different types of objects may require special ways of sorting them: approaches for photos, and documents, are outlined below:

  • Photos: Identify a sort criteria (examples could include people, dates, or places), and go through all the material placing individual items into piles according to the criteria you have selected. Once you have done an initial sort, go through each subset checking the allocation is correct and getting the order correct within each subset. For prints, their physical appearance and whatever numbers or information has been recorded on them (front or back), can be used to identify which prints were produced at the same time. The same approach can be used to match up different strips of negatives that came from the same film. At this stage negatives can also be matched to the prints. If you are not familiar with the contents of the photos (if, say, they belong to parents or relatives, or are a job lot purchased at an auction), use whatever means are available to identify what they are of and when they were taken. If there is someone available who is familiar with them, talk with them about each photo. Note the contents and date on the back of each photo. Alternatively, note an interim serial number on the back each photo and record the information about it in a notebook or computer.
  • Documents: The obvious way to sort documents is by topic and then by date within each topic. However, other categorisations may present themselves. For example, payslips are substantially different from A4 letters; and theatre programmes are substantially different from bank statements. Such distinctions will become obvious as you start sorting. A more general approach is advised by Marie Kendo in her book ‘The life-changing magic of tidying’: she advocates saving documents in three categories – needs attention, should be saved (contractual documents), should be saved (others). Another angle that is worth considering is the uses to which the documents will be put: it is usually better to keep documents together that are going to be looked at together.

Excluding Items

A key part of the sorting and organising process is deciding what to eliminate completely from the collection i.e. what to dispose of or throw away. Indeed, sometimes the desire to get rid of a lot of stuff is the main reason people embark on an OFC project. Some people like Marie Kendo, and Liz Davenport advocate retaining a minimum amount of stuff. However, in the end, it is entirely up to the collection owner to decide what is kept and what is disposed of; though it will probably be useful to have some kind of rationale for doing so and to apply that rationale consistently. An example of such a rationale in the form of a list of reasons for keeping mementos is shown below:

  • So as not to forget
  • To be reminded of
  • For reference
  • Because it makes me feel a sense of pride
  • To pass on and be added to the family history
  • Because it’s too special to get rid of
  • Because it’s very unusual

For collections which are to be used not only by the owner, but also by family and friends, and perhaps by future generations, then different rationale may apply to different groups. For this level of detail it is advisable to create a table of some sort such as this Wish Table Template.


If you are planning on using an index for the collection, you may wish to set it up at this stage so that items can be entered into it when they are organised/digitised (‘digitised’ is included here because you may decide it is easier to digitise each item as you organise each one in turn). This will enable the items to be labelled with the unique number allocated by the index, as each one completes the sorting/organisation process.

Storage Planning

Another thing that should be done in the course of sorting and organising is to think some more about storage possibilities. As you deal with each item, you will start to get a feel for the size and type of containers you might need, which locations they might go into, and how the overall space might be utilised.


If you are enlisting someone else’s help to identify things in the sort process (as, for example, in the case of old family photos when you might ask advice from an older relative), it may be worthwhile making a recording of what the other person says about particular items. This will not only help downstream organisation / indexing; but it can also provide a valuable addition to the content of the collection. Recording a conversation can be easily done using a mobile phone for which many cheap or free recording apps are widely available.

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