4 Easy Steps to Preserving Old Letters

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.

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, Genealogy Gems earns from qualifying purchases. This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Courthouse research tips for genealogists

Got a research trip coming up soon? These courthouse research tips for genealogists from The Archive Lady, Melissa Barker, will help you get organized before you hit the road. That way, you’ll be prepared to use your time well at your ancestor’s courthouse–to explore all those original records that may reveal your family history.

3 courthouse research tips for genealogists

Courthouses are one of my favorite places to conduct my genealogy research. Many of our courthouses have  a wealth of genealogical records and information.

Courthouses may not have the word “archive” on the building but they are a type of archive. Here are some tips that will help you be successful the next time you are doing genealogy research at a local courthouse.

1. Scout the logistics

Call ahead to find out the days and hours of operation. This is the most important tip I can give anyone about researching in courthouses. In most courthouses, there are different offices for different types of records. Each office has their own phone number and can be contacted concerning hours of operation. Also, ask what days and times are best for a genealogist to visit their office to do research.

Ask about the availability of parking at the courthouse. Many of our courthouse campuses have limited parking for patrons. This problem is often made worse on days when court is in session and many people arrive to participate in court actions. Arriving at the courthouse and ready to do research, you do not want to discover that the only place to park is a block away or at the distant parking garage.

2. Locate records ahead of time

Ask about the availability and location of records. It might be a no-brainer that the deed records will be found in the Register of Deeds office. But are the oldest deed books there–the ones you need? Many times, courthouse offices run out of room for the old records and will transfer them to the county archives, which may not be located in the courthouse. It is important to know what records are available in the office where you wish to do genealogy research. If the older records have been sent to the archives or some other facility, you want to know that before you get to the courthouse.

3. Be patient

Whether you are visiting the courthouse or working with them through phone calls and emails, patience is a key element. As a genealogist, I know the urgency we all feel in trying to locate our ancestor’s records. Many times, we are experiencing great momentum in our genealogy research and we do not want to be hindered in our quest for that one piece of information we are seeking. If you walk into an office and they are very busy, please be patient if the staff member asks you to wait before they can get those old dusty books from the back room. If you have emailed or telephoned an office and they have told you they will get back with you, be patient and wait for that response.

The records that can be found in courthouses can be essential to our genealogy research. Implementing these tips will help you be more successful when doing research at the local courthouse.

Ready to get serious about courthouse research?

Check out this excellent article on researching wills and probate records by Margaret Linford. Her tips will help you understand what’s in these courthouse essentials, where to find them–and what to do with your bored non-researching travel companions!

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.

“Archivist in a Backpack:” Create a Portable Archiving Kit

A new “Archivist in a Backpack” project to support community archiving offers genealogists a great idea: a portable archiving kit for on-the-go genealogy research and preservation projects. The Archive Lady Melissa Barker explains the initiative and offers her ideas for archiving supplies that you can stuff into your own backpack.

Archivist in a Backpack Project

A new prototype project from the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library aims to promote community-driven archiving efforts. The project, “Archivist in a Backpack,” is part of a three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Through this grant, the Southern Historical Collections will provide training, technical know-how, supplies and equipment to help local communities record and preserve their own history. Currently, the SHC is partnering with four community archiving projects: The Appalachian Student Health Coalition, Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project, The Historic Black Towns & Settlements Association and the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum.

Using rolling suitcases that contain items to help community-based historians begin building a local archive, the archivists hope to teach archival skills to those who are building an archive in their community. Included in the archiving kits are items like portable scanners, gloves, archival sleeves, archival file folders, soft #2 pencils and instructions on how to use these items when working with historical and genealogical records.

Josephine McRobbie, community archivist at the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library, says in this press release, “When community members learn these skills and gain familiarity with common tools and equipment like acid-free folders to portable audio recorders, it is empowering and builds their sense of identity as historians and community archivists.” McRobbie and her colleagues want people to know that “telling the stories of their lives in their own community are well within reach and that the rewards can be tremendous. Simply making good records of what is gathered, and keeping everything in a cool, dry place, will go a long way toward preserving stories for future generations.”

The project is only in its first year and in the second and third year they are planning on refining the program. They will assess the work done to date and create new kits based on user feedback. They will also share their experience with additional community partners and with the archival profession. Keep an eye out for the “Archivist in a Backpack” project in your area! 

Create your own portable archiving kit

You can create your own “archivist backpack” for whenever you have opportunities to preserve family history documents, photos, memorabilia and even memories. These opportunities can come up suddenly when visiting a relative’s house, attending a family reunion or stopping by a local historical or genealogical society. Here are some suggestions on what to include in your archiving-on-the-go kit:

  • Soft archival gloves for handling fragile items without getting them dirty;
  • Soft #2 Pencils for identifying photos and other items (Use on the backs, preferably along the edge, and if pencil markings won’t adhere to the photograph, you can use an Identi-Pen);
  • portable scanner to quickly scan photos or documents;
  • Your favorite digital camera to snap pictures or record interviews (your smartphone may be just as good or better than a digital camera and easier to carry);
  • A thumb drive with plenty of room on it to copy digital files between computers or devices;
  • Your laptop, to organize files, type notes, etc. (make sure it holds its charge well, as sometimes you’re not able to plug in while you’re working).

More great tips for the mobile genealogist

Are you an on-the-go family history researcher? Let these articles inspire your next genealogy (or other) road trip!

Ultimate genealogy playlist for your summer road trip

How to upload your ebooks to your own Google Play Books library

Great local history apps for genealogists

About the Author: Melissa Barker

About the Author: Melissa Barker

The Archive Lady

Melissa 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.

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, Genealogy Gems earns from qualifying purchases you make when clicking from the links we provide. It doesn’t cost you anything extra but it helps support our free blog and podcast. Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Why You Should Look for Archives in Museums

Did you know that some museums also house archives? Yes, that’s right! Museums aren’t just for artifacts and historical objects. They sometimes house documents, photographs, and ephemera. Here’s how to learn about archives at your favorite museums (big or small) and how to gain access to archival material that may reveal your family history.

Many genealogists don’t know that many of our wonderful museums have both a “front room” and a “back room.” The front room is filled with displays and exhibits that we all love to walk through and see. There could be multiple rooms filled with artifacts on display in glass cases for the visitor to enjoy. But the back room is where the archived records are located. This back room is not seen by the public but most of the time, it is there. There are shelves filled with historical and genealogical records that the genealogist shouldn’t miss out on.

For instance, at the Lincoln Memorial University Museum in Harrogate, Tennessee, they have the second largest collection of Abraham Lincoln artifacts and memorabilia in the United States in their museum. They also have a back room filled with historical and genealogical records that genealogists can access for genealogy research!

A fantastic find in a museum archive

Genealogy Gems Contributing Editor Sunny Morton shares this example of a family history treasure found buried in a museum’s archive:

“My mom Cheryl McClellan (a professional genealogy librarian who was interviewed by Lisa Louise Cooke in the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode #125), visited the Steelworks Center of the West in Pueblo, Colorado with her siblings to get a better sense of the industry that employed her family there.

Imagine her glee when she discovered that the museum has an archive! According to its website, the collections include ‘over 100,000 photographs, more than 150 films, 30,000 maps and drawings, hundreds of ledgers, and internal publications such as Camp and Plant, The Industrial Bulletin, and The Blast. These are in addition to the core collection of approximately 6,000 cubic feet of records documenting CF&I’s steel production, iron and coal mining, geological records, labor relations, land and water resources, employee records, invoices and work orders, executive memoranda, correspondence, and much more, documenting every aspect of the company’s rich history.’

Unfortunately, my mom didn’t have time to stay and explore the archive in-depth. But she started corresponding with the archivist, who sent her priceless documents relating to her grandfather, John Felix. Among these was a copy of his original application for employment, his employee service record and a clipping from an employee newsletter about his exploits as a fisherman:

Sunny’s Mom: Cheryl McClellan,
Professional Genealogy Librarian

How to find museums with archives

You can look for museums with archives in them in a few different ways:

  1. When visiting a local museum, ask the curator or museum director if they have any records available for research in their collections.
  2. Go to the websites of museums–especially historical museums–you may have visited in the past. See whether they mention having an archive or research room.
  3. Google the name of your ancestor’s town (or a bigger city nearby), along with the state name, and add the search term museum.
  4. Contact a librarian, archivist, or the Chamber of Commerce in your ancestor’s town. 
  5. Use the free website, ArchiveGrid, to locate archival collections at museums. On the home page, you’ll find a map that looks something like this:

Use the map view to identify archival collections, some of which may be housed in museums, near your ancestors’ home. Hover over the red markers to see the names of institutions. Click on them to find contact information and search their collections. Once you have located the museum, contact them by phone or email and ask them about their archived records. If you can’t visit in person–or you can’t stay long enough to really search their collections–start corresponding with the archivist, as Sunny’s mom did. You may need to be patient: many archivists only work part-time and stay quite busy. But your patience may be rewarded beautifully!

As genealogists, we will search anywhere and everywhere for records about our ancestors to help tell their life story: archives, libraries, historical societies, genealogical societies, and museumsSo, the next time you travel to where your ancestors came from, check and see if there is a museum. If there is one, stop by and ask if they have a “back room” with archived records. You just might be pleasantly surprised.

The Archive Lady Melissa Barker appears regularly on the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast, available to Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning members. Internationally-renowned genealogy educator and podcast pioneer Lisa Louise Cooke hosts and produces the Premium Podcast, weaving together inspiring stories, research strategies and exclusive interviews. (You can also check out the free monthly Genealogy Gems Podcast, with over 2.5 million downloads worldwide and plenty of inspiration and information that can help your family history research.)

About the Author: Melissa Barker

About the Author: Melissa Barker

Melissa 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.

2 Unusual Genealogy Sources to Watch for at the Archives

These two unusual genealogy sources may unlock secrets to your family history research! The Archive Lady Melissa Barker shares tips for finding and using these two little-known types of original manuscripts that you may find tucked away in an archive. 

Two unusual genealogy sources you may be missing out on

Census records, check. You’ve got them. Obituaries, birth records, death certificates, city directories….check, check, check. Scrap paper and orphaned documents….What? When’s the last time you put these on a checklist of genealogical sources to search?

Scrap paper–anything from receipts to notes to tickets–may contain scraps of your family history. In fact, here at Genealogy Gems, we blogged awhile back about a major family revelation that occurred simply because a researcher came across a train ticket receipt from 1856. And “orphaned documents” are any types of original documents that archivists come across, but don’t seem to belong to any particular collection. Meaning, they’ve been separated from their historical context, or “orphaned.”

3 places to find scrap paper and orphaned documents in archives

1. Vertical file collections

The majority of the time, scrap paper and orphaned documents in archives get filed in Vertical File Collections that are cataloged by surname or subject name. As I’ve written previously, vertical files (or subject files as they are sometimes called) can be found in most state and local archives, historical societies, genealogical societies, libraries and even in some museum collections. These files are simply collections of documents and ephemera that are put in file folders which are then put in filing cabinets and cataloged by surname or subject. They’re sometimes a filing location of last resort for anything that should be kept but doesn’t really “go” anywhere. And often, vertical files may be cataloged by subject but their individual contents probably aren’t.

2. Manuscript collections

Scrap papers and orphaned documents are also sometimes found in individual manuscript collections. Sometimes archivists will include scrap paper and orphan documents in a manuscript collection if they can determine the family or organization it belongs to. The scrap paper and orphan documents will be listed in the finding aid and usually referred to as “miscellaneous documents.”

In the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode #149, I shared tips for visiting archives and doing research in original manuscript collections. Anytime you visit a library or archive that may have collections relevant to your family, ask to see their finding aids (which describe their collections). Scan descriptions for your family’s surname, ethnicity, occupations, where they went to school and church and other details you know about them.

3. Loose records.

Another place scrap paper and orphan documents can be found are in loose records, usually in contained in file folders entitled “Miscellaneous Documents” or “Orphan Records.” Again, ask whether you’re allowed to dig through these or at least look over any finding aids that describe their loose record collections. Digging through loose pieces of paper can be a treasure hunt. Even if what you discover doesn’t directly relate to your family, there are so many fascinating bits of history in loose records!

This little piece of scrap paper may have had important implications for those mentioned in it—can you decipher the charming spelling?

Learn more about researching with original records

Even though so much can be found, it’s true that not everything is online. To learn the most about your family history, you sometimes need to visit archives, libraries and other repositories. This is actually quite fun, especially when you discover unusual genealogy sources such as these! Click here to read more articles from The Archive Lady about researching in archives.

Images courtesy of Melissa Barker and Houston County, TN Archives.

About the Author: Melissa Barker

About the Author: Melissa Barker

The Archive Lady

Melissa 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.

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