Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Old letters

A neighbor approached me yesterday regarding what I consider to be an amazing "find." Her mother recently passed, and my neighbor discovered a box containing a huge stack of handwritten letters to her mother from her father, written from 1940 through 1949 during his service overseas. The letters were from Germany, France, and other locations where he served during the war. She said they were not romantic in nature---though some are more intimate than others---but more of a detailing of what was going on around him at the time, his observations, and things she believes to be details most people simply didn't/don't know. The first letters begin when her dad was a corporal, and as the years progressed, so did his rank in the military and, naturally, the scope of the letters. I believe he earned the rank of major by '49. 

Also in the box were items he saved, such as pamphlets carried by German soldiers which detailed how they expected to be treated in the event of capture. 

My neighbor thought I might like to have these letters and memorabilia for a possible novel. I told her no, she needs to keep every scrap. It's like a living history!

My recommendation was for her to read each letter again with Post-its standing by so she can put the letters in chronological order and color code them for location and contents, i.e. political, day-to-day operations, military expectations, or too-intimate-to-share. I explained that in this way she can have them indexed by year, topic, and location which will make it easier for her---or someone---later on who might want to turn this into a book. I also suggested she scan every slip of paper as the originals are beginning to deteriorate.

Now my question. I don't want to mislead her or send her down a rabbit hole with this. She is a schoolteacher, not a writer. I am a writer of fiction with zero nonfiction experience. What can she do and where would she start? She has no interest in trying to self-publish. Are there editors at houses that publish nonfiction that would be interested, maybe have someone on staff capable of turning this treasure trove into a book? Who would read these letters to determine if pursuing such a thing is even worthwhile?

What a terrific find! But let's not get the cart before the horse, and if the paper is beginning to deteriorate the very last thing you want to do is handle it, or subject it to the heat and light of a photocopy machine.

I don't know what to do here because my expertise is in publishing, and your situation here is about archiving. Archiving means saving it correctly for the person who does want to use the material later on.

This is where you consult your local librarian and/or historical society.  They will have staffers who have seen this kind of situation before and will know what to do, or where to direct you for information.

Indexing the information is NOT for a relative amateur. Indexing is a real art form. There's even a society of people who practice the art and magic of indexing.  Indexing is one of those things that sounds easy but getting it done right is a whole lot harder than you think.

While your friend may not want to turn these letters in to a book, she may be interested in learning how to index and how to preserve them.

I hope you'll encourage her to do this. This kind of first hand information is vital to historians both now and in the future.  I have several clients who emerge periodically from the archives of libraries far and near, clutching their notes, beaming with joy at the information they've uncovered there.  It's akin to watching a kid unwrap presents on Christmas.


Beth H. said...

I'm a librarian! I absolutely agree with Janet regarding contacting a librarian. However, I wouldn't advise your local public librarian. People in different specializations have different skills. You should tell her to contact an archivist. If you have a nearby university, start there. Look for people with "Archivist" in their job title, or contact the special collections library, and they'll connect her to the right person.

I'll also echo what Janet said regarding photocopiers. Light can damage old paper. I'll also add that she should steer clear of post-it notes. The glue on them is fairly mild, but acidic, and can damage paper.

Archiving is hard work. It involves knowledge of archival materials (acid-free folders and labels), handling old materials, arrangement, and description. This is a really great find, and she shouldn't have trouble finding people to help!

Kitty said...

What a great book this find would make!

Theresa said...

I'm a historian, and I recommend getting in touch with the state historical society. They usually have both librarians and archivists on staff, and in this case the archivist could be particularly helpful with preservation. OP, my work focuses on WWII, so feel free to contact me about additional ideas. These are the kinds of finds historians live for.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Another long comment. In the mood I guess.

A couple of days ago I mentioned my log line,
"I met my parents for the first time after they died," which got me on TV.
That log line referred to my discovery of 125 WWII letters I discovered, buried at the bottom of my mom’s cedar chest, two days after she died. (My dad died seven months before.)
I was filmed speaking about the letters. When the clip was shown I was interviewed by FOX News in NYC about the discovery (back when I liked FOX). The producers kept urging me to write a book about the letters. I did.
‘Gifts in White Paper,’ has been queried a bazillion times and I now know of what Janet speaks. The letters are a wonderful archive. My writing about the letters, the two special people who wrote them, and the times in which they lived, is stellar. Some of my best writing ever. (Don’t cha just love how humble I am?) But they are of little interest to an audience beyond those who gather around my dining room table.
To OP’s neighbor. Cherish them, pass them on, and be thankful for the insight they provide.

Julie Weathers said...

What a great find. I agree with all this information and also on Beth's suggestion to find a specialist at a university.

When I was researching the King Ranch, the librarians in Odessa, TX were wonderful. Odessa not only had a pretty decent historical section, but they had an entire floor of the library that was archives, I had temperatures and weather in Brownsville on any given day, what performer was at the local theater, menus, society columns, the gentleman's debate club got into a brawl where police had to be called to break it up (the brawlers included the future Mrs. King's then love interest who was a young minister), when the different riverboats came in and what they were carrying, etc. thanks to the newspapers we tracked down. I was even able to solve a King Ranch mystery their historian had been unable to crack.

Librarians are awesome.

I was reading some letters from the Civil War the other day and regretting the fact that email means there will be none of these lovely letters for future generations. I'm not sure it's really an improvement in some ways.

Kathy Joyce said...

State or local WWII or military museums may be helpful/interested too.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Yesss, hit up an archivist, if only to learn how to best handle this treasure.

They'll teach you about the best way to record this info, store it and more.

Non-flash photography is preferable to scanning/photography, if you want to make an image.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

I have my grandfather's WWI journal and a scrapbook with all kinds of things in it. The historical society (Falmouth. MA) has posted it online.
I will photograph the scrapbook, it's in good shape. And at some time I will donate the materials to the library in Sandwich, MA, which has an archivist who would love to have them.
Grandfather Kershaw grew up in Falmouth and moved to Sandwich when he married my grandmother. He was a journalist and worked for many of the local papers. It is a wonderful thing to have and keeps him alive for us.

Kari Lynn Dell said...

I'm on the board of our local historical society, and I'm pretty sure our director just had an aneurysm at the mention of putting sticky notes on any of these items. Even that small amount of adhesive could do permanent damage, especially to paper goods of that age.

Do not shuffle the contents. Do not take pictures. Contact your state historical society and get a recommendation for the best organization in your area that has the knowledge and capacity to properly preserve and record each document.

If something like this came into our museum, each piece would be photographed/scanned in the proper manner, then added to a database called Past Perfect where it can be accessed by any researcher who is doing work based in this era. In this manner, it could become the basis for multiple works of fiction and non-fiction, an invaluable public resource which the owner can also still view when they want.

Mister Furkles said...


What is on the Internet will be somewhere for decades of not centuries. The sad thing is the lack of diaries. Much of WWI and WWII information is derived from diary entries. People do not keep diaries any more. Sad.

One of the might-have-been great finds for Civil War historians was a thick diary kept by a sentry outside of R. E. Lee's field tent. Unfortunately, no significant comments on comings and goings of Lee's lieutenants or of military discussions that must have been overheard. It was all about the sentry's ache, pains, and damp & dirty clothes. Oh, well, some diaries are not interesting.

On the other hand, some distant relations have preserved the Johnson family letters and diaries from the very early days in Kentucky. A treasure trove for historians researching Daniel Boon and the early settlers of that region.

Some distant ancestors settled in Massachusetts and Virginia in the early sixteen hundreds. Even a laundry list might be helpful to historians. But nothing. Not even their cat's names.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

My sister-in-law is an archivist for the state of Texas. It's absolutely fascinating what goes into the preservation of old paper. As Janet said: A real art form.

Good advice from everyone about *not* handling the items.

OT:Sharyn, I saw your note about your sister's upcoming show (and that you're gifting her a copy of my first book). Thank you! I used to vacation in Sandwich every summer, back before I opened the sanctuary.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

What an incredible find - I agree with the others. Find an archivist. They usually have nearly a decade of higher education specifically tailored to preserving and cataloging old documents. I have a good friend who recently got her masters in archiving, and she has quite a few horror stories about documents that were damaged with the best of intentions.

I have to disagree with Mr. Furkles - diaries are everywhere. They're just not always on paper anymore. Blogs, vlogs, emails - these are the treasure troves of the future.

Ashes said...

I'm a librarian too and to echo what Beth H. says up top, this is not something we'd deal with locally.

Of course, local is a relative term, if you live in a city with a huge library there might be someone on staff who handles this sort of thing. The most I could do, as a librarian, if I were working that day, would be to contact the regional librarian and maybe help with some online research about who to contact.

But! I have also worked at a museum, and this is MUCH more related to my museum experience. Even as a lowly attendant and technician, I was trained in receiving artifacts. Our local museum staff are periodically trained by different provincial organizations on the care, organization, and preservation of their collection.

So by all means, check out your library, but don't forget your museum!

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

I meant scanning/photocopying. Duh me.

Sam Mills said...

Another archivist here! Nooo Post-It Notes! No tape or glue of any kind!! In fact, if some of the letters are still folded up leave them that way till somebody trained has a look. Modern photocopiers are usually fine but you'll want somebody to assess how fragile they are first.

And yes, indexing is a skill and there are standard vocabularies that mean someone other than you can use it. When I worked at my local historical society folks would donate things they had arranged, marked, post-it-noted, stuck in sleeves, etc...and while I appreciated the love that went into the effort, the materials would have been better off untouched, as I had to redo anyway.

If you don't have a historical society with a trained archivist (lots of small places have volunteers valiantly trying to self-train) then yes, check if your library has an archivist on staff, or your nearest university special collections department.

They'll also have an idea who the local historians use to publish things like this. There are many books of letters/diaries/etc out there, often linked to university funding.

Very cool find, by the way!!

Sam Mills said...

Sorry, second note: digitization is a nice backup and putting things online provides more accessibility in the short run, but PRESERVE THOSE ORIGINALS AND PHYSICAL COPIES. They'll be safely waiting in an (acid-free) box long after your webhost has gone out of service and eaten your content...or your hard drive goes kaput...or your cloud host service has a server accident...or your grandkids forget to migrate those icky old .pdfs to whatever the new file format is in 20/30/40 years... Digitization is a permanent commitment to maintaining those files and their hardware forever. Paper can sit in granny's attic for 50 years and still be readable. /end crotchety archivist soap box

Bonnie Shaljean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie Weathers said...

Mister Furkles,

Yes, emails and other things will be around for a long time, but how many people actually write letters in emails today? How many people keep them if they do? Is anyone going to have those letters? Probably not because the recipient will read them and delete at some point.

There's something quite poignant about reading even copies of these letters and journals in a person's own hand. You see the hesitation, the crossing out and rethinking, the meandering mind. Even the style of writing is telling. Now schools are debating whether they should teach cursive writing as it's not necessary anymore. Really?

I completely agree some diaries and collections are better than others. Even mundane diaries I find useful, however. Some of them read like a best-selling novel. Holy crow.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

Also be very careful about storing old documents & letters in plastic, because not all types are suitable for preservation; and make sure to only use acid-free paper or cardboard. I'm sure I don't even need to mention never to use scotch tape.

The blogger Lori Case writes:

"The key to preserving your paper documents is to keep them in an acid-free, humidity-controlled environment…

You can organize and file your documents in acid-free folders, and keep them in an acid-free box. Or you could place your documents in archivally safe plastic sleeves and keep them in an album or binder. Another popular alternative is to encapsulate a document between two sheets of polyester film.

Regardless of how you choose to store your documents, NEVER STORE THEM IN AN ATTIC OR BASEMENT. Extreme temperature and humidity changes cause rapid deterioration. Store your items in a room that is comfortable to you, with stable temperature and humidity.

Q: Can I store my documents in those plastic protector sheets that fit ring-binders?

A: Plastic enclosures are safe for documents ONLY if they are made of polyester, polypropylene, or polyethylene. Other plastics are not chemically stable and will release damaging acids. Especially dangerous is PVC (polyvinylchloride) commonly found in 'store-bought' binders; it emits hydrochloric acid over time.

Q: Is there any problem with putting more than one document in the same plastic sleeve?

A: No, but documents should be interleaved with acid-free paper to prevent acid migration from one doument to another. Acid-free paper that is buffered will also counteract the formation of more acids in the future." [The same will be true for boxes.]

Colin Smith said...

Some really good comments here. I can't add to the expert advice on archiving, only to agree that Opie needs to get these treasures professionally preserved and made available.

I love history. My interest in history started when I was very young and fascinated with the British monarchy. Since then, my interest has expanded to how what we see as "big events" were perceived by ordinary people. For example, the Battle of Hastings was one of the most important battles in European history. What was it like to be a Saxon villager somewhere miles away from the action? How much would he know about what was happening on the south coast? When William the Conqueror rode through the country in an aggressive campaign of insurgent suppression, he would be very much affected. But sadly many of those people weren't leaving accounts for us. It was largely ecclesiastics and nobility that wrote.

ANYWAY... what I actually wanted to comment on (the above was bonus content) was the point that Julie and Sam both raised about the need for diaries and contemporary commentary in our day. I am concerned that while we have the means to communicate ideas undreamed of by previous generations, much of that is ephemeral. People don't generally email and tweet for posterity. Even this blog is a record of our times, and yet what will become of it in 100 years? Who's going to maintain the data when there's no-one here to pay the ISP?

I don't like to link to my own blog, but I wrote an article about this a while ago. Hopefully, Janet will excuse me posting a link for the sake of shortening my comment. :)

Analog vs. Digital: A Thought for the Ongoing Debate

Claire Bobrow said...

Great post and comments today. I learned the hard way that proper indexing is an art form. A grad school professor hired me one summer to index his giant collection of California native plant slides (remember those?). I'm pretty confident I made things worse.

Lennon Faris said...

I have zero expertise in this area but love museums and history and am just inexplicably thrilled that so many Reiders work in this field!

OK enough with the excited run-ons. Back to writing.

Sam Mills said...

P.S. I'm loving the show of librarian/archivist/historian hands. I loved getting writers into the archives (always so shy to admit they were doing research for fiction--it's okay! Tell us! We have a blast digging up cool tidbits for you!) And I admit I also processed new collections with my writer's eye open. One day I'll write that Southwestern ghost story...

P.P.S. You don't think of the Internet as ephemeral till your favorite website vanishes for lack of web hosting payments (my high school Geocities site...gone! Though perhaps that's for the best...). The Internet Archive is saving a ton of content, but you still have to know what the URL was to go looking for old pages.

Dani Nosek said...

Has anyone read Everyone Brave is Forgiven? It started out with just some letters the author found from his grandparents during WWII. It's a beautifully written no el and so heart wrenching. I recommend it. But I think it also shows a bit of what kind of fiction you can create from a bit of history.

Bill D said...

My parents were divorced when my mother died in 1974. One of my mother's "friends" went through her things after her death, and threw away over 100 letters that my father had sent while serving in Europe during WWII; those letters described just about everything he did and thought during those years, limited only by the usual censorship restrictions. When my father learned that the letters had been trashed, he got madder than I'd ever seen. And until his death many years later, whenever the subject came up, he referred to the woman as "that G..D...Marilyn(last name)."

Julie Weathers said...


"You don't think of the Internet as ephemeral till your favorite website vanishes for lack of web hosting payments (my high school Geocities site...gone!"


Verizon bought out Compuserve. Compuserve had bought out AOL years before. So, the Literary forum underwent some changes over the 30+ years it was in existence. The last iteration was Compuserve Books and Writers Literary Forum. In November a notice went up at the top of all Compuserve forums that they would be shut down as of December 15.

20 years of writing and craft discussions would be lost. Compuserve holds the copyright to the threads though the individual posters held the copyright to their personal posts.

Some of the discussions were quite remarkable and I realized once more it really was like a living writing course. Jo Bourne who has gone on to win numerous awards for her historical romances held court on a variety of subjects writers would pay good money for in college or at a writing seminar. Diana Gabaldon did too, of course. There were pages of her discussions about the craft of writing. One person did in-depth discussions on grammar. Writing exercises that I still draw on today to help with this or that. Umpteen discussions on synopses and queries. Then there were the covers of all the members who had been published. Pages and pages of them that aren't important except when you realize how many published authors spawned there.

All gone.

We have a new literary forum and are blowing and going, but the history is lost unless Compuserve decides to release the copyright. I don't see that happening.

Kae Ridwyn said...

So many Librarians and Archivists here at the Reef! I'm honoured to join - and to add my agreement to theirs, Opie :) said...

Oh, Julie. I'm so sad for you, hearing that news. I never visited that forum, but I know how much it meant to you. That loss must be just devastating.

This has been an interesting discussion. I have (copies of) dozens of letters my great aunt sent home when she was an army nurse stationed in the Pacific during WWII. I find them fascinating. So many little details, from what she's reading to what movies they see to what they eat. Off-hand comments like: "Sir Fleming was here not so awfully long ago. That penicillin is wonderful." And the details you realize she left out until she mentions something later, like how wonderful it was to eat real potatoes in their jackets, and raw carrots were a treat. And how anyone can operate when they have lights, it shows how good you are if you can do it with just a flashlight (this while she was in New Guinea).

It never occurred to me to archive the letters, although I have thought about publishing them. Sadly, I only have photocopies and don't know who might have the originals, if they even still exist. Questions that will likely never have answers.

Sam Mills said...


That's so sad! Amazon just got rid of all their customer forums, too. I made some great friends on those boards (some of us made a Facebook group to keep in touch, thank goodness), so even though I hadn't popped in for a while it's sad to think that all of those great conversations (and lists and lists of book recommendations!) have vanished.