Old letters are an important first-person account of family, local and national history. Reading the words from the past, directly from the pen of those who lived it, can be a very powerful experience.
If you don’t take the time now to properly preserve old letters, they can deteriorate beyond repair quickly. And the content will be lost forever.
Paper can be extremely fragile, particularly if it was made during an era where acid content in paper was high. Age does not necessarily determine fragility. High rag content paper will be stronger and less fragile, even if it happens to be 50 years older.
Even if your letters are in pristine condition now, preserving them properly will make sure they survive for future generations to enjoy!
Here are some tips to consider when preserving old letters:
1. Wash and dry your hands thoroughly before handling archival materials. Or wear a pair of white cotton gloves. Be sure not to catch your gloves or a hangnail on a ragged edge of paper.
2. Store old letters in acid-free materials. This is the only way to properly preserve paper heirlooms. See the article “Archival Supplies” under the subject heading “Collections Care” for more information on purchasing appropriate materials.
3. Each letter and its envelope should be protected in its own polypropylene sleeve, preferably one page per sleeve. Make sure all parts of the letter are visible through the sleeve to avoid handling it directly again. Once it is placed inside the sleeve, try not to remove it from its sleeve. Rips and tears can happen in the blink of an eye!
4. Choose a sleeve size that is slightly larger than the letter you are preserving. A tight fit may cause damage when trying to insert the letter.
5. Unfold each page of the letter and store it flat. If a letter does not unfold easily, do not force it into a sleeve. Contract with a professional paper conservator to flatten stubborn creases.
6. Keep all parts of a letter together. Be sure to identify each page of the same letter, so the pages are not confused with other letters. But do not write on the letters themselves! Use acid-free labels and affix them to the sleeves. Label the writer, the recipient, the date and the page number on each sleeve.
7. You may choose to store your letters in acid-free boxes, or you may wish to purchase polypropylene sleeves that are hole-punched for a three-ring binder.
8. Create an organization system for your letters that makes sense. You may want to divide them by recipient or sender, and place them chronologically within each category. You can also organize your collection strictly chronologically or by subject matter. Choose whatever method suits your collection best. Large collections may be more accessible if you create a cross-referenced finding guide.
9. Consider making a high resolution digital scan of each page of your letter(s) and envelope(s). Over time, light will damage all works on paper, causing them to fade and eventually deteriorate. Although the light blast from a scanner is quite bright, theoretically afterwards your originals can be preserved forever in darkness. The letters can also be shared easily with family members and researchers without causing additional stress to the originals.