Reader question: Scanning old airmail letters

Reader Sam wrote in to ask:

“I have been sorting things and found a suitcase full of old airmail letters from my parents. I want to scan and save them as they go back to the 1950s. What is the best way to scan, organize, and sometimes translate them into English? Any advice is welcome as I want to start the project soon. Is it best to scan all of them first or organise them one-by-one?”

Thank you for this great question Sam. How exciting to find your parents’ airmail letters! It is a wonderful portion of your family history that deserves to be preserved. Paper, especially airmail paper, ages quickly and can become brittle so you are wise to embark on this conservation project.

I would suggest that you first organize the letters and then scan them. This way you will know exactly what you have before beginning the scanning process. Because airmail paper is delicate, you should handle it with cotton gloves to prevent oil or dirt from your fingers damaging the letters.

It is probably easiest to sort the letters by date. Don’t be too fastidious on your first sort through. You can do a first run by separating the letters by year and then second sort by separating each year by month.

Store the letters in acid-free boxes, preferably unfolded. Be very careful in unfolding the letters and straightening the creases. You do not want to damage the paper. Do not use tape or glue to fix torn letters. If you are worried about a letter falling apart, place it in an acid-free sheet protector. By storing the letters in the acid-free boxes, you are keeping them protected while waiting to be scanned.

Scanning can be a rather long process and there are a few things to think about before you start.

Use a flatbed scanner. Scanners with auto-feed could very easily rip or tear your letters beyond repair.

You want the electronic version of the letter to retain the quality of the original document yet be of a reasonable file size. You may need to scan one letter at several different quality levels (colour or greyscale; 200, 400, 600 dpi; JPG, TIFF or PDF) to determine what the right balance is.

Once you’ve found the correct settings, scan one letter and note the file size. Multiply the file size by the number of letters you have and add about 20%. This will be the amount of space the files take on your hard drive. Should you need to, purchase an external hard drive on which to store your files.

Once you have determined the scanning parameters, decide on a file name format. Personally, I prefer a combination of date and name. For example, 19580214_Mom2Dad.pdf would be a letter sent on February 14th, 1958 from your mother to your father. By using the format YYYYMMDD_name, all of the files will stay in chronological order on your hard drive.

Now you can begin your scanning process. Remember to handle the letters carefully and wear the cotton gloves. Once scanned, you can return the letter to its acid-free storage box. You can leave an index card between two letters as a bookmark in case you don’t get finished scanning the entire box in one sitting. Do not use paperclips or staples as they can warp or rip the paper.

When you’ve completed scanning, send the electronic files for translation and keep your original documents preserved. You can name the electronic translation as YYYYMMDD_name_translated

If you’d like to keep a paper copy of the translation with the original letter, use an archival pen to write the translation on archival paper. Home printers do not have archival quality ink and the ink may do damage to your airmail letters if they are stored together.

If you’re having difficulty deciding how to scan your letters, take a few to your local archive or a nearby college/university’s archives department. They should be able to provide recommendations. Some community archives will, for a fee, take on a private conservation project. If the archives cannot help you, they may be able to recommend a private company who would be able to convert your paper documents to electronic ones. If you choose to take this path, we recommend that you organize and properly store your letters first.

All the best of luck with your family heritage project Sam!

Reader Question: Vintage bedspreads

Reader Delia recently sent us the following question:

What does one do with old, vintage sentimental bed spreads?

If the bedspreads have sentimental value but you no longer wish to keep them, consider asking family members or friends if they would like them. Send an email or letter describing the history of the bedspreads and include a few photos.

If the bedspreads are in good condition, a museum or local historical society may be interested, especially if the quilts handmade by local artisans or citizens of local importance. It always helps if you can provide historical context around the item being donated such as the life of the artisan(s) and the creation of the quilt itself. Occasionally theatre or reenactment groups may need quilts made during a specific time period. They may be willing to accept your donation.

Storing and displaying vintage quilts and bedspreads can be laborious. Antique fabric in general is difficult to handle because it is easily damaged. If you do not have the confidence or ability to manage a project like this, consult a local museum or historical society. They may be able to refer you to someone in your area who can take on your project.

The Great Lakes Quilt Centre provides quite a bit of information on how to clean, store and display antique quilts.

  • Washing can enlarge holes and bunch up batting. Wringing and pulling can break seams and damage fibres, especially when they are wet so do not put quilts in a washing machine or hang them on a clothesline. Dry cleaning should also be avoided.
  • A gentle vacuuming with low suction through a fiberglass screen is recommended to remove dust.
  • In storage, quilts should be folded as few times as possible. Every few months, refold them along different lines to avoid permanent creases. Stuffing the folds with acid-free paper or unbleached muslin can help avoid fold lines.
  • Wood, cardboard and plastic can emit chemicals that cause fabric to break down. Store quilts in unbleached, 100% cotton pillowcases or sheets to protect them from light and dust. Acid-free storage boxes are ideal for storing these types of textiles. Quilts can also be rolled onto acid-free tubes and covered with a cotton or muslin sheath to protect them from dust.
  • Store quilts in an area that is not subject to fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Ideal conditions are slightly cooler than room temperature and around 50% relative humidity. Avoid light (sunlight and artificial light) because it can damage fibres as well as cause fading.
  • To capture historic details of the quilt, iron a piece of muslin to a piece of freezer paper and use a typewriter or laser printer to print the historical information about the quilt. Peel the fabric label from the paper and hand stitch the fabric carefully onto the back of the quilt. You could also use indelible ink to write the information on the muslin by hand and stitch it onto the quilt. It can be helpful to create a muslin pocket to hold other important information such as photos of those who made the quilt or a family tree diagram showing the relationship between the quilt maker and the quilt owner.

Finally, if you still have a sentimental attachment to your quilts and bedspreads but do not feel that it is worth the efforts to properly store them, consider taking photos of the entire quilt and close-up shots of specific fabrics. Write the story of the quilt-maker, how the quilt was made and how it came into your possession. “Publish” the story on your own and share it with your family and friends. Donate the quilt itself to charity or to an animal shelter.

Ask Unclutterer: Donating vs. freecycling

Reader Happy Mum asked the following question in the comment section of my prior post, The power of 15-30 minutes per day:

What are considerations re: offering via freecycle vs. donating to charity shop?

For those unfamiliar with freecycle groups, they are local online communities whose members offer things to each other, for free.

Happy Mum, while you got many good responses from other readers, I thought I’d share a list of questions to ask yourself when making the donate-vs.-freecycle decision.

Which method is most meaningful to you?

I’m often donating on behalf of clients, some of whom are interested in the tax credit for making a donation. Some are happy to support the charity running the thrift store, too. But others prefer knowing their items are going to someone who can use the item, right now, and they enjoy seeing the thank you notes from freecyclers who get their items.

What is convenient?

I happen to have a good freecycle group in my neighborhood. (I’m biased, since I’m one of the group owners.) I also have a charity thrift shop very close by, with hours that work well for me. There’s also another charity that does curbside pickups of donations every month or two. But not everyone will have all these choices, and sometimes picking the easiest method is the best.

Is it worth a little extra effort to donate to a specific charity?

There’s a group in my area called Be a Dear and Donate a Brassiere, where the bras it collects go to women in homeless shelters. I keep a donation bag going and drop it off when I happen to be driving near a drop-off site. My neighborhood also has an annual charity book sale on Labor Day weekend and accepts donations throughout August, so if it’s getting close to August I might set aside books to be donated there. Another example: If you have a functional but unused activity tracker, you might like to send it off to RecycleHealth.

What items does the charity shop take?

Mine will not take toys, electrical items, large furniture, etc. But it’s a great place to donate clothing and kitchen items such as glassware and serving pieces.

What items go well on freecycle?

This will be location-dependent, but I know that craft items, non-fiction books, and pet supplies are some of the things that go quickly on my group. Women’s clothes can be challenging to freecycle due to fit issues, so I almost always donate those.

Freecycle can be useful for getting rid of things most thrift stores won’t take. For example, my own group has recently found new homes for moving boxes, amaryllis bulbs, cans of coconut water, a frozen turkey, and a console (missing the back panel) with a non-functioning tube radio and a record player. Freecycle is also good for getting rid of bulky items that are hard to move (and often not accepted at charity stores), such as file cabinets and exercise equipment.

To find your local freecycle group, simply do an online search for the word freecyle and the name of your city. Freecycle.org lists many groups, but some excellent freecycle groups chose not to be part of this network. For local giveaway alternatives, you can also look into Nextdoor or the free section of craigslist. In the U.K., you might look at Freegle. And in some neighborhoods, just putting something at the curb with a “free” sign is a good way to give things away.

Ask Unclutterer: An art student’s dilemma

Unclutterer reader Jaclyn recently asked for suggestions regarding her particular artwork situation:

I have a bachelors degree in fine arts. Even though I graduated what seems like a lifetime ago, many of my old drawings, paintings, and prints lurk in a basement closet. I recently framed a pair of lithographs to hang over the couch, and they are a delight. However, I live in a relatively small house and have no desire to upsize any time soon, so even if everything felt worthy of public display, I wouldn’t have space for it. Some of my paintings are so big, I’m not sure I know anyone with a large enough home to accommodate them.

I’m interested to know what other former art students have done, and what suggestions you may have.

Jaclyn, I found an informal online poll on DeviantArt, a social network for artists and art enthusiasts, that might pertain to your dilemma. The majority of the responders kept all their old drawings and sketchbooks for various reasons: to see how their work has improved and evolved, to provide inspiration for new work, etc. For some, all this artwork serves the same function that diaries or journals might provide for other people — it’s an extremely sentimental record of their life.

The right answer for you would depend in part on your answers to the following questions, noting that you might have different answers for different pieces of art:

Why do you want to keep them?

If you’d like to display at least some of them, perhaps you can have more of them framed and rotate them out. For smaller pieces you could consider the dynamicFRAMES mentioned here on Unclutterer a number of years ago.

If you want them for the reasons those other artists listed, you could look for good storage tools that allow you to easily look through those items whenever you wish. For large drawings, you might want a flat file, a mobile trolley, or something similar. For canvases and framed artwork, you could use a rack that keeps those pieces upright. I’ve listed a number of other options for storing large pieces on the Core77 website.

If you want the personal history but feel less attached to the pieces, you might be okay with scanning or photographing your artwork and then letting the originals go. Scanning or photographing your favorite pieces might make sense even if you keep the originals, as this helps ensure you don’t lose the entire record of your work in case of fire, theft, water damage to your home, etc.

If you have smaller pieces you enjoy looking at but wouldn’t necessarily want to display, you could put some of these on the inside of cabinet or closet doors. I’ve done that with various pieces of art (not my own), and it makes me smile every time I open one of the doors.

How do you feel about giving away some pieces?

I don’t know if these are anything you could sell (or would want to sell), but someone I know who was in a similar situation sold some of her work on Etsy.

There are also a variety of ways you might give them away, beyond just offering them to those who’ve expressed an interest in specific pieces in the past. For example, if you’re on Facebook, you could post photos and ask your friends if they’d like any of them.

And if you’re okay with strangers owning some of them, you could try offering them on your local freecycle or Nextdoor group. I’ve successfully freecycled artwork in the past, although not specifically student drawings, and the prior owners have been happy to know the art is going to be displayed and enjoyed rather than tucked away in storage and never seen.

A note for those who are not art students: Similar questions can help when dealing with a whole range of things. There are many times when it makes sense to ask yourself:

  • Why am I keeping this item: for practical use, for decoration, for sentimental reasons, or something else?
  • What’s the best way to store it, to ensure it serves that purpose?
  • Would keeping a scan or a photo work as well as keeping the physical object?
  • What ways of selling, donating, or giving away something I decide not to keep would make me happy?

Saving and sharing your photos, after they’re scanned

Unclutterer reader Mary wrote to us about her challenges regarding scanning and saving her family photos. Last week, I wrote about deciding which photos to scan and choosing a photo scanner or a scanning service.

Once the scanning has been done, there are a few more decisions to make.

Decide how to privately store the scanned photos

You’re not going to want to store those photos in a single place, because they are too valuable for that. So, if you use a scanning service and the photos are returned on a DVD, don’t keep them only on that DVD.

If you have a limited number of photos, and you have a good computer backup strategy in place, you may want to simply load the scanned photos onto your computer and rely on those backups.

But if you have a large photo collection, you may want to look at cloud storage options. Some new options are Yahoo’s Flickr 4.0 and Google Photos, both of which were announced in May. On The Verge, Casey Newton wrote a summary of photo storage options in April, along with updates for Flickr 4.0 and Google Photos. Both of these services provide tools to automatically upload photos and a huge amount of storage space. They also have tools to automatically detect what’s in the photos and then organize the photos for you.

Decide how to share the photos

Both Flickr and Google Photos have photo-sharing options, so you can easily take photos from your private storage and share them with others in a variety of ways, including exporting them to social networks such as Facebook or sharing via emailed links. Of course, you can share photos using social networks and email without using either of those tools, too.

You may also decide you want to print out some of the best photos to a photo book, as Dave suggested. You could also put selected photos on a digital photo frame.

Decide what to with the originals

Archivists will tell you to always save the originals, whether that means negatives, prints, or slides. The National Archives website states: “Do not throw away your original film and prints after you digitize them. Digitized images are not considered a replacement for originals. Data (i.e. your images) can be lost when the storage media deteriorates; and software and hardware technology become rapidly obsolete, in some cases making retrieval of the images difficult if not impossible.” Unclutterer reader Michael made a similar point in the comments to last week’s post.

However, this is a personal risk management decision, and you may decide to ignore that professional advice. Remember that photos need to be stored properly if they are going to be preserved — you can’t just throw them in the attic. If you do decide to keep them, you’ll want to use storage materials that pass the Photographic Activity Test (PAT). There are boxes designed specifically for negatives, as well as boxes for prints.

In the past, Erin has suggested offering the originals to friends and relatives as a way to get them out of your home without destroying them.

Scanning the family photo collection

Unclutterer reader Mary recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

I have boxes and boxes of family photos (some from the 1920s) I’d like to scan in and put on CDs (is that a good way to save them?) and also put on a website where family members can access them and print out what they’d like to keep. How do I even get started? How do I organize the project? I’m overwhelmed just thinking about it. Do I need a special scanner? What’s the fastest and best quality scanner? Can I save the photos on the cloud? Is there a way to record information I have about the photo with the scan? A lot was written on the back of photos — can both sides be scanned at once? Should I get rid of duplicates or bad photos to start off? It’s hard to throw away photos. Any suggestions, including new tech solutions, would be appreciated.

Mary, dealing with photos can be overwhelming. But it’s a very rewarding project, and you can break it down into smaller pieces so it’s not so intimidating. The following are some ideas about how to approach this project, looking at each decision you’ll need to make.

Decide which photos to keep

You won’t want to spend time or money scanning photos you don’t even think are worth keeping, so unclutter first. Photos to consider tossing are:

  • Duplicates. If you have family or friends who would like the duplicate prints, you can certainly pass them along. But why keep duplicates yourself?
  • Bad photos. This would include photos that are out of focus, photos that cut off someone’s head, and photos that are unflattering. You may want to keep some of these if there’s something else especially notable about the photo, but in most cases these are good riddance.
  • Photos of scenery. This is a personal choice, but many times the photos people take of the places they visit just aren’t that remarkable. My parents went to Hawaii years ago and took many photos, but I can find much better photos of those places online. The photos I cherish are the ones of my parents in Hawaii, not the ones of Hawaii itself.

You might think of this as going on a treasure hunt, finding the real gems among the many photos. If you can’t bring yourself to throw away any photos right now, you might simply create two categories of photos: the best ones (which you’ll scan) and all the rest.

Decide whether to scan them yourself or use a scanning service

Many people have happily used scanning services. Erin used ScanMyPhotos, as did a recent commenter, L. Charles. The company takes your prints, negatives and/or slides, does the scanning, and ships you back a DVD with those scans (along with your originals). If mailing off your photos makes you nervous, you may be able to find a company that does the work locally. Using a scanning service will save you a lot of time. I doubt the service will scan the backs of the photos, though.

If you prefer to scan your photos yourself, you’re going to be best off with a scanner that doesn’t require you to put the photos through a paper feed. That’s because every once in a while a photo might get damaged going through that feed. However, if you already have something like a ScanSnap iX500 you may be willing to take that risk. I know people who have used similar scanners with no problems.

If you already have a flatbed scanner as part of an all-in-one printer, that might be all you need. But what if you don’t have an appropriate scanner and want to buy one? I’m not an expert regarding scanners so I can’t tell you which scanner is best, but I can point you to some alternatives.

There are some scanning devices designed specifically for photos, which can sound appealing. But Consumer Reports wasn’t thrilled with the pass-through photo scanners it tested, even though it acknowledged that they have some distinct advantages.

Another option is a flatbed scanner, especially one that’s designed to handle photos, negatives, and slides. I know someone who’s happy with the Canon CanoScan 9000F MKII Color Image Scanner, but there are many other scanners to consider. If any readers have experience with specific photo scanners, I hope they’ll add their comments.

If you’re scanning photos yourself, you can scan the backs of the photos to capture the writing. (If you have a duplex scanner, you can probably scan both at once.) You could even use a scanning service for the photos, and then go through and scan the backs of the photos yourself once the prints are returned to you.

Next week, I’ll address the issue of storing the photos once you have them scanned.

Organizing in a small apartment that lacks storage space

Unclutterer reader Tami recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

I just moved from a 2-bedroom, 1200-square-foot apartment into a 1-bedroom, 784-square-foot apartment. I LOVE my new place but to say “lack of storage” is an UNDERSTATEMENT. I have adequate space in the kitchen but I literally have NO linen closet, nowhere medicine cabinet, place for sheets, towels, just STUFF. I have a hall closet (which is where I have put my broom, mop, etc.) and placed a basket up top for sheets to try and organize, and a closet for the washer and dryer (yet another basket system for cleaning supplies, meds, and odds and ends) but I KNOW there has to be a better way!!!

Tami, this is a problem you share with many others. On Unclutterer, we’ve written before about strategies that often work in small spaces, but the following are some more suggestions that may work for you.

Re-evaluate what you own

When you’re in a small space, everything you own really has to earn a place in your home due to how functional it is or how much you care for it, aesthetically or sentimentally. There may be no room for anything that’s just “okay” or “perfectly good” if it isn’t something you need or love.

For example, how many bed linens do you really need? Many people get by with two sets: one on the bed and one spare. (And the same principle might apply to other linens, such as towels.) If you have a number of specialized cleaning products, could you move toward multipurpose cleaners?

Look beyond the (non-existent) closet shelves

You’ll want to be sure you’re storing things safely, where small children and pets can’t get to them (if that’s a concern in your living situation). And remember that medications are often best stored away from the humidity of a bathroom. The following are some alternatives to consider:

Use the backs of doors

Shoe pockets hung over a door can be used to store all sorts of things. Parent Hacks has a great list of ways this versatile product can be used. Elfa also has some door racks that might be worth a look.

You can use the backs of cabinet doors, too, adding baskets or trays.

Use the walls

Your lease may limit your options here, since it may preclude you from adding anything that would put a hole in the wall.

But even then, you have some options. For example, Perch attaches to many walls with damage-free Command Strips. If your lease doesn’t limit you, you can look into shelves and pegboards.

Consider different ways to store linens and towels

I’m assuming that you don’t have space to add a storage piece such as a cabinet, trunk, cart, or shelving unit. If you do have space, that’s one alternative, but certainly not the only one.

Some people store an extra set of linens between the mattress and the box springs. Some linens, such as tablecloths, can be stored on hangers. Placemats can be hung from hangers with clips.

Towels are a different challenge. Perhaps you could store them in an empty suitcase. (An under-the-bed storage box could work, too.) You could also add a towel rack that mounts in the door hinges to store extra towels.

Organizing for aging in place

Unclutterer reader Liz recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenges:

My organizing or decluttering issue is the garden — I need to make the gardens a bit easier to manage as I get older. Some of it will be resolved by switching to services to do the work. In other places, it will be to simplify what I do.

For my home, it is also about decluttering, organizing and getting ready for “aging in place.” I want my home to be easier to handle if I get a medical problem. For example, if I am going to update my kitchen or bathroom, am I making the right changes for an elderly person?

Of course, in some cases, this advanced-age thinking does make it easier to get rid of things.

Liz, it sounds like you’ve already got a good plan in place for the garden. But I do have the following organizing-related suggestions regarding aging in place. Many of these ideas could benefit a lot of people, not just the elderly, but they become increasingly important as someone gets older.

Unclutter first

From your comments, Liz, I think you are well aware of this. But it bears repeating because this step so often gets ignored. I recently read something about aging-in-place solutions that jumped right to installing closet organizers. Yes, that can be important — but the first step is uncluttering what’s in those closets. Once that’s done, you’re ready to consider those closet organizers.

Look for accessible storage options

To make things easy to reach, you’ll want storage that’s not too high and not too close to the floor. If you’re able to remodel your kitchen, the AARP suggests that you:

  • Hang your upper cabinets 12 to 15 inches above the countertop instead of the normal 18 inches
  • Place your lower cabinets six inches above the floor.

You could also install pull-down shelving into existing upper cabinets. For lower cabinets, adding rollout shelves (or replacing the cabinets with drawers) can make things much more accessible. Anne-Marie Brunet on Next Avenue provides numerous examples of how lower cabinets can be replaced or redesigned.

When it comes to the clothes closets, storage solutions that get the shoes off the floor are generally a good idea since bending becomes harder with age. Pull-down closet rods can make clothes easier to reach in closets where the rods are fairly high.

And then there’s the bathroom. I never thought about adding a shower niche at shower-seat level until I saw that feature in one design.

Some of the fanciest products I’ve seen are the Closet Carousel and the various offerings from StorageMotion: AutoPantry, ShoeSelect, etc. Most people will be satisfied with far simpler solutions, but it’s still interesting to see the innovative storage products that are available to keep things within easy reach.

Improve the closet lighting

The Livable Design National Demonstration Home includes good lighting in both bedroom closets. In the master bedroom walk-in closet, a solar tube is used to add lighting. In the second bedroom, the website notes: “Typically, standard linear closets do not include lighting. This bedroom closet has LED lighting on a switch so it’s easier to pick an outfit in the morning.”

Consult an expert

If you’re making a significant investment in remodeling your home, you may want to work with someone who has special expertise in universal design and/or aging in place. For example, the National Association of the Remodeling Industry has a Universal Design Certified Professional Program.

Organizing in a shared living space

Unclutterer reader Mary recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

My husband insists on keeping various things by his recliner, on a small table, in the living room. Things like scissors, nail file, pens and pencils, two pair of glasses, toothpicks, nail clippers, bottle of water, Kleenex, TV remotes, files he is working on (self-employed), electric razor, vitamins, crossword puzzles, scratch paper, his laptop, current book he is reading … need I say more?

Actually it is an old TV stand that he has repurposed and it has a shelf where he slides the laptop into. And there is some organization to all of the things mentioned. Some aspects of the clutter can be removed easily when company comes over as they are in plastic shoe boxes. Do other women have this problem and what do they do?!

Mary, the living room is a shared space, so it’s important to look for solutions that work for both of you. The following suggestions might help you find some common ground.

Negotiate which items get kept by the recliner

It’s often wise to store things where they are used. So keeping some things by the recliner can be a good strategy for someone who regularly uses that chair to read, work on the computer, do crossword puzzles, watch TV, etc. But I’d suggest you negotiate some limits, based on what activities are appropriately done from the recliner.

Unless your husband has a disability and getting out of the chair is a significant issue, I would think that personal grooming is better done elsewhere. So maybe a book, some scratch paper, a few pens, eyeglasses, and such stay by the recliner, while things like the electric razor do not.

Get better storage tools

Once you’ve agreed which things are reasonably kept beside the recliner, consider whether it makes sense to invest in better ways to keep those items close at hand.

You might want to replace the old TV stand with an end table that provides storage, such as this one from Levenger.

You could also add a storage ottoman. There are many choices, at various price points — the one above comes from Crate and Barrel.

Another approach would be to make that entire furniture piece mobile, so it can be rolled away when company comes. For example, something like the above utility cart from Ikea could work.

It might also help to add a storage product that goes over the arm of the recliner, such as the above remote control pocket from Ikea.

Agree on a maintenance plan

It’s easy for a well-used place in your home to become cluttered, so work with your husband to develop a plan to keep things under control. For example, you might agree that at the end of the day, your husband will:

  • Dispose of all trash.
  • Place any book that’s been finished either on the bookshelf (if it’s a keeper) or in whatever place you’ve defined for things being given away or sold.
  • If anything has accumulated near the recliner besides the things you have agreed belong there, put those items away in their normal storage places.
  • Put everything that does belong near the recliner in its designated storage area: in the drawers or containers on the side table, etc.

An alternative: Follow Marie Kondo’s advice

Marie Kondo, who wrote The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, would say that all your husband’s things should be kept in one place, not scattered around where they are used. If you want to follow her advice, I would suggest (as she would) that you begin by making sure your own things are in order and showing by example how well her approach can work.

A place for everything — but where?

Unclutterer reader Ebbe recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

“A place for everything and everything in its place.”

Our problem is the first part of this rule: Finding out where or what that place should be for any given item is an almost insurmountable task. And that is the reason why we still have a lot of clutter in our home.

Ebbe, the following suggestions might help you find good places for your items.

General principles

Usually, you’ll want to keep things you use frequently close at hand, near where you’ll be using them. And you would normally want to keep things that are used together in the same general area. So, if you use a coffee maker every day, it might make sense to leave it out on your kitchen counter and store your coffee mugs in a nearby cabinet.

Things you use less frequently can be stored further away from where they’ll be used. You wouldn’t want to dedicate prime storage space (any space within easy reach) to things you only use once or twice a year. Seldom-used items can go in places such as the kitchen cabinets over the refrigerator or in an attic, basement, or garage if your home has those spaces. You may want to keep a list of what you’ve stored where, since it could be easy to forget.

You’ll normally want to keep like with like. For example, if you have a number of vases, you would probably keep them in one spot. But sometimes, based on the “keep it close to where you’ll use it” principle, it makes sense to store things in two or more places. For example, I keep flashlights in a number of places, so if I lose power at night I’ll always have one close at hand.

When feasible, try not to fight your family’s ingrained habits. For example, if mail always gets dropped on a kitchen table or countertop, maybe that’s the best place for an “inbox” type of container.

When creating homes for frequently used things, make those homes as easy to use as possible. That might mean getting a closet double-hang rod to keep clothes handy for younger children, using hooks rather than hangers in some situations, using a laundry hamper without a lid to make it easier to put dirty clothes away, etc.

Be sure that the storage places you’ve selected are safe. You’ll want to ensure that small children and pets can’t get to things like medicines, laundry detergent pods, toxic pest control products, or sharp things such as knives. It’s usually best to avoid storing heavy things and fragile glass items up high, so you don’t need to worry about hurting yourself or breaking something when you go to retrieve it.

Be careful not to store items that are sensitive to heat, cold, humidity, or bugs in places that face those hazards. That means being careful about what gets stored in places such as attics, basements, and garages.

And finally, don’t expect to get everything right the first time. Try giving things assigned places, and then adjust as you learn more about what works well and what doesn’t.

Dealing with limited storage space

I know people who live in old houses with very small closets. If you have a similar situation, you may need to get creative about adding storage. That could involve buying furniture such as a wardrobe, but it could also involve less expensive (and less space-consuming) ideas such as hanging some shoe pockets on some doors — they can store much more than just shoes. There are many products that make use of wall and back-of-the-door space, as well as under-the-bed space.

And the answer might be that some things get stored at the store. Buying large quantities and huge sizes of things may not work if your home has limited space.

If there are things you use infrequently, maybe the answer involves getting rid of those things and borrowing or renting them when the need arises. This could be something to consider for rarely used tools, for example.

And if you’ve been as creative as you can be in finding storage places, and you still can’t find a place for everything, you’ll need to decide whether you want to invest in renting a storage unit (which is a reasonable choice in some very specific situations) or whether it makes more sense to just own less.

Accepting imperfect solutions

Sometimes there’s no great place to store something. I have that problem with my bulky Bosu balance trainer. I use it in my living room, which is the only room I have with sufficient space for exercising. But there’s no place to hide the Bosu away in the living room and it didn’t look good just sitting out, so I recently moved it to the guest bedroom (which isn’t far away). Now I just bring it out when I want to use it. There was no ideal place for it, so I settled for an adequate one.

Digital recipe organizing solutions to love

Elaine recently asked Unclutterer:

I have a specific need related to paper management — recipes. I’d like to take all the scraps of paper with notes about recipes I have in books, torn out newspaper clippings, torn out magazine clippings, recipes from the inside of product packaging (like recipes on the inside of the cream cheese box) and get them organized digitally. It needs to be searchable, which is why I haven’t just done some sort of scanning thing … what thoughts/recommendations do people have?

Elaine, I know this problem well. When I was a kid, my mother used what I called the “fly paper method” of organizing her recipe clippings. If you had opened any cabinet door in our kitchen, you would have found soup can labels, magazine pages, newspaper clippings, hand-written index cards, and more, all taped to the inside of the doors. While convenient in that they were all in the kitchen, searchability was a nightmare. There must be a better way. And, in fact, there are several. The following are some digital options to consider.

Paprika. I’m tempted to start and end my list right here, because the Paprika app is such a nice solution. First of all, it’s available on many platforms: Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire, and Nook Color. (Prices vary based on the platform, but it’s just a one-time cost of $4.99 for iPhone to give you an idea of what to expect.) Also, the features are fantastic. It syncs via the cloud, so all of your devices can hold the same information. Entering a recipe manually is easy, and you can download recipes you find online with a single tap. It will generate a shopping list for you, and even sort it by aisle in your grocery store. Finally, the interactive recipe feature allows you to swipe an ingredient to cross it off when you’re done with it, and tap to highlight the current step you’re working on in the recipe. I’m sure you’ll love it (I do). But, for the sake of options, let’s explore a few more.

Plan to Eat. Plan to Eat is an app that focuses on what you’ll cook when, but also stores your recipes and shares them across devices. To get started, you enter your recipes manually. Then, you plan you week’s meals by dragging and dropping the dishes you’d like to make onto a calendar. Plan to Eat then makes a shopping list for you that appears on your phone. Plan to Eat is free for 30 days, then $4.95 per month or $39 per year.

Basil for iPad. I’m not sure what device(s) you’re using, which is why I shared two platform-agnostic solutions so far. However, I’ll go out on a limb and say, if you have an iPad, consider Basil. Not only does it store your recipes beautifully and offer a very capable search function, Basil understands that you might not use it forever. Therefore, it lets you export all of your recipes as plain text. They’re your recipes, after all. It also features timers and easy unit conversion.

Evernote. Not meant specifically for recipes, Evernote is a good candidate because it excels at two things: storage and search. Scan a recipe, add the appropriate tags, and, presto, you’ve got an excellent digital recipe book.

Coping with overwhelming inherited possessions

In April, we asked our readers to share their biggest uncluttering and organizing hurdles and they responded. Now, we’re going through the comments to see what we can do to help.

Unclutterer reader nana2much asked:

I have also “inherited” my parents’ possessions. I have 5 siblings who have already taken what they want. They have helped some but they all live quite far away.

My mother lived with us so everything ended up here. It isn’t just sentimental objects, but very old photos, some books with family history, many old Bibles, (my father was a pastor) some with family obituaries pasted in or notes written in them. So many letters and “artifacts” saved since my parents’ childhoods…some 90 years old. Many “sermons” my father wrote for individual funerals and memorial services. It is overwhelming. Glass figurines, vases etc. etc.

My father died 5 years ago and my mom 2 years ago. I have given away, donated, sold and even threw out so much but I am finding it difficult to figure out what to do with what remains.

I feel like I’m supposed to be the caretaker of all this stuff. Very torn about it all. Any suggestions on how to continue this process?

Nana2much, I’m sorry to read about your loss. Dealing with a parent’s death is never easy, and you’ve had to cope with two in a short time.

But let me reassure you: You do not need to be the caretaker of all this stuff. It is not disrespectful to the memory of your parents to keep the things that you really want and dispose of the rest.

It sounds like you are ready to deal with the remaining stuff. But if you find some things you can’t quite cope with right now, that’s fine; set them aside and just work with the things that don’t make you upset.

How do you continue? Here are some suggestions:

Decide which things are the keepers

Of the many things you have from your parents, which ones do you really want to hold onto? These are very personal choices. Don’t worry about what you “should” want to keep, but focus on which items really speak to you. Ideally, most of these will be things that are either practical or decorative — things you’ll use, not things you’ll stash in the back of a closet.

How much family history do you want to retain? Again, this is a very personal decision, and only you will know what feels right. You didn’t mention whether or not you have children. If you do, saving items related to family history may be more important than if you don’t. But in any case, saving a sample of things like memorial sermons may work better for you than saving all of them.

When going through photos, you can make some easy choices to eliminate photos that are poor quality (out of focus, heads cut off, etc.) and photos of scenery, flowers, and such. Since going through photos can be very time-consuming, you may want to leave any detailed review to the end of this project, so you don’t get bogged down.

Save photos instead of things

You can take photos of anything you don’t really want to keep but which still has a sentimental pull. For example, that might include taking photos of selected pages of some of the bibles, if you don’t want to keep them all.

Consider who might appreciate receiving your parents’ things

Since you’ve already consulted with your siblings, consider who else might want some of these things. Would members of your father’s congregation want some things to remember him by? Would the church want anything? A local historical society? Any of your parents’ friends? A more distant relative who is into genealogy?

But please don’t feel like you need to put tremendous effort into this. Do as much as feels right to you. Some people really enjoy playing matchmaker between things and people, and can do it without getting bogged down. Others won’t want to bother. It’s yet another personal choice.

Decide whether to sell or donate the rest

Things like vases and figurines can be donated or sold. If they are donated to Goodwill, a charity thrift store, or some other worthwhile nonprofit, they are helping others. That might be something that would have pleased your parents.

Selling might be a bit traumatic — are you willing to listen to people barter over the price of your parents’ things? If not, go the donation route or find someone who can do the selling for you, for a commission. If your finances allow, you might like to donate some of the proceeds to a nonprofit in memory of your parents.