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Old Letters and At-Home Archiving

May 2, 2020

With the extra time on our hands after a month of quarantine, maybe there are other things we can spend our time on, like preserving family ephemera. This is an assisted blog post from my coworker, Christine Irizarry, who writes about the importance of family letters. And the latter part talks about preserving your family records. 


I've had some extra help this month with blog post writing from my coworker, Christine. I've been planning a blog post for a bit to provide some basic, at-home archiving tips for people performing spring cleaning right now, which those details are at the bottom of this blog post. This top part about the importance of letters and preserving them was written by Christine Irizarry from the Green Hills Library, to give you all an idea for posterity's sake during our stay-at-home order. 

In her writing, she references the letters and other items written by Katharina Dury, some letters she found that were written to one of her family members, and a letter written by a former Nashville school teacher. If you haven't read the previous blog posts about the Dury family - here are the links to both blog posts. Part One and Part Two

Without further ado, here's Christine's post...

Writing and preserving letters in the time of the Coronavirus 

Leaving their loved ones in Bavaria, Katharina Dury and George Dury, together with George’s sister and brother-in-law the Gattingers, went into exile, arrived in America in 1849, and lived the rest of their lives in Tennessee. We can be certain that many letters from and to the Durys were written and mailed between Tennessee and Bavaria to share all the news and send greetings.

When we’re not together in the same rooms as our friends and distant family members, in our longing and isolation and to stay in touch despite the separation, we can write letters and receive letters from them in return.

Receiving a letter is very different from receiving an electronic message or a telephone call. Like exile, a quarantine and “stay at home order” mean separation. In separation, whether because of travel or a novel coronavirus, getting a letter in the mail means bridging this gap by receiving a tangible physical object, which may survive for years, even centuries.

Katharina Dury preserved some letters by pasting them into her diary/commonplace book, where she wrote some of her reflections, collected quotations and copied songs.

Letter pasted in the Dury DIary, Nashville Metro Archives

Preserving letters is a good thing. Many of our possessions ‒ clothes, cars, furniture ‒ are replaceable but a personal letter is not a commodity that can be substituted with an equivalent object. It is unique, and in this sense, a letter is ‒ in my view ‒ a work of art. Letters are not difficult to keep, nor do they take up much space, despite their fragility when exposed to light. The best place to keep them is in dark temperature-controlled archives where they lie forgotten, especially if they’ve been slipped inside a book or diary. 

Advice from Sarah - if possible, scanning your letters or taking photos of them to digitally preserve is also wise. Using a rule of 3 to archive your items, letters are fragile and important, as Christine says, so saving them in multiple ways is important. So having a digital scan to use and save is very wise. After preserving your letters in a dark- temperature controlled area, it's best not to use them or touch them often to prevent added oils from your skin or acidity to break down the material. Making another physical copy from your scan is also wise, if you'd like to ever show your letter to someone. 

Then something happens: a death, a search for an essential artifact. We then stumble upon a letter or two. When my mother Mila died, I found a card she had written to her parents in 1930 in Japan where my mother’s father Wilhelm Roth was a visiting professor for several years.

Card written by Christine's mother, to her parents in 1930

In the same small trove of documents, I found a letter from October, 1933, written by a Nashville teacher, Mary Pat Patterson. She wrote from Nashville to my mother’s younger brother Winfried in Berlin, months after my mother’s family has passed through Nashville en route from Japan to Germany. Both Mila and Winfried had attended school in Nashville for about two months.

A letter written to her uncle by a Nashville school teacher.

Years from now, someone may find a letter written in isolation to a distant loved one during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic and wonder what it was like, living in these strange times. The art of letters is still alive.

Christine Irizarry, Library Associate, Green Hills Library

April 14, 2020

[Photos by C. Irizarry]

P.S. See also:

- Algernon D'Ammassa, Las Cruces Sun-News, March 22, 2020:

How writing letters can help you through the coronavirus pandemic.

- Elaine Lipworth, March 24, 2020:

How Writing Letters Can Help You Stay Connected in the New Normal.

- Jai-Leen James, Asbury Park Press, April 10, 2020:

Coronavirus in NJ: Toms River Police Department launches letter-writing campaign for residents in isolation.


At-Home Archiving Tips

Some archiving supplies: paper photo containers, a shoe box for storage, a pencil and pH pen, blank white computer paper, and folders. 

As much time as we've all spent in our homes in the last month, I'm sure we've memorized the cracks in the walls and the various projects that need to be done. Yes, we've got plenty of time to handle these projects, but if you're like me, you're not sure where to start. And I'm referring to re-organizing my closet. Still working up to that project that could take a few days. 

But you might also be going through some of your photographs or personal papers as well, organizing them to the best of your ability. Not an easy feat, let me assure you. That's part of the job of an archivist after all - processing and organizing papers, sometimes personal papers. We have to sort through photographs, papers, newspapers, you name it. It can be daunting but not if you go at it the right way. 

If this is something you're currently at home tackling - trying to organize your many photographs or documents, allow me to help a bit. Chances are you don't have the various supplies we use when processing collections, but that doesn't matter. Here are some tips of what you can use to organize your materials and how best to go about it. I have several old photographs at my home that I've been needing to organize and label, so I'll use these as my examples as I provide my archival advice.

A birthday card from the Clarence Alford Collection. 

First step - see what you have 

However many papers or photos you have to go through, an important first step is to go through all of your items and organize them to your liking, whether that be by date, event, or color. It's your items after all, but make sure however they're organized, there's an obviousness to the order. This is for future reference, if you ever choose to donate your items to a repository or merely pass them on to a family member, you want to make sure the person that looks at them next understands how they're organized. In archive-speak, we call this "provenance" or essentially the original order. 

Examples of some of my items to archive and preserve.

Second step - Toss out what you don't need/want

Next, maybe you want to consider throwing out or recycling some items. And here, I'm not referring to photos but documents or other ephemera. Maybe you went to a play or musical in the past and brought home 10 brochures or playbills? Do you really still need all 10? Probably not. That's something we do in our process as well, tossing out the excess items not needed. I'll usually keep at least 3 copies, but it's important to keep the most valuable copy or maybe one that you wrote notes on? It's your choice since these are your items. But just saying, you don't need to keep EVERYTHING you've saved over the years. 

Third step - Labels are important

Labeling your items - a big favor for the next person to receive them. If it's not already obvious what your items are, like dated letters or programs, then it's important to do so in some way. With photographs, I can't specifically encourage writing on the back of them but if you need to, it's best to use pencil. If possible, it might be best to place a note with the photos providing the date of the photo and any other identifiers. I couldn't tell you how often we receive photos that's neither dated or identified. So we have to play the guessing game based on features in the photo. So the extra help would be awesome for future's sake.

Photo of the Belmont Mansion

Caption of the note written on the backside of the Belmont Mansion photo.

Step 3.5 - Digitization

This step is not required, which is what makes it a half step but it's nonetheless important. Digitizing is a semi-fancy way of saying to scan something digitally or taking a picture of it. This is important because what happens if something were to happen to the original copy? You want another copy and saving a copy of it to your computer allows you to access it without taking it from its container, and also to print out other copies. I mentioned this above in Christine's post, but wanted to mention it again because it's the direction that many Archives and formats are heading in this digital age. 

Photo album page from the McClanahan-Weakley Collection as an example of ways people used to preserve photos. It's also an example of an album that's been digitzed.

Fourth Step - Proper storage

After you've organized your items how you'd like and labeled them, the next step is making sure to store them properly and safely. This means using something with low acidity levels, such as a manila folder or acid-free containers. Also, it's important not to store items with high acidity levels like newspapers with other items; newspapers especially need to be kept separate. And though I can't recommend every product sold in stores for scrapbookers for good archival containers, and seeing as how leaving our homes for these type of items right now isn't essential, I can recommend a few other items in your homes that can help you. 

  • A cleared-out cardboard shoe box (still trying to fully determine if these are completely acid free, but the box I'm using is).
  • Ziploc bags are reportedly acid-free and can work for temporary storage of sensitive materials or even a few photographs. Don't keep them in a area with high heat though. 
  • Manila folders, as already mentioned.
  • Computer paper, can be used to create a makeshift folder if you glue or lightly-staple the edges together, or merely folder them over. I say lightly staple because we don't recommend using metal in preservation as it can corrode over time. 

Package of photos kept separate from napkin from the Peabody Hotel, which tested as acidic. It's important to store these items separately. 

Fifth Step - Safe place to rest

And finally, the last step - keeping your items in a safe place. The number one rule for storing sensitive and precious materials is not to keep them anywhere near a heat source, or anywhere with high heat and humidity. That means mold and mold means ruin (unless you can get a conservator to restore your items). And storage temperatures vary depending on the material you're planning to store, such as negatives are wise to keep in a colder climate but you also want to ensure that the humidity level isn't high wherever you store them. Easier said than done, I know since we live in Tennessee. 

But for general storage, my best advice is NOT to place these items in your attic or basement, if the said basement is like mine and gets humid easily. If you keep a dehumidifier down there running constantly, that's wise but still not the best guarantee. Keep the items, preferrably in a dark and cool place, like maybe a closet or properly placed bookcase, away from the elements. Of course you still have to worry about spiders and other insects, so keep that in mind. Maybe there's somewhere safe in your home that doesn't receive too much action of heat or critters? Oh, and keep these items away from vents as well as direct lighting. 

Lot's of advice to take in, and sorry if I overwhelmed you. But take as much of the advice as you'd like, you might even disagree with some of the things I've said and that's okay too. If you'd like to learn a few other tips or dig further, the Library of Congress has a good blog post from a few years ago that ventures into the same territory - LOC blog post on personal archiving. 

And here are before and after photos of the processing I did on some of my personal records and photos...oh, and yes that's a Titanic movie calendar; don't judge me, like many girls of my generation, I was a Titanic freak when that movie came out and I've saved several items from it. Sorry, I'm not sorry. 


Before processing

After processing, with everything sorted into groups and placed in boxes


Caption This! 

"My bad mama, it was your beans."

I leave you with this photo I found in our photo collection. It was simply identified as "Mama Coughing" based on what's written at the bottom of the photo - which by the way, this is not what I mean by writing with pencil, it shouldn't be on the front side of the photo. But as I'm not sure where this came from or the date, which I'd guess is maybe 1930-40's, I'd like to propose a caption contest for fun. Feel free to comment below with a catchy caption for this photo! See mine above, sorry had to go with potty humor.


'Til next time, 



lucille ball


Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.