Caring for a Family Collection
September 19, 2016
Many of us caught the genealogy bug when we were children. I find this is especially true with the current generation of NextGen genealogists. As a child, I was well versed in my family’s deep and varied history. I credit those stories with my burgeoning passion for genealogy in my twenties. One such intriguing story was my grandfather’s service during World War II. As a medical doctor, he served in the South Pacific for over eighteen months, and shortly after my grandfather shipped out, my father was born. They did not meet until my father was a toddler, almost two years later. Another facet of this story is any historian’s or genealogist’s dream: My grandparents wrote to each other every day during my grandfather’s deployment. Better yet, the majority of the letters survived. Originally preserved by my grandparents, the letters eventually came under the care of my father who passed them along to me.
Becoming the caretaker of my family’s historical past is a great responsibility, and it does feel overwhelming at times. There are many aspects of care to consider: how should the letters be preserved, who is allowed access, privacy concerns, what happens after I am done with them, and so on. The following is a narrative of my journey as the family archivist. Nowadays, there are many options available as well as many tools. In my case, this collection of letters, documents, and photographs is huge. In fact, there are over 1,300 letters! Did I mention how overwhelming taking care of a sizable collection can be?
My first thought when I acquired the letters was that I wanted to read them all to glean any genealogical information I could. In retrospect, this sounds wonderful, but at the same time, very naïve. I found reading one letter or two at a time to be fun, but I missed out on the bigger picture of the narrative—similar to picking up a book and reading a chapter in the middle. I knew what happened on one day, but I did not know how or why those events occurred at that particular time.
Organization became the key first step. In the beginning, I separated my grandfather’s and grandmother’s letters and arranged them chronologically. I was able to see the gaps in the narrative more easily. I opened each letter, removing rusted staples and paperclips and flattening folds. While not the best preservation technique, I saved each letter in a plastic sheet protector and organized them in binders. For me, this was the easiest and cheapest method. There are drawbacks to using plastic sheet protectors, especially in places where water damage is likely to occur.
Transcribing and scanning the letters came next. In the beginning, it was difficult to read my grandfather’s handwriting, but I improved over time. Transcribing the letters forced me to actually read what was written, instead of skimming over the words. Once I finished transcribing each letter, I scanned it. All my scans are .TIFF, not .JPEG, which are the better file for preservation. Having a backup copy or a digital image to share with family members is important. What if my house was damaged and the letters with it? I feel much happier knowing I have backups! And always remember to save a set of backups off-site.
Sharing the letters with family was a priority to me. My father had never actually read the letters, even though he had kept them safe for many years. The letters tell his story, although he was too young to remember any of it. With digital copies of the letters, I could have shared them with family through email, or shared sites like Dropbox or Google Drive, but I didn’t. I chose blogging instead. Very early in the project, I decided to post one letter a day on a blog. For me, blogging established a routine as well as a disciplined way to keep myself on task. By posting the letters, I created some lovely “cousin bait.” I have connected with distant cousins as well as descendants of my grandparent’s FAN club. In return, I have acquired new stories and photographs.
Since privacy may be an issue for some readers, always consider the information you might be sharing. In my case, the vast majority of people involved in the letters are deceased; the only person who might object to the content of the letters is my father, and he has given me his wholehearted support for this undertaking. I also feel strongly against redacting history. I may not agree with the opinions or attitudes of the past, but I feel it is my duty to preserve the past, not rewrite it.
After blogging “a letter a day” for a few years, I decided I wanted to reach a different audience as well as preserve the letters in a more concrete way. Self-publishing books has become exceedingly easy over the last few years. Companies like CreateSpace and Blurb produce high quality products, as well as the ability to sell the books through Amazon. I published the first volume of letters last year and am currently working on the second. By having a physical book to share, donations to libraries and genealogical societies are now possible. Books are also great for older relatives who shy away from the Internet.
While I may be finished transcribing the letters, the collection still takes up a lot of my time. I continue to prepare the letters for publication as well as plan for their future. My preservation techniques have improved over the years. Currently, I am phasing out the plastic sheets and binders and am in the process of moving the letters into Hollinger boxes and archival folders. I plan to create a finding aid and catalog the collection. Eventually, I want to find a repository or library willing to house the collection. While I enjoy caring for the letters, I am not sure my children would want the responsibility, so it’s wise to think ahead to the next next generation!
Deborah Sweeney is a genealogist, author, and blogger based in Northern California. A former theatrical costumer and a fourth grade teacher, she holds a Certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University and has completed the ProGen Study Group. Dear Mother, Love Daddy is the first published volume of letters written by her grandparents during World War II, and a second volume, Lots of Love, Daddy, will be published in the fall of 2016.