How should I organize old family letters?

by Sally J.

in * How to ORGANIZE Your Photos, Free Articles / Blog

Photo by Future Shape, via Flickr

Earlier, I wrote about how to preserve family letters so they last as long as possible. The focus was on love letters (awww) but you’ve probably already figured out that my advice applies to all kinds of letters written on paper. A big part of the solution is to simply unfold each letter and place them all in archival envelopes, folders, and boxes. As long as you’ve got your hands on them anyway, you might as well learn more about what’s in there.

My advice is to examine what’s written in the letters as you’re rehousing them. This is more of a scan of the content and not so much a full reading. Feel free to get lost in the details if you can spare the time, but all you need at this point is some basic information. Take notes as you go.


Remember, this is just an overview, not a list of every single letter. Those are called “calendars” and they’re reserved for things like the George Washington Papers. Click here to gawk at the 800+ page Calendar of the Correspondence of George Washington (1915) online. This? You don’t need.

Your task is much, much simpler: All you need is a general description at the folder level. Click here to read an earlier post I wrote about levels of description — and how doing it the way archivists do can keep you sane as you work on your family papers.

Here’s the kinds of questions you want to be thinking about:

Photo by Cynthia Closkey, via Flickr

Who gave you these letters? Was that person the original owner? The author? If not, who wrote these letters? To whom were they addressed? What years do they cover? Are there any unidentified mystery items? What’s missing? (This could be the other half of the correspondence, important dates, or family members who don’t appear anywhere or gaps in years.)

What kind of shape is it in? Do you see distressed paper, faded ink, creases, tears, signs of any pest damage? Add it to your notes.

The Golden Rule of Archival Arrangement Is: “Respect Provenance”

Provenance is just a fancy word for chain of ownership. But even I admit it sounds better in French. Mostly, this rule is about is not creating an overly elaborate new arrangement. For family archivists like you, this also means not mixing up your husband’s grandmother’s letters with your great-aunt’s. Here’s some simple steps to help you…

1. Sort by family first. For my own family collection, I ma

de sure to keep my family’s papers separate from my husband’s. I have a JACOBS and COHAN branch, plus my in-laws. If a family series is large enough, it will need to be broken into smaller categories.

2. Then sort by individual, especially if you have many letters to or from one person.

3. If you’re lucky enough to have both sides of correspondence, it’s OK to interfile them so the reader gets the full back and forth. This is actually pretty uncommon and rare, so cherish it if you’re lucky enough to have this in your collection.

Here’s an example of how to organize, using my own correspondence.

The list under my name describes almost an entire manuscript box. The printed emails from the Library of Congress alone are multiple folders. It’s both sides of a summer’s worth of correspondence between my the full back and forth of correspondence between my (now) husband and I. Each bolded line is a heading that can include part of a single box, an entire box or possibly even multiple boxes.

Sally Jacobs, Correspondence, 1978-1998

  • Camp Fernwood, 1978-2012 (bulk 1978-84)
  • Library of Congress (printed emails) 1997
  • William Evan Manley (postal mail and printed emails) 1996-1998

Jacobs Family Correspondence

  • Harry (Orrie) Jacobs
  • Robert Jacobs

Cohan Family Correspondence

  • Terri Cohan Jacobs
  • Other Cohans

4. Sort by date.Within any given folder, you can arrange individual letters in chronological order. If you have a folder of miscellaneous family letters, you can use the family name and a date range.

Bonus! Here’s some links to help you read old handwriting

Photo by Kevin Walsh, kevinzim on Flickr

Let’s be honest: It can be difficult to read other people’s handwriting. And the older the document, the more difficult it can be. Here are some online resources to help you decipher old handwriting in your family history correspondence.

Do you have a favorite family letter? Tell us about it in the comments.

Lisa September 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Thanks for this. I don’t have much in the way of family correspondence left to organize, but I really need to do something similar with my genealogy research. Originally I organized it by the type of document (birth records, cemetery listings, etc.), but that is really not very helpful now that I have so much of it. I’ve been meaning to re-group it according to the family unit and then make a list of which folders are in which boxes. It’s just such a colossal undertaking, and I haven’t had time yet.

Previous post:

Next post: