Sunday, July 31, 2005

Old Letters, postcards & telegrams

I have hundreds of old letters, postcards and telegrams. Most are from my uncle to my Grandmother and Grandfather, during WW1, from Germany. He was killed after the war in a rail yard at the age of 21. I would like to display these letters or at least put them in a binder. I have tried transcribing them, but the impact of reading them in their original state is tremendous. How do I go about saving all of them and still be able to read and display them? Right now they are in an acid free box, in their original envelopes. -- Thank you, Janet.

The importance of laying the letters flat hit me between the eyes, when I recently looked at a letter my mother wrote to me in the mid 1970s. Even in this short time, the outer-most page has become so brittle that it is starting to crack on the fold line.

Archivists will tell you the best way to store paper items is:
-- flat
-- in acid-free, low heat & low humidity conditions
-- away from light
It looks like you are 2/3 there with the acid free box.

Here are my recommendations:
1. Determine if the pages will crack if placed flat. If so, then we must address the issue of increasing the humidity to "gradually" open them. This DOESN'T mean spray them with your steam iron -- THAT would make the ink run. I recommend contacting your county historical society for recommendations on local archivists. Alternately, you can find out about archival products from and look for books on archival methods through your local public library.

2. Scan or color photocopy each item and use these copies from now on when transcribing the handwriting.

3. Place each photocopy in a top-loading sheet protector and place in chronological order in a 3-ring binder for display.

4. Following each photocopy, place the printout of the word-for-word transcription. If you have pages where there is no writing on the back, try to place the original on the left-facing page, and the transcription on the right. In this manner your reader can directly identify with the handwritten page as he is reading your interpretation of the handwriting.

5. Observe normally-accepted transcription guidelines, i.e.

-- Do not add or subtract any letters.

-- Maintain spelling and punctuation of the original.

-- Do not edit by adding last names or states where only first name or a town is given. You could be wrong.

-- Where you cannot decipher a letter type a question mark for each supposed missing letter, and place it in square brackets such as:

[??] represents 2 unrecognizable letters.

-- If you MUST make comments, do them on a separate sheet, and clearly label them: [NOTES FROM TRANSCRIBER] or some such.

REMEMBER: there is a difference between an ABSTRACT of a letter and a TRANSCRIPTION of a letter.

ABSTRACT – a few essential words from the original
TRANSCRIPTION – word for word from the original
You want to do transcriptions.

Well, let's talk about what the experts do. I am thinking back to my visit to the Georgia State Archives. I ordered a particularly large Confederate Civil War file from the vault. It had letters sent home from a soldier in the field, and included a small suede-covered 2"x4" notepad of sorts, with perhaps 10-12 pages.

-- The file came to me in an acid-free box with acid-free folders inside.

-- All of the letters were removed from their envelopes, and were laying flat.

-- There were about 30 pages and envelopes per file folder.

The folders didn't seem to be in chronological order. It appeared that the system was designed to make it easier to look at some of the items without disturbing the other items in the collection.
You can purchase acid-free folders through Light Impressions.

As for sending the originals to a state archive, why not consider eventually sending them to the US Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania? Include with your submission, a report of the Uncle, his service unit, etc. Your uncle’s collection will be catalogued by his name AND his service unit. From a genealogical point of view, this makes it easier for others who had ancestors in the same unit to find his letters which were actually reports of his life and times over in Germany during the war.

When I think back on my Civil War ancestors, I have yet to discover a diary or letters. I’ve learned only a little about their days in service from their pension files. However, I’ve learned a lot about one of the soldiers because a much has been written in diaries and official entries about his unit. By comparing dates of service, I know that the driving rain described by another soldier was also endured by my ancestor, as they were both privates. That other soldier described the meager provisions, lack of adequate food, and the fact that they were camped on a river bank, with the waters rising. The want of one egg to eat was a major theme.

I am so grateful that the family of that other soldier made those personal letters available to the public. A little note here and a sentence there helped me picture what my soldier ancestor was going through on that stormy night’s camp by the riverside.

Your large collection of letters with seemingly personal comments is a very valuable eye-witness report of what life was like during WWI and during his service in Germany. Whether you chose to create a website and keep the originals, or share them as I have suggested, do consider how important it is that people learn what happened to your Uncle and his unit while they served in the military.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt :)
6023 26th Street West PMB 352
Bradenton, FL 34207

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