Posted by Denise May Levenick on March 1, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

“Dearest Anne,” the letter began. “Hi honey! I’ll start this one off with ‘I miss you more than I could ever imagine.’”

A small bundle of handwritten letters exchanged between a homesick young soldier and his sweetheart are a family treasure to be cherished. Letters give a personal glimpse into the everyday lives of our ancestors: what they ate and who they ate with, how they faced loneliness or uncertainty, where they slept at night.

Big stack of mails pile of papers or heap of letters above a letter saying "I love you forever ...".

For most of us who only knew grandparents as much-older adults, discovering the hope and exuberance of youth in a stack of old letters can be an eye-opening experience that makes them more human and less like long-gone ancestors. You might even find a home-grown cure for rheumatism written on the envelope, like I wrote about in Old Letters: What Do You Do With Found Ephemera?

As you research your ancestors in their letters, you may find family news of babies, marriages and deaths as well as new insight to the person you called “Grandma.”

If you inherited a bundle of old letters, you may be anxious to scan the pages and extract information for your family tree. But before you get started, take time to read these tips from professional archivists and historians:

  1. Do no harm.

Wash your hands thoroughly to avoid transferring oils from your fingers to fragile old paper. Work on a clean, flat surface.

  1. Maintain original order.

Keep items in their original groups, and remove old rubber bands or ribbons. Pages should be stored flat with envelopes. Carefully remove pages from envelopes and discard any paper clips, staples, or pins that can rust and stain pages.

  1. Store letters flat.

Handle paper carefully; avoid forcing brittle pages flat. Sometimes, exposure to natural humidity in the room will help the paper relax enough that you can open the pages for scanning and placing in acid-free folders.

Place old letters in acid-free archival file folders placed upright in a metal filing cabinet or archival document box inside your home.

  1. Preserve and archive.

The best location for preserving family documents is inside your home where the temperature and humidity are relatively consistent. Avoid light, moisture, heat, smoke, and dust. Archival boxes and metal file cabinets provide good protection from the elements. Avoid open shelves where dust and light can damage old paper.

  1. Digitize and transcribe.

Create digital copies of your letters by scanning on a flatbed scanner at 300 dpi in full color. This setting allows for adjustments to enhance faded handwriting and print full-size copies. If pages are especially brittle or fragile, consider digitizing with your smartphone using a scanner app and tripod. Transcribe the letters using digital images to minimize handling.

Once preserved, the words on those pages will give future generations that personal glimpse into your ancestors’ everyday lives.

Denise May Levenick

Denise May Levenick is the author of How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia & Genealogy Records, and the new book How to Archive Family Photos (coming Spring 2015). For more ideas on preserving your family treasures, visit Denise's website

13 Comments

  1. Russell

    One thing that should be specifically advised against is trying to preserve any important or valuable document by laminating it. It looks a good method at first, but in the long term the document will be destroyed as the lamination deteriorates – I read recently that a number of US archives are fighting a big battle against the loss of nationally important items where this technique had been employed by very well intentioned archivist in the past.

  2. Sandy Hansen

    Scanners come with apps. However, try to save the files to a universally used format, such as .pdf. My cousin unearthed several hundred letters collected by our grandmother that had been stored in her parents’ barn. She scanned them to the proprietary format of the software that came with her scanner. I found a program to “translate” them to .pdfs and have been working sporadically over the past 10 years to transcribe them. As I get “distracted” to other priorities, I hope this will some day be completed.

  3. Janice

    Hi – for Jane and anyone else interested. There is an app for your cell phone called “Photomyne.” Cheap – I paid 99 cents with special offer around Christmas but I don’t think it would cost any more than $5. And thanks, Denise, for the tips. I have the letters my father wrote to my mother in WW II and have been wondering how to preserve.

  4. greenhill39

    JoyFlip is a new free iPhone scanning app I have been impressed with. It makes its money by offering to sell you digital photo albums of your pictures. It has a flip side feature that allows you to scan the backside of the photos as well. The camera automatically snaps pictures each time you focus on a new picture.

  5. Russell

    A C – archival quality sheet protectors bought from a specialist supplier should be fine. But steer clear of anything less. Slightly off topic, but I had some photocopied items in a plastic folder and the toner migrated from the paper to the folder. I only realised AFTER I got toner all over my hands…

  6. Denise

    I have all the letters that my Uncles wrote my Mother during World War II. I’m so thankful that my mother saved them. I love reading them and they were always signed Your loving Brother then his signature. What a treasure! Thanks Denise (love that name) for all your Archive tips.

  7. Irene Serna

    I have pdf documents I want to upload to the gallery for a person in my tree. I tried, but failed. The message coming back was that only files with a certain extension were acceptable (like .jpeg, .jpg, etc.). How do I get the documents loaded if they end with a pdf extension? Do I rescan and same them with a jpeg or jpg extension?

  8. I have thousands of pages of letters and diaries: 1910-11 love notes of grandparents; Mom’s diaries from 1927(age 10) to 1980s; Dad’s diaries; about 300 WWII letters, letters from Europe; documents of maternal gma’s mental illness – 25 bankers boxes. I spent several years scanning; I agree with everything Denise said (most letters were still folded; now stored flat by year written in archival folders which are in archival boxes.) I made a spread sheet (one by date, one by box) which is super helpful to find things and keep track of what you have. Glad to have tips about the apps; My mom’s scrapbook is falling apart, but her wedding shower scrapbook if fine (and adorable). You can read about a lot of my finds on my website on one of two blogs: “Family Archaeologist” and “Letters of a WWII Airman.” Thanks for all the tips!

  9. Bill Windsor

    Microsoft offers a free app called Lens. I scan pictures and documents into a PDF file with no problem.

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