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.

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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.

Old Scrapbooks for Genealogy

Old scrapbooks are a great resource for discovering your family history, whether you find them in your family’s attic or you stumble across an obituary scrapbook in a local archive. Check out The Archive Lady’s tips for finding these one-of-a kind resources.

Scrapbooks are one of my favorite record sources to do genealogy research in and to also process in the archives. There are all kinds of scrapbooks; each and every one is unique and one-of-a-kind. They were put together with love and the hope that what was saved and pasted onto those pages will be remembered.

The origins of scrapbooking is said to go back to the 15th century in England and it is still a hobby enjoyed by many today. Most archives, libraries, historical and genealogical societies have scrapbooks in their collections. They will most likely be found in the Manuscript Collection as part of a specifically named collection.

What’s in old scrapbooks

Scrapbooks contain all kinds of wonderful genealogical records, photographs, and ephemera. There is even a scrapbook in the Houston County, Tennessee Archives that has candy bar wrappers pasted in it!

That particular scrapbook is one of my absolute favorites. It was compiled and owned by Evelyn Ellis and dates to the 1930s and 1940s. Among the normal newspaper clippings and event programs are interesting pieces such as a Baby Ruth candy bar wrapper with a handwritten note by Evelyn that reads, “Always remember June 11, 1938 at Beach Grove at the Ice Cream Supper:” 

There is also an original ticket pasted into the scrapbook from the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee where Evelyn Ellis visited and recorded her comments on April 1, 1939:

There are scrapbooks for just about any subject. Aside from personal scrapbooks, you can find war scrapbooks, obituary clipping scrapbooks, and scrapbooks that collected and recorded local or national events. The obituaries found in scrapbooks could be a real find because sometimes they are the only pieces of the newspaper that survive and can be a treasure trove for any genealogist. Many scrapbooks contain one-of-a-kind documents, photographs, and ephemera.

To find scrapbooks in an archive, ask the archivist if they have any scrapbooks in their records collections. Many times scrapbooks are housed with a particular manuscript collection and will be listed in the finding aid. Some archives have a collection of just scrapbooks that have been donated to them and can be easily accessed. Most scrapbooks will not be on research shelves, but rather will be stored in back rooms at the archives and will have to be requested. You should also check the archives online catalog for any listings of scrapbooks before you jump in the car and drive to the archives.

I encourage all genealogists to check with the archive in the area where your ancestors were from and see if they have any scrapbooks in their archived records collections. Scrapbooks are like time capsules; you don’t know what will be found in them until you open them up.

“Remember: It’s not all online; contact or visit an archive today!” That’s Melissa’s signature line. Even though we here at Genealogy Gems love teaching you how to find everything online–whether via Google or your favorite Genealogy Giants websites–it’s important to know how to find original documents and manuscripts that aren’t online. Click here to read more from Melissa Barker, The Archive Lady.

Finding Unprocessed Records at an Archive

This isn’t a mess—it’s a pile of unprocessed records at an archive, and buried within may be clues about your family history. Eventually, these items may be filed away neatly for you to find. But how can you access them in the meantime?

As an archivist who works in an archive every day, I get very excited when someone walks through the door with a records donation in hand. Many of our archives would not have the genealogical and historical records they have without the generosity of others. Archives receive donations of documents, photographs, ephemera and artifacts—almost on a daily basis.

Unprocessed records at archives

Many archives have back rooms full of unprocessed and uncatalogued records collections. Sometimes they are even sitting in the original boxes they were donated. These records collections have not been microfilmed. They are not online anywhere. But they exist and the genealogist needs to seek them out.

If you have made a research trip to an archive, it wouldn’t hurt to ask about any new record donations or collections. There could very well be records in those boxes about your ancestors. The archivist should know what they have in those collections and should be able to help you decide if a particular collection will be of help to you and your genealogy research. The archivist might even let you look through a specific collection. (Be prepared: sometimes the answer will be no. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.)

If you are emailing or talking to the archives by phone, be sure and ask about any new records collections that have been processed or that have recently been donated and are waiting to be processed. Most likely, you will have to travel to the facility to see the records but you can get an idea of what is available. 

Remember, the answer to your genealogical question could be sitting in a box of unprocessed records. I like to always encourage genealogists to put “unprocessed records” on their to-do list. As genealogists, we should leave no stone (or box of records) unturned.

Try these 3 steps for searching for unprocessed records at an archive

  1. Make a quick list of your ancestral surnames, time periods and places that might be mentioned in records a particular local or regional archive. Then add the names of local organizations with which your family may have been affiliated (schools, industries or businesses, churches, local militia units). Finally, jot down a few kinds of original records you’d love to find, such as photos, maps, news clippings, business or church records, militia rosters and the like.
  2. With this “wish list” in hand, look first for any processed records. Start at ArchiveGrid.org, an online catalog of collections at thousands of archives. Enter different combinations of your search terms as keywords. If you have a specific archive in mind that’s not coming up at ArchiveGrid, go to that archive’s website. Search any online catalog or digital finding aids (collection descriptions) with different combinations of your search terms. Or use Google site search to let Google help you look for your keywords across the entire site.
  3. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, call or email the archive. Mention that you’ve already searched online for items relating to your family. Ask whether they may have any additional items pertaining to your wish list (people, places, organizations, record types) that haven’t yet been processed or may not be on their website or in Archive Grid. Ask whether or when access might be available.

Tell us about your discoveries!

We love hearing about the “genealogy gems” you find, especially in original old manuscript records! Will you write in and let us know about them? Meanwhile, let these two success stories inspire your own search:

“I found 130 letters by my ancestor!”

Railroad retirement record discovery prompts a “happy dance”

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.

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

Using Vertical Files in Archives

Vertical files in archives are like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. The Archive Lady Melissa Barker shows us the fabulous genealogy finds that may be awaiting you in an archive somewhere. The family history you may find may be even sweeter than your favorite truffles.

In the movie Forrest Gump, the character Forrest Gump says: “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” In an archive, it can be said: “Vertical files are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” So, what are vertical files?

Vertical files in archives

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.

Vertical files are a collection of documents and ephemera that are put in file folders which are then put in filing cabinets and cataloged by surname or subject. These files could contain just about anything that can fit into a file folder. Most archives will create an index by the title on each folder but most of the time what is inside of each folder is not cataloged. Vertical files are sometimes seen as a “catch-all” or a “hodgepodge” for all those documents that don’t really go anywhere else but should not be discarded.

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

Most archivists file family group sheets and genealogical information that has been donated to the archives in vertical files. Other wonderful items found in vertical files could be compiled family histories, photographs, and even receipts like the one shown here for E.E. Collison Jr’s Portrait and Landscape Photography studio.

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

One of the most popular genealogical items to find in vertical files is newspaper clippings. These clippings could be an obituary, a marriage announcement, a birth announcement or just about anything that has been clipped from the newspaper. Above is an example: an advertisement for Skelton’s Super Market.

Accessing and using vertical files in archives

When doing genealogy research in an archive, ask the archivist if they have vertical files. These collections of records could be very valuable for genealogy research. Some archives don’t always advertise that they have a collection of vertical files, so it’s important that the researcher ask the archivist specifically about this collection. Vertical files are usually stored in back rooms of the archives but the index is available at the archivist’s front desk or they could be on the in-house computer.

Once you have found what interests you in the index, you can request the files that you would like to investigate further. The archivist will retrieve them and bring them to you, sometimes only one or two files at a time. Once you have received the files, you can look at each item and make copies of what is of interest to you and your genealogy research. When you have finished with the file, give it back to the archivist who will then bring other files you have requested.

So next time you are researching at an archive, ask if they have vertical files! Like that box of chocolates,”you never know what you are going to get.”

My motto is, “It’s not all online, contact or visit an archive today!” Read more articles about uncovering genealogy gems in original manuscript repositories–you may soon find yourself visiting one.

Found in an archive: 10 unexpected discoveries

Keeping up: How to know what’s new at your favorite archive

Top 5 questions I get asked as an archivist

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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