Preserving old family letters is one of the best things you can do to be sure their precious content is available to future generations. Follow these easy steps from The Archive Lady, Melissa Barker, to organize and preserve the old correspondence in your family history archive.
Writing letters has become a thing of the past! If you are fortunate enough to have a collection of old family letters, you have a true treasure. In addition to digitizing them, physically preserving them is one of the best things you can do to save the genealogical information contained in those old family letters. Here are some simple steps to preserve the old letters that you may have.
Preserving old letters in 4 easy steps
1. Arrange letters chronologically.
You can go by the date on the letter itself or by the postmark date on the envelope. It is important to put your old letters in chronological order because sometimes there is information in those letters that continue from letter to letter and you want to make sure you read them in the order originally written. If you have groups of letters from different events such as WWII letters, college letters, or vacation letters, you could group them together and then organize each grouping by date.
2. Unfold letters.
Once you have put your letters in chronological order, it’s time to do some preservation work. I am asked all the time about letters and whether to leave them folded and in their envelopes. I can tell you that all archivists remove the letters from the envelopes and archive them unfolded. The creases made by folding and unfolding letters can cause damage and eventually those creases get weak and can cause the letters to tear into pieces. It is always best to unfold old family letters.
3. Encapsulate them.
The term encapsulates means “to enclose something or to completely cover something.” Now that you have unfolded and flattened your letters, you will want to encapsulate them in archival safe sleeves that can be purchased at any online archival supply store. (Click here to purchase archival sleeves made by Gaylord, a reputable preservation supply company.)
Be sure to put the envelope with the letter in the same sleeve so that it doesn’t get lost or mixed up with another letter that it doesn’t belong to. When you’re working with many letters in a collection, the letter can easily be separated from the envelope. But envelopes may include crucial details such as dates, the identity and address of the writer, and interesting postmarks, so you want to keep them together.
4. File and store.
After you have put your letters in chronological order, unfolded them and encapsulated them, it is now time to file and store them. Archivists prefer to put their encapsulated letters into archival file folders and then into archival boxes, being sure to keep the chronological order intact. (Click here to purchase Gaylord’s Family Archives Document Preservation Kit, complete with archival folders and an archival box.)
This process gives you three layers of protection for your letters to ensure they are completely preserved and protected from bugs, dust, and anything else that could get to them and damage them. Following these guidelines to preserving your family letters will ensure they are protected and saved for you to enjoy and for your future descendants to enjoy!
Next step: Digitize your old family letters.
Ink fades and paper crumbles, so the messages on old letters may eventually be lost, despite your best efforts. (And what if the entire file folder full of the originals is lost, damaged, or destroyed?) Digitizing them lets you digitally preserve the content for future generations. In the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 144, host and producer Lisa Louise Cooke talks with The Family Curator Denise Levenick about digitizing and organizing your family history. Click here to hear their conversation and start preserving your own family letters and other original documents.
About the Author: Melissa Barker is a Certified Archives Records Manager, the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist and author of the popular blog A Genealogist in the Archives and an advice columnist. She has been researching her own family history for the past 27 years.
Images courtesy of Melissa Barker and Houston County, TN Archives.
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