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!

Here are the Genealogical Resources You are Not Seeing

In the digital era, it’s more important than ever to digitize your family history: tree data, photos, stories, interviews, home movies and compiled research. Digitizing preserves the information against loss and allows others to enjoy it now. And for future generations, it’s even valid to ask, “If it hasn’t been digitized, does it even exist?”

The Library Experience in the New World

Recently I read a thought-provoking article at Forbes.com called “In the Digital Era, If It Hasn’t Been Digitized Does It Even Exist?” Of course I had to read it. This passage caught my attention:

“Libraries as physical spaces are evolving in the digital era. In the front of the house, vast warehouse-like rooms filled with stacks of physical books, microform readers, film viewers, listening booths and other specialized equipment are being replaced by collaborative working spaces. In the stacks, materials are increasingly being moved to offsite high density storage facilities that prohibit direct researcher access. Gone are the days of serendipitous discovery, where a researcher could just walk down endless rows of stacks uncovering works they never knew existed. Today, if a scholar doesn’t know to look for a particular work, for all intents and purposes it simply doesn’t exist.”

This brought to mind my last visit to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, the largest genealogical library in the world. The first floor, which used to be filled to the brim with cabinets of microfilm and other resources, is now the Discovery Center. (To learn more about the Discovery Center watch my YouTube video tour, shown here.)  On other floors, there have been dramatic changes as well, and the collaborative workspaces mentioned in the article are front and center. While these changes are exciting and innovative, they have changed the library experience.

This evolution also relates to our genealogy research: all those existing but still hidden-to-us history books, directories, old letters or reminiscences, photograph collections and other items in which our family’s stories may lay hidden. The chances of stumbling upon them through genealogical serendipity have been reduced.

Bottom line: knowing how to navigate online searching and card catalogs is more important than ever.

“Gone are the days of serendipitous discovery,
where a researcher could just
walk down endless rows of stacks
uncovering works they never knew existed.”

An Existential Question about Digitized Records

In the case of online archives, it’s not so much a case of what is being moved out, but rather, what has never been moved in. One of the really intriguing arguments in the Forbes.com article is what’s missing from our online digital archives: much of the 20th century.

Unlike a physical library where the latest books appear alongside books of years gone by, online repositories are often void of these newer works. This occurs because so many post-1922 published and creative works are still copyright-protected. Therefore, their contents are not as well-represented in open, free digital archives such as HathiTrust, the Internet Archive and Google Books. (I dig into these more in depth in Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast Episode 105.)

The article points out, “Nowhere is the impact of copyright more apparent than the map [below], which places a dot at every distinct geographic location mentioned in English language books in the Internet Archive book archive by year of publication 1800 to 2013.”

Watch the dots as they map out mentions of place names in books over the years (the years progress along that bar on the lower left). As you’ll see, starting in about 1922 when copyright kicks in, a lot of place-mentions disappear because fewer resources are on The Internet Archive. The article concludes: “To the world of open data mining and full-text search, the most recent century largely doesn’t exist: our automated algorithms know more about 1850 than they do of 1950.”

This data visualization map makes it clear that when it comes to genealogical research and online databases, we must keep in mind the impact that copyright may be having on what we are seeing. This is not to say that it isn’t possible to find post-1922 works online. Instead, it’s a reminder that no archive, whether online or offline is complete. We need to keep fine-tuning our search skills to tease out the gems from the wide range of available resources. In specific terms, this means bringing online card catalogs usage to the forefront of our approach and familiarizing ourselves with the search “Help” pages offered on most websites that feature large online or offline collections.

Is Your Family History Missing?

Though this concept of “what is missing” clearly applies to the way we research, it also applies to decisions we make about digitizing our own family history. We want our painstakingly-reconstructed family tree data, precious family photos, stories, oral history interviews, home movies and compiled research to exist well into the future. And they won’t “exist” nearly as effectively if they aren’t digitized and shared.

This begs the question of how best to organize and share all your family history data. That’s a big topic, and it can quickly become overwhelming. But like just about everything else in genealogy, answers start at home.

I’m a big advocate of maintaining your own master family tree. This entails using a genealogy database software program (I use RootsMagic) on your own home computer which is properly backed-up with a Cloud backup service. (I use the 24/7 cloud backup service Backblaze). When your master data is on your own computer, it isn’t vulnerable to the changes experienced by websites and companies that can come and go.

If you started with building your family tree on a website, start by exporting / downloading it as a universally recognized GEDCOM file. (Here’s how to download your family tree from Ancestry.com.) Once you’ve got your master family tree, import it into your software. This master family tree on your own backed-up computer is your first step toward digitizing and sharing your family history with future generations in an organized, coherent way. You now have one place for everything, and it’s completely under your own control.

Next, start going through the stuff you haven’t organized yet: all your digitized documents, images, and research notes. Then move on to those paper files and photos that haven’t been digitized yet. A flat bed scanner will come in very handy at this stage.

The final piece of the puzzle is to share what you have learned about your family history:

These are just a few ideas.

More Help

If you’re a Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning member, there are several videos available to you to help you start organizing, digitizing, and sharing your family history:

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

Lisa is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.

Here’s the Reason NOT to be a Genealogy Hoarder

If you may fit the description of a “genealogy hoarder,” you should read this letter from Roland. He shares a powerful story about being generous with our genealogical treasures. (P.S. Sharing family history items can also help you declutter your genealogy files!)

I often hear about the generosity of genealogists: the way they freely share their time, research skills, and even precious family artifacts and photos with others. But it’s probably easier than we realize to lapse into the practice of being a “genealogy hoarder:” keeping family history treasures to ourselves. Maybe we’re just a little attached to them or feeling possessive about our family.

More likely, we just happen to be in quiet possession of something special that we haven’t thought about sharing—or we haven’t figured out how to best to do it.

From genealogy hoarder to generous genealogist

I love this story from Roland about what happened when he made the effort to share:

“I recently ran across a funeral booklet in a relative’s ancestry research materials that I could not connect to that relative in any fashion. It was printed professionally in 1944 by the deceased’s husband and contained a photo, complete biography, obituary and portions of the minister’s eulogy. I looked on Ancestry.com to see if anyone was researching the lady and made a connection with a direct descendant.

By the time you receive this, I will have mailed it to that individual for their use. I understand he had never seen a photo of this particular relative. I have been the recipient of others’ selfless research and efforts, so I try to digitize, share and move information along to others. When I reach the place where I don’t personally need to store some items, I donate them to the appropriate place or individual for further maintenance. 

I think it’s important that we don’t accidentally hoard data, photos or any information. I’m grateful that institutions, libraries and all sorts of data collection sites around the globe are digitizing and making their information available to researchers like myself. It is priceless.”

I LOVE Roland’s perspective on sharing! Here’s my favorite part (it’s worth repeating!):

I couldn’t agree more with Roland’s sentiments about not falling into the hoarding trap. We all have a chance at some point to make a difference for someone else, and we should embrace it when the opportunity arises!

The Genealogy Gems blog has covered several examples of how people have returned “orphaned heirlooms” home–you’ll find three of these at the end of this article. But we’ve also covered some of the how-tos that will help you do it. For example:

  • Pat was looking for advice on how to use Ancestry.com to track down descendants so she could return artifacts to them. Click here to read advice I gave her about that.
  • A museum in Texas wanted to tell the stories of the people whose heirlooms they held in their collections. But first, they had to research those heirlooms and the stories behind them. Here’s how they did it.
  • Ready to stop holding on to some items in your own archive? Read this article by The Archive Lady Melissa Barker about “decluttering” your genealogy stash—and meaningful solutions for where to dispose of those items.

By the way, Roland also sent along some nice compliments I’d like to share—especially if they’ll help you consider how we here at Genealogy Gems might help your own genealogy in the coming year:

“Love the podcast, information, hints, suggestions and endorsements.  I’ve been conducting family research for about a year. It became clear early on that your website and podcast were at the top of the heap for a novice such as myself, and so I follow both religiously.  Additionally, your broadcasts from RootsTech, interviews with various experts and fellow webcasters, and so forth has also introduced me to other sources that advance my knowledge and research results. I have your book on utilizing Google and I use Backblaze (happily) based on your recommendation.  Your sincerity in educating genealogists and family researchers is plainly evident. Thank you!”

Thank you for the encouragement on all counts, Roland!

Disclosure: 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!

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

Lisa is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.

Declutter Your House: 3 Questions for the Family Archivist

To declutter your house, you may have to ask yourself hard questions–especially if you’re the family archivist. Is that old apron or state fair ribbon just clutter or is it history? If it’s a nice piece of history but you can’t keep it, where can you donate it? Professional archivist Melissa Barker takes on these important questions for genealogists.

Before you declutter your house, ask yourself these 3 questions.

1. Will this item help to tell my ancestor’s story?

So many of our ancestor’s stories have been lost to time or by people throwing things away. Many of the artifacts and memorabilia that we own help to tell our ancestor’s story. A first place ribbon from the State Fair where Grandma won for her apple pie recipe tells a story. Because Grandma won a ribbon, her pie was the best of all the pies submitted and she was a great cook! A great idea would be to keep the ribbon and write up a story about how she won the ribbon so that your descendants will have this story. A bonus would be if you have the actual apple pie recipe to put with the ribbon and story. If the item helps to tell your ancestor’s story, maybe it should be kept and preserved.

declutter your house

2. SHOULD I DONATE THE ITEM TO A LOCAL ARCHIVE?

Before tossing those genealogical records, photographs, or artifacts, consider contacting an archive where the family is from and see if they would be interested in the items. Many of our libraries, historical societies, genealogical societies, archives, and museums accept records donations to add to their collections. This way, if a researcher contacts or visits the archive and is researching the same surnames you are, they could benefit from the items you donate. Make sure to call ahead and find out if the archive takes donations and set a time to take your items to them. (TIP: Click here to see how to use ArchiveGrid to search for repositories in specific locations.)

declutter your house

3. ARE THE ITEMS VALUABLE?

Many times we don’t know the value of what we have in our genealogical collections. The value could be monetary and what we own could be worth money. It’s always a good idea to get objects and memorabilia appraised by an expert if you think they could have a monetary value. But maybe your items have historical value and if you toss these items, you would be throwing away history. Many genealogists have one-of-a-kind documents and artifacts that help to tell the story of an historical event. That event could have taken place at the local level, state level, or even the national level. Checking into the monetary value and historical value of an item before tossing it just might change your mind!

So, if you are considering cleaning out that closet and tossing items that you don’t think mean anything to anyone and are just taking up space, ask yourself these questions and make sure you are making the right decision.

Declutter your house by repurposing old family heirlooms

You can often transform the family “gems” from your piles or boxes of clutter into meaningful items to use or display. Get inspired by these upcycled heirloom projects:

A New Heritage Quilt from Old Family Fabrics

An Old Earring Gets New Life as a Wearable Conversation Piece

Create a Heritage Scrapbook

Melissa Barker

Melissa Barker

The Archive Lady

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 bi-weekly advice column The Archive Lady. She has been researching her own family history for the past 27 years.

Home Archiving for the Genealogist: 5 Ways to Think Like an Archivist

You may be doing some “home archiving” without even realizing it, if you’re the keeper of any family photos, documents, heirlooms, or artifacts. Professional archivist and genealogist Melissa Barker offers these tips for the family historian and keeper of the family archive.

Home Archives

I have always said that “home archiving” is something genealogists do, perhaps without ever calling it that. So family historians can definitely benefit from learning how archivists work. Here are five ways to think like an archivist.

5 Home Archiving Tips for Family Historians

family history video documents home archiving1. Learn to preserve family artifacts.

Archivists are always educating themselves on how to preserve certain items that have come to their archives. Genealogists inherit family heirlooms all the time. Learning how to preserve them is thinking like an archivist.

Tip: Preserving an item means keeping it from further deterioration. This may mean putting it in special storage materials, keeping it out of strong light, and storing it in a place that isn’t too hot, cold, or humid. Click here to read an article on humidity and your family archive.

2. Organize your “collection.”

A very important job for archivists is keeping their records collections organized so they know what they have and can pull them efficiently. Genealogists, as home archivists, would also benefit from keeping their genealogical records organized.

Tip: Get inspired! Click here to catch some tips on organizing your digital photos from Denise Levenick, The Family Curator and author of How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia and Genealogy Records.

archival sleeve3. Store your treasures carefully.

Archivists are always careful to use special materials such as archival file folders and boxes to put records and artifacts into for preservation. Genealogists should use archival materials to preserve and store their records just like archivists do.

Tip: Click here to read my article on how to archive family history documents. It’s packed with great tips and recommended products to store your items safely.

4. Keep the stories that go with your artifacts.

Telling the stories of the people that have come before us is also something that archivist try to do with the records they have in their care. Archivists do this by sharing their records collections with the public through displays, exhibits, and open houses. Genealogists should tell their ancestor’s stories by sharing their family histories with their families and passing down their ancestor’s stories to the next generation.

Tip: Create a meaningful display of artifacts in your own home. Group together items that tell a story, preferably unique, eye-catching items. Add framed copies of documents and photos (keep originals safely tucked away). Click here for some fantastic ideas from Lisa Louise Cooke on sharing your family history with the non-genealogists in your family.

5. Archive your own mementos.

Archivists collect today for tomorrow! Many archivists collect documents and artifacts that are produced today so they can be preserved for tomorrow. They collect items such as the high school graduation program, digitizing the local newspaper, and that local diner menu.

Genealogists do the same thing in their “home archiving” by collecting and preserving a funeral card, digital photographs they took at the grandbaby’s birthday, and the marriage invitation you received for your niece’s wedding.

Home Archiving, National Archiving: It’s all in the Genealogy Gems Podcast

Did you know I’m on Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems Podcast now? I chime in frequently with that “offline” archival perspective that’s so important in our research. Click here to see the list of recent episodes. In Episode 211, publishing this week, I report on a fascinating way you can help make collections from the National Archives more accessible to everyone. Why not listen in? It’s free!

Getting Genealogy Organized for Genealogy Gems Premium Members

Getting genealogy organized is just one of the topics we cover here at Genealogy Gems, and Premium Members have exclusive access to podcast and video content to help you accomplish that goal. We’ve put together a step-by-step plan for getting the most out of Premium Membership, and going from unorganized to organized in nothing flat!

get-organized-Genealogy-Gems-Membership

A new Gem’s reader recently sent us the following email:

Dear Lisa,

I have recently joined Genealogy Gems as a Premium member and wanted to ask if there is a good place to get started. I have a ton of family information collected, but as yet have not figured out a plan of attack. I was wondering if you could guide me in which podcasts, premium podcasts, and videos would be good ones to start with. I need to put this information into some semblance of order so that I can move constructively on it, as well as to be able to share the family history with others and have it make sense. Thanks, Gerri.

Getting Genealogy Organized with Premium Content

Hi Gerri, we are so glad to have you as a Genealogy Gems Premium Member. Welcome!

Getting Organized with Genealogy Gems Premium Membership

The best place to start is by digging into these blog posts that I highly recommend:

When you are ready to move onto the Premium Podcast episodes, I suggest you focus first on:
  • Hard Drive Organization Part 1 and Part 2
  • Use Evernote to Create a Research Plan
  • Podcast episode 114: Paper Organization
  • Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast episodes 31 & 32: Organizing Your Genealogy Files.

Getting genealogy organized is one of the most overwhelming tasks new and seasoned genealogists deal with. Whether you’re new to Premium Membership or a long time member, make sure you have a solid basic structure for your genealogy organization, as it is the backbone of everything that follows. That basic structure for getting genealogy organized might look like this:

A Quick Plan for Getting Genealogy Organized

  1. Assess what you have.
  2. Pick a genealogy database software program. We recommend RootsMagic.
  3. Set-up a few 3-ring binders with acid free sheet protectors so you have a place to put documents and other important things.
  4. Set-up a basic folder and file structure for your hard drive based on the Premium videos Hard Drive Organization.
  5. Have a back-up plan for your precious family history files. We recommend BackBlaze as a way to automatically back-up your computer files.
  6. Sign-up for our free newsletter (if you haven’t already) to stay up-to-date on all the latest records and techniques.
  7. Don’t wait to be fully organized before you begin. Stay motivated by scheduling “fun” research time, as well as organization time.
  8. Make appointments with yourself to stay on track, and listen to the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast while you organize.
  9. Regularly tap into all of the Genealogy Gems resources like what’s new in books and guides.
  10. Like us on our Facebook page to see more genealogy ideas

Become a Genealogy Gems Premium Member

If you are not a Genealogy Gems Premium Member, take a look at what you are missing! Premium Members are able to listen to our Premium podcasts packed with even more tips and techniques for all things genealogy. You also have access to my most popular training videos.

BONUS e-book:

Bonus EBookFor a limited time, new members will receive
this exclusive digital PDF e-book,
a collection of my most popular
articles from Family Tree Magazine!
(the e-book will be emailed to you
within 24 hours of purchase)

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