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.