Old letters
  • First things …
  • Old letters
First things …

First things first!

Always wear white cotton gloves to handle old documents.

Never put liquids or food near archival materials.

    1. Carefully remove staples and paperclips; they will always corrode, which produces acid, which attacks paper. If sheets must be clipped, use archival grade plastic or stainless steel fasteners.
    2. Old paper can become very brittle, so handle as little as possible. Make photocopies on acid-free paper of really brittle documents (especially good for newspaper clippings, which are the worst). The intense light of a photocopier or scanner is hard on paper documents, so copy only once, then make all other copies from the initial copy.
    3. Group like documents together based on source, subject, or whatever makes the most sense to you, then order them alphabetically, chronologically, or in other logical sequence.
    4. List the items. The level of detail is up to you – categories might be something like “Jane Doe’s letters, 1840-1866.” Within categories, note each letter or document by a date and a unique number. Think of a) what will help you find something, and b) what your heirs and descendants may find helpful. To list documents, try working with another person, with one person wearing white cotton gloves and describing the document while the other records the description. Often quicker than a single person putting gloves on to examine the document, then taking gloves off to enter information.
    5. DO NOT LAMINATE OR WRITE IN INK – don’t do anything to a document that cannot be undone. Add keywords in pencil if that will be helpful later: Jane Doe’s letters (Minnesota, Civil War).
  1. Store in acid-free folders and boxes from reputable suppliers. For fragile or especially precious items, use acid-free interleaving tissue to separate them within a folder.
  2. Use archival quality clear plastic sleeves for documents, postcards, photos, etc, if you think they are likely to be handled regularly. If not, sleeves may not be worth the expense. Over time, photos may stick to plastic sleeves and become impossible to extricate, so archival quality is important.
  3. Materials to avoid in contact with paper: most metals; PVC plastic; wood; any paper, boxboard, or cardboard unless definitely acid-free. Polyethylene and polypropylene are generally safe but it’s always best to use archival materials from reputable suppliers.
  4. Two reputable U.S. suppliers: University Products and Gaylord. Acid-free storage items from a local office supply store may be cheaper without being suitable for long term archival.The U.S. National Archives has a nice section on preserving family histories and a lot of information on family genealogies.

Don’t attempt deacidification treatment, cleaning, or repair without training. Remember, those stains on your grandmother’s letter are part of its history.

Thanks to Theron Brayman for this practical information.

Old letters

What to do with old letters and family documents?

Photos. Letters. Ledgers. Theater programs. Valentines. Diaries.

Suppose you have 100s of old letters and papers saved by family members? What can you do?

When you possess old letters, photographs, or other ephemera, you may feel a responsibility to make them available to family or beyond.

How to decide what to share?

As a rule of thumb, old documents are more interesting when tied to historical context, such as a letter written by a soldier from the trenches of WWI. A business transaction executed during high inflation could be fascinating as well.

If you sense that what is written is unique to its time, the document may have value to others.

However, age alone doesn’t give a document value. A 1915 vacation postcard which describes only beautiful weather or scenery won’t have much value despite its age, unless the author / recipient are famous.

Thanks to Jakob Spiess, Basel law student, for the historical analysis.

The good news is that you don’t have to save everything.  Focus on what is interesting. You may want to scan a few facsimiles to share with family or you may decide material is worth publishing more extensively as a blog, website, article, or book.

Barbara Sträuli of Zurich dealt pragmatically with 130 years of family correspondence:

I sorted all the family letters (written by different family members to each other) by year and put them into a folder. We now have 20 acid-free cardboard boxes of letters sorted from 1860 to 1990.

My grandmother wrote the best letters. As I cannot deal with all of this written inheritance, I plan to scan my grandmother’s letters, written over 60 years, take out the best, and make a booklet for the family.

The 20 boxes will go to the state archives, as they have family archives and are willing to take it.One does not have to keep everything written by family. I read hundreds of boring postcards which I threw away or sold because the pictures were good.

The life preserver Barbara throws us here:

«One does not have to keep everything»!

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