»Preserving Your Wartime Letters

These letters provide valuable insight into the wartime experience and much of this correspondence is being thrown away, lost, or irreparably damaged or—if they are e-mails—deleted. Saving these letters is not difficult, and it is an excellent way to learn about your family's heritage and this nation's history. Different letters need to be cared for in different ways, and it may not be possible to follow all of the recommendations listed below, but the basic suggestions presented here should help you begin the process of preserving your wartime letters.

Although the information below is under copyright, we encourage you to share and distribute it, so long as it is not used for any commercial or for-profit purposes. Special thanks goes to Linda Edquist, one of the nation's foremost archivists, who reviewed this material and offered valuable suggestions.

Quick Preservation Tips

Regarding original handwritten or typed letters, one of the best ways of keeping them in mint condition is to handle them as little as possible. For example:

  • Do not staple, paper clip, or use glue on the letters
  • Do not laminate letters
  • Do not put post-it notes on them
  • Do not secure them with rubber bands

For more detailed tips please review the sections below.

+-Storing and Displaying Your Letters

Do not mix letters with newspapers (for example, old clippings announcing the end of the war or some other momentous event), which are highly acidic and may stain your letters.

Keep Valuable Letters in a Safety Deposit Box: If you have a letter that is of particular value—such as a first hand account of a historic event or a letter by a famous individual—you might want to consider keeping it in a safety deposit box. Just make certain that other family members know where the letter is stored and that the letter is accessible. It is understandable that you might want to showcase the letter, but please keep in mind that sunlight and even household lamps will fade letters relatively quickly, and the damage is irreversible.

Display a Copy: Instead of framing or mounting an original letter, consider making a good color photocopy or scan of the letter and displaying that instead. (Although it will not cause significant light damage to letters if you make duplicates on a copier machine a few times, doing so excessively will fade the letters. It is also best not to duplicate a letter if it is so fragile that unfolding it and placing it flat on a copying machine will cause the paper to tear.)

Transcribe Handwritten Letters: It makes them easier to read, and you will then have an available copy to share with family members and others interested in history.

Avoid Scrapbooks: Even those items with "magnetic pages" or advertised for long-term archiving. Anything with a sticky surface will ultimately damage your letters. Ideally, you should store your letters in archival materials. What you use will depend on whether you have only a few letters or large bundles of them. Although many office supply stores sell products labeled "preservation safe" or "museum quality," these terms are not uniform and the items may, in the long run, actually damage your letters. There are many mail order companies that specialize in archival material, including those listed below.

+-Marking and Cataloging Letters

Avoid paperclips, tape or lamination: Although some professionals allow for the use of plastic paperclips, the Center for American War Letters does not encourage this. We also strongly discourage using any form of adhesive tape, even if it is marked "document safe" and/or "acid-free." The adhesive will discolor the paper and may damage it in other ways. If you have already taped, laminated, or stapled your letters, do not attempt to undo what has already been done. This may only cause even more damage.

Label containers rather than your letters: It is also best not to write on letters or their envelopes. Instead, mark and/or label the container in which you are storing the materials. It is a good idea to record the dates the letters were written, biographical details about the person who wrote and/or received the letters, and related information. Identifying the letters will help other family members, who may find them at a later date, recognize immediately that these are valuable memorabilia and not just a "box of old letters" to be thrown away.

Never use a pen, and never put stickers or labels directly on the letters: Although the Center for American War Letters recommends that you do not write directly on the letters, some professional archivists allow it—but only if it is done lightly with a No. 2 pencil. It is best to write on the back or in the margins of the letter, or better yet, on the envelope. If you need to erase something you've written (and, again, it is preferable not to do so), use only a white vinyl eraser.

Keep the envelopes: Some people throw out the envelopes in which the letters were sent, but these should be saved. They might contain important information such as dates and addresses, and troops sometimes embellish envelopes with sketches or write codes or additional short messages on them.

+-Temperature

Make sure to keep your letters in a place where temperature, humidity, and circulation are all moderate and constant. If the air is too humid, the letters will deteriorate and possibly develop mold. If the air is too dry, the letters will become brittle and fall apart.

Letters should be stored in temperatures around 70º or less and in relative humidity of approximately 40-50%. (Some archivists recommend a cooler; though not cold temperature, if possible.) Avoid keeping your letters in attics, storage sheds, garages, or other poorly insulated areas where the temperature and/or environmental conditions fluctuate dramatically.

Keep your letters in areas safe from water, heat, light, dust, grime, and pests. Letters should not be stored on the floor (where flooding can ruin them), near food (which attracts insects and rodents), under pipes, or next to radiators or heating vents. Interior closets are often an ideal place to store letters, so long as the letters are kept in an archive-safe container and not just stacked unprotected beneath other items. It is best to store your letters flat (unless you have old, brittle letters that might "break" if unfolded), and it is important to check the materials occasionally to make certain no unexpected or gradual damage is occurring.

+-Emails

If you are receiving e-mails from a friend or loved one who is currently deployed overseas, we recommend that you print out every message you receive and save the "hard copies" chronologically. It is not enough to save them electronically on your computer, as the file might crash and the information inside could become irretrievable. (Also, if the file becomes too large, you might become discouraged at a later date by the amount of work it would require to go through all of the e-mails that have been saved. Establishing a routine of printing out each e-mail when it comes in is much easier over the long term.)

Troops are very modest about what they write and often do not think that their messages are significant. But even their most seemingly "mundane" e-mails can offer some small insight into what they are going through while far from home.

+-Repair and Restore Letters

If you need to repair or restore your letters, consider contacting a professional conservator. To find a conservator near you, contact:

The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works
1717 K St., NW, Suite 200
Washington, DC 20006-5342
202-452-9545
http://aic.stanford.edu

+-Archive Products

Please note: The following contact information is provided free as a public service, and the Center for American War Letters is not affiliated with and does not necessarily endorse the for-profit businesses listed below. If you wish to purchase supplies from these companies, we recommend that you request additional information directly from the companies themselves. (Some of them also provide detailed brochures and hand-outs on letter preservation.)

Archival Products
PO Box 1413
Des Moines, IA 50306-1413
(800) 526-5640
http://www.archival.com

Conservation Resources International, L. L. C.
5532 Port Royal Rd.
Springfield, VA 22151
(800) 634-6932
http://www.conservationresources.com

Gaylord Bros.
PO Box 4901
Syracuse, NY 13221-4901
(800) 448-6160
http://www.gaylord.com

The Hollinger Corp.
PO Box 8360
Fredericksburg, VA 22404
(800) 634-0491
http://www.hollingercorp.com

Light Impressions
PO Box 787
Brea, CA 92822-0787
(800) 828-6216
http://www.lightimpressionsdirect.com

Metal Edge, Inc.
6340 Bandini Blvd.
Commerce, CA 90040
(800) 862-2228
http://www.metaledgeinc.com

University Products
PO Box 101
Holyoke, MA 01041-5514
(800) 628-1912
http://www.universityproducts.com

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