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Love for Letters

By Daniel Hubbard | December 18, 2010

I’ve had the privilege of working with some letters lately. Many, many letters. Letters of an age that sent a wave of disbelief through me every time I picked one up and I picked up hundreds.

Every letter had a different feel. Some were written on paper so ethereal that I couldn’t believe that they had survived. Some were still so robust that they made the paper we use nowadays feel sorely inadequate to the task of living on for a century or more. Any physical letters that we manage to write today will descend into acid-ravaged senility long before these letters stop telling lucid stories. Some bear faint pencil marks, others deep purple ink. Some have been nibbled, others have folds that barely hold together. Some are in pieces and in need of reassembly. Others were cut by scissors long ago. Some are lightly yellowed, while others are a medium molasses brown.

The letters are now all digitized. Their contents live in many places but the work of grouping them, ordering them and finally really reading them is still ahead. I know I will find war stories. I glimpsed a scheme to withhold an inheritance from a widow and her sons. There will be army letterhead and the stationery of a dry goods store and a lumber firm. There will be catalogs of produce harvested, loans repaid, debts owed. There will be discussion of the rain that had fallen and the rain that had not fallen. There will be tuberculosis and typhoid. There will be lists of healthy neighbors, sick townsfolk and relatives who did not survive. There will be tent revivals and train rides. Missing horses and long-lost brothers. There will be tiny bits of life and the occasional bit of big news.

Ahead of me I have events to understand and names to identify. I will have towns to locate, though their names will often be spelled in ways not found on any map. I will have hints and clues to decipher and follow. There will be men called “he” and women called “she” that I will hope to link to names. There will be people who take on new importance and others that will never be more to me than a single mention in a single letter. I will have multiletter stories to assemble, personalities to get to know and the themes of lives to try to tease out. I will have changes of address to note and migrations to infer.

Most of the time we deal with records written about ancestors. They may be written by a neighbor who happened to be the census enumerator or a clerk but more likely they will have been written by someone who barely knew that ancestor from Adam. A saved letter will most likely have been written by an ancestor or to an ancestor by someone who knew them well.

All this work with them and appreciation for them has given me some thoughts and opinions about preserving old letters.

1) Do no Harm

  • Have something to eat or drink before, not during, your work. Latte and letters don’t mix.
  • Wash your hands.
  • Gloves have pro’s and con’s- They may deposit less on the paper than would the skin of your hands but they don’t let you feel what you are doing and so you might do more physical damage than you would using bare (but clean and dry!) hands.

2) Preserve Digitally

  • The chance that the letters will degrade or be damaged is 100%. If there is any chance that the letters have genealogical value, you will want to consult them later. You don’t want to get them out every time you wonder about a detail and you don’t want to avoid checking something because you are afraid of damaging the letters. This means scanning.
  • I scan in the order that the letters are already in. If you have a significant number of letters, making piles of hundred and fifty year old letters and starting to sort them into chronological order before you scan, there is some likelihood that you will be left with nothing to scan. Also, as any archaeologist will tell you, the way things are arranged when you find them is often significant. A letter of condolence mixed in with love letters from a decade before tells more of a widow’s sorrow than any chronological arrangement ever could.
  • Image format. There is a trade off here. JPEG is very compact but it also compresses the image by throwing out details. If you decide to enlarge something later, you may not be pleased with the results. Also, every time you edit and save a JPEG image, more information is thrown out. TIFF files are much larger but they don’t throw out information when compressing the image and so don’t degrade with editing. My choice is TIFF because I want to preserve as much as possible. Old letters can be difficult to read and the more information the better.
  • Color vs Grayscale. You might be tempted to save disk space by scanning to grayscale instead of color but besides the fact that the color of old paper is often beautiful, not scanning to color means that you lose information. Anytime something is difficult to read, the color information can help when adjusting the image to improve the legibility.
  • PPI or “Pixels Per Inch” is a measure of the level of detail being preserved. The higher the number, the more detail but also the larger the file you will produce. Going higher than the level of detail in the original doesn’t improve things because you can’t preserve detail that wasn’t there from the beginning. Opinions on a good value vary from 300 to 600 ppi. I set my scanner to 600 ppi and leave it there. (Note that PPI and DPI aren’t the same but DPI may be what your scanning software has for this setting.)
  • Make a backup or backups of the images and store them in different physical locations.
  • Never edit the original scans. When I want to crop or enhance an image, I make a copy and work on that.

Once information is lost you can’t recover it. Err on the side of large image files.

3) Preserve Physically

  • Don’t put anything on the letter. No notations, external notes, paperclips. Nothing.
  • If you have the envelop, keep it too. It is also evidence.
  • I put each letter in an archival quality plastic sleeve. If the sleeves aren’t archival quality they can produce acids that damage the paper. Some nonarchival plastics break down with time and become sticky—another very bad thing. Never laminate something you want to preserve. Lamination cannot be undone and my understanding is that the plastic used is not sufficiently stable.
  • I’ve needed to be careful when sliding the letters into sleeves, Old letters often have tears and ragged edges that can catch on the sleeve as they are inserted. Also sometimes the paper is heavily damaged along one edge and it works best to make that the last part of the letter to go into the sleeve. The orientation of the letter may not be what you’d like but better that than more damage.
  • I haven’t had a problem with grit on any letters but if there is any it can be abrasive and that can cause damage. I’ve read that the kind of small blowers used to clean keyboards can be used to blow off grit but I haven’t tried this myself. If the letter is about the Dust Bowl, you might even want to keep some of that grit.
  • Next it is time to physically protect those sleeves and their contents. They should be surrounded by something strong and acid free like archival binders and boxes.
  • Last but not least the letters should be stored where the temperature and humidity are moderate and stable. Extremes can make them brittle or lead to mildew damage. They should also be stored away from anything that might attract rodents or insects.

4) Analyze Digitally

There are many advantages to analyzing digital images over the originals

  • If you have backups, they aren’t unique.
  • You can look at them in any order without damaging letters you aren’t even interested in at the moment.
  • They are easily enlarged and enhanced when difficult to read.

I like to make a spreadsheet when there are a lot of letters. Each group of letters gets a name. “JDoe” or “Red Trunk,” whatever seems to best identify them as a group. Then every letter gets a sequence number and the group and sequence number make an identifier that gets written on the plastic sleeve along the edge where the holes for the binder rings are. That is “JDoe-01,” “JDoe-02” and so on. I name the image files using that identifier and an image number (“JDoe-01 1,” “JDoe-01 2”) and put them all into a folder that is named with the letter’s identifier. Then I enter each letter into a spreadsheet by identifier. I also enter the date, the recipient (name and place), the sender (name and place) and finally a synopsis of the letter. Then as I analyze a problem, I can look at the spreadsheet to find the letters that might be of some help. The date of the letter isn’t just an obviously interesting bit of information to put in the spreadsheet, it also allows me to sort the spreadsheet by date so that I can get an overview of the letters in chronological order even though I didn’t scan them in that order. If I want to read them in chronological order it is just a matter of opening the image files in the order that the letters are listed in the sorted spreadsheet.

The date requires some special attention. Spreadsheets often have a special data type for dates and even can recognize dates automatically and force them into date format. That is fine if you always know the exact date but often we’re stuck with partial or approximate dates. Maybe the letter is dated with only the day and month and the decade we can get from context but the exact year isn’t known. 189? does not look like part of a standard date and so it won’t fit the spreadsheet’s date format. Neither will ?? May 1921. I force my dates to be text and enter them first year then month then day to make sorting easier. (Day first will give you all the letters written on the first of any month in any year then all the letters written on the second, then the third and so on—not a useful way to look at them and far from chronological.

I hope this has been both inspirational and helpful. There are certainly more tips and tricks and bits of finesse that other people have but I think that summarizes my process.

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Topics: Genealogy, Records | 7 Comments »

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7 Responses to “Love for Letters”

  1. Tweets that mention Love for Letters | Personal Past Meditations- a Genealogical Blog -- Says:
    December 18th, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Missy Corley. Missy Corley said: RT @ThePersonalPast: Working with old letters #genealogy […]

  2. Greta Koehl Says:
    December 19th, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    Excellent advice. And you are lucky to have all of these letters. I have a set of letters written to and by a great-great uncle. The letters from the 1940s are much more fragile than those of the 1890s. Of course, we know why this was so, but it still seems strange.

  3. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    December 20th, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Hi Greta,
    It’s really striking that even letters written within weeks of each other and stored the same way vary so much in how well they are preserved. As you say, we know why the paper matters but when I think back to someone picking up a sheet from one pile one day and another pile another day, for them it was a random choice but all these years on it makes such a difference.

  4. Kay Strickland Says:
    December 27th, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    Thank you, Daniel, for these tips. I have the great fortune to be going through a similar process with letters from the same family spanning 1830-1975. I can get the archival plastic sleeves at Staples, but am stumped as to where I can get acid-free binders and boxes. Any suggestions?

  5. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    December 27th, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    Hello Kay, I hope you find the tips useful. Archival binders and boxes are available online. I can’t say exactly what to choose but there are online stores that specialize in archival storage. Gaylord Online and Light Impressions are good places to look. If you don’t find anything that suits your needs simply searching for “archival binders” will turn up other sources, just make sure that they are acid-free and chemically stable if you want the longest preservation you can get.

  6. Kay Strickland Says:
    December 28th, 2010 at 7:05 am

    I appreciate learning about these sources, Daniel. Thanks!

  7. Nancy Says:
    January 2nd, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    Daniel, your opening paragraphs for this post make me yearn for old family letters (none of which exist for my own family, as far as I can tell). Those paragraphs are so beautifully and poignantly written….

    Thank you for the information about preserving and storing letters. Though I don’t have any old family letters, I have two sets of relatively recent letters from two different aunts. I’ve transcribed them and stored them, but I haven’t scanned them. I actually hadn’t thought about doing it until now. I’ll pull them out and begin scanning.

    Thanks, again.