“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.
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:
- Do no harm.
Wash your hands thoroughly to avoid transferring oils from your fingers to fragile old paper. Work on a clean, flat surface.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.