Family history research is just one part of passing on the legacy of your ancestors to your children. This helpful guide will show you how to preserve old documents and letters that your family may have accumulated over the years.
Preserving your family history is imperative!
I knew very early on that the stories that my father would recite to me and my brothers would need to be recorded before they got lost in time.
There is only so much that can be remembered and I didn’t want to lose any of the information that was in these stories. And that is why I asked my father to write them down.
Only after typing up these stories did I become engrossed in my family history and that I wanted to learn more about them.
I soon realized that not only were the stories important to preserve but other links to the past were as well, such as documents and letters.
And that is why I have written this guide to help you preserve this part of your family history.
5 Steps To Take:
- Order Your Documents and Letters
- Unfold and Straighten Them
- Digitize Them
- Correct Sleeves To Use
- Archive Them Properly
After reading this helpful guide you may like to check out my How To Preserve Your Family Treasures post. There you will discover how to protect and preserve your old family photos, medals, coins, and even your silverware.
You can also visit The National Archives website where you will get valuable advice on how to handle, store, display, digitize and repair family papers and photos.
Please watch this!
Check out the following 10-minute video presented by the State Archives of North Carolina. It shows you some great preservation tips that you can use to preserve your family’s paper records.
Credit: State Archives of North Carolina
1. Order Your Documents and Letters
Before you can even think about how to file away these cherished memories of your family’s past you first want to put them in order. But even doing that can be stressful to say the least.
Before you begin!
Make sure that you do have all of your documents and letters ready when putting them in order. You do not want to have completed all the following tasks only for another document to find its way into your hands.
With that said, have a thorough look through your home beforehand. Your family heirlooms could be anyway, maybe up in the attic, down in the basement, in the garage, or even tucked away at the back of a closet.
How to order!
The best way to start this process is to lay all of your documents and letters on to a large table. You will want to make sure that you have the space in order to clearly see what you are working with.
The best way to order all of this is obviously chronologically, starting with the earliest date to the most recent.
That’s easy you may think, but please consider grouping the documents and letters into branches of your family tree.
Sort them out by specific surnames that feature in your tree.
Dating these heirlooms can be tricky if you cannot actually find a date. So, for that reason you will need to read what is in these documents and letters and try to make sense of them.
Please be aware though that you may get so engrossed in this reading process, and so the preserving them all may take a lot longer than you thought it would.
2. Unfold and Straighten Them
You don’t want to file them away with all the folds and creases still left in them. In fact this can cause damage to them and may make reading them harder as they age.
Also, if you don’t unfold them then you won’t be able to file them away properly anyway. So, this step is definitely essential.
Take the time with them!
It is definitely a good idea to take letters out of their envelopes, and then file them together. Doing this will help preserve the letter as you will not need to take them out of the envelope every time that you want to look at it.
If you have followed the previous step then you will probably have unfolded them. But please take the time to straighten out those little creases at the corner of your documents and letters.
Taking that little extra care can make all the difference, especially for the next step in this process.
Another part of this step is to remove any staples or paperclips that were originally used to file these records. If they are already quite old there may already be small traces of rust and discoloration.
So, please carry out this step to ensure that they will be preserved.
What if they are rolled up?
The same can also be said for elastic bands that may have been used to roll up these records. Take these bands off and place the document or letter between the pages of a book, or maybe between a couple of books.
This will help straighten out your document or letter. I am against trying to straighten out anything by bending the other way.
By doing this you may do more harm than good as you may add more folds and creases.
3. Digitize Them
If you are passionate about preserving these family artifacts then you will also want to digitize them as well as filing them away. Carrying out the previous two steps will set you up with this next step.
First though, back up!
One thing that I have learned while tracing my own family tree is that backing up your research is essential.
I did suffer the misfortune of losing some of my research due to my memory stick failing. For that reason I decided to save my work on 3 devices, the computer, a portable hard drive, and another memory stick.
Cloud services are also a great way to back up your genealogy research as well.
Benefit of digitizing!
A great benefit of carrying out this digitizing step is that any time that you do want to look at these records you do not need to pull them out from their file and box.
You just load up your computer and take a look. Trust me it’s easier this way as if you are already working on your tree then you have your computer up and running anyway.
You do not have to get up out of your chair and go to another part of the room where you have filed these heirlooms away.
What scanner is best?!
Both of these have had favorable reviews on Amazon.
They are designed for scanning photos but I feel that they can work just as well for your old documents and letters.
Please check out my How To Scan My Photos guide for further information on what settings that you will need to get the best results.
4. Correct Sleeves To Use
Apologies but this is where the whole process does get a tad bit expensive, (unless you haven’t already purchased a scanner already).
The right sleeve!
If you have ever taken up the wonderful hobby of scrap booking then you will be aware of the importance of using acid-free materials.
The same can be said for your preserving your family treasures. So, when choosing what sleeves to use select from acid-free or polypropylene sleeves.
You don’t want to stuff too much into these sleeves.
One reason is that it may cause damage by putting many of your documents or letters into the same sleeve.
And another reason is that they may not lay flat in the sleeve.
So, again if you are passionate about preserving your family history you will want to consider paying that little bit more money and attention.
5. Archive Them Properly
The next and final step in this preserving process is to select the filing and storing material that is right for you.
Yes, I know that I have already discussed sleeves, but there is more to preserving your old documents and letters.
If you are familiar with archive centers then you will be aware of boxes that are used to store records. Inside these boxes are paper files which you can use to collect a number of your sleeves that you have put in order.
Files are just another way to organize your records, rather than them being loose inside a box.
- Keep temperature below 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Humidity should be between 15% and 65%.
- Do not store in the basement, attic or garage.
- Avoid areas that are prone to damp,
- And where food and water is stored.
Please check out the Gaylord Archival Flip-Top Document Preservation Box. This is a great box to not only store documents and letters, but also newspaper clippings, photos and family records as well.
Thank You and Please Leave A Comment
I hope you enjoyed reading how you can preserve old documents and letters. If you have any questions or comments then please leave a comment below.
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