Preserving Old Letters of Note for Future Generations

Old handwritten letters are treasures. They might be love letters between someone’s great-great-grandparents or correspondence home from a soldier posted aboard. They could be reminiscences from a nineteenth-century grand tour of foreign capitals. Maybe they contain fascinating commentary on the events of their era.

These letters of note, like most old things, are subject to deterioration. If they are exposed to harsh conditions or are repeatedly handled, they may not be around for the next generation to appreciate.

Fortunately, preserving old letters requires no special skills. It’s not expensive, and anyone can do it. But it does require patience and care. Here are a few tips to ensure long lives for these precious artifacts.

Prepare a Clean Workspace

Preparing letters for preservation takes a lot of surface space, and that space needs to be clean. Anything that could damage letters – food, beverages, fountain pens – should be kept on a separate table.

Wash hands before handling these fragile letters. Latex or Nitrile gloves add an extra layer of protection against body oils, but they also make letters hard to manipulate. Assuming the letters are handled gingerly, bare hands that are washed and thoroughly dried should be adequate.

As you spread out your collection, remove paper clips, staples and any other metal attachments. Use a specialized staple remover that’s made for delicate documents. If you can’t get them out without tearing the paper, leave them in.

Scan or Photograph the Letters

It’s ideal to touch the letters as little as possible. Scan or photograph every page. Don’t forget the envelopes.

If you plan to transcribe the letters, do it from the copies. If you print out copies of your scans, there’s nothing wrong with making annotations on them.

Collect the photos or scans into files and back them up in multiple places. Consider using both cloud storage and a physical device such as a memory stick.

Prepare Letters for Storage

There are a number of containers suitable for storing these letters of note, but the important factor is that the containers be acid-free. The letters need to be enclosed to protect them from moisture, dust and common home pollutants.

The protectors could be envelopes, clear plastic bags or pocket pages. Also, you could use archival folders with acid-free tissues between the letters.

Once all the letters are suitably protected, they’re best stored in an archive box. They can be stored flat or upright. Keep the envelopes with the letters.

There are document storage kits available; they contain everything needed to prep and store.

Organizing Letters of Note

Letters might be organized by sender, by recipient, chronologically, by topic or by sender-recipient pairs. The organization of the electronic copies should match that of the physical letters. In addition, create an index.

Storing Old Letters

Ancient documents may have spent decades in an attic or basement and come through OK, but these aren’t ideal places to store them. These locations experience fluctuations in temperature and humidity which potentially damage paper, ink and any photographs that might be included. Ink can run, pages can wrinkle and lettering can fade.

The best storage spot is one away from light, water and humidity and with a constant temperature on the cool side. A shelf in a closet on the main level of an occupied home is a good choice. Use rented storage space only if it’s controlled for temperature and humidity.

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