Friday, October 9, 2009

The Family Archives: Preservation AND Access. PLEASE!

DEAR ABBY: After we laid my mother-in-law to rest, my wife discovered a box of letters her parents had written to each other. Her father was stationed overseas during WWII.

My wife is agonizing over whether to read them or destroy them. Because her mother's passing was unexpected, no instructions were made. Should my wife read them as a way to share the experiences of my in-laws' love for each other or consider them so private they are inviolable? -- STUCK FOR AN ANSWER IN OHIO

DEAR STUCK: Reading them might give your wife new insight into her parents, the challenges they faced and an opportunity to view them in the bloom of their youth. They could also be historically significant. That said, however, if she thinks her mother would have preferred that the letters be destroyed, she should follow her conscience.

Wow, it seems like this woman either has an overwhelming sense of privacy (not to mention self-control), or a secret fear of what she might find if she reads the letters. Almost anyone else I can think of, without explicit instructions not to read (or even with them), would have already flown through these.

A single letter can be a wonderful treasure--capturing the writer's language, sense of humor, priorities, handwriting, and perspective on her world. And if you're lucky, cool stamps and funny doodles. Having a whole collection of letters between two correspondents--especially if they shared a long and loving marriage--increases the value of such a single treasure by, I don't know, a million-fold.

The archivist--not to mention the granddaughter--in me, asks this woman, please please PLEASE don't destroy these in an attempt to honor your late parents' privacy. These are the only ones of their kind. If they're gone, they're GONE, and there's no way to ever get that history back.


After my grandfather's death, my mom found a collection of letters his father (her grandfather) had written during the first world war. He wasn't married or in a relationship at the time (or at least, these weren't those letters). These were his letters home, to his parents and siblings--so the element of privacy and intimacy wasn't such a concern in this case. But my mom, who's not necessarily a history buff, learned so much about her own family, and about the world at that time. She bought a scanner and digitized most of the letters, sending images of them to me at school and to her sisters on opposite coasts.


If both parents are now out of the picture (I'm assuming they are, otherwise, why wouldn't they just ask dad?), there's no one to be hurt or made uncomfortable by the letters except the living daughter--so really, it's up to her. I can imagine not wanting to share private, intimate things with my children while I'm alive, but nevertheless wouldn't mind them knowing, later, that I had those feelings and experiences--that I had been young, in love, and struggled and triumphed just like them.

If her parents' marriage was happy, this might be a wonderful experience. But even if it wasn't, it still might be a comforting, or at least an eye opening one. My mom remembers her parents' marriage as not a particularly happy one. There was a lot of tension, not a lot of joy in each other's company, and they divorced when she was in college. So when she recently found a big collection of pictures of them together in their early 20s, I think it brought her a lot of comfort to see how happy and in love they once were--to know that, even though they changed, and their relationship changed, it was at the start a good and happy thing.

But even if this woman is not comfortable reading them herself....


Take them to a local historical society or history museum to at least see if they want them.

I had the opportunity to comb through a vast collection of personal correspondence at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington Illinois. In 2007 I processed (though not very well, in archivist terms...I had no idea what I was doing) something like 8 boxes full of nothing but family correspondence--dating from the 1850s through the 1970s. The very best bunch in here were the letters between the woman who donated the letters and her husband, starting from when they were in high school and he spent his summers riding his bike around Illinois and sending postcards, to his being stationed at various posts in the U.S., to their marriage, and her letters to her parents about making their family budget and living far away from home. I came to care deeply about these people, and cheered for their triumphs. I'd go home from my internship each day and tell my roommates what each of them was up to that month in 1932.

There was nothing particularly graphic or alarming in them, though there were plenty of private and intimate thoughts--but since they weren't my family, it didn't make me uncomfortable.

If the museum doesn't have the space or the staff to take care of the collection, she shouldn't be offended--but she shouldn't turn around and toss them, either. She should consider herself a custodian of this inheritance, and even if she can't or won't make use of it, save it for a relative, friend, or cultural institution who will.


As technology changes, archives of handwritten letters like this one are going to be fewer and farther between. I've already begun to fret about how I'll preserve the email collections that chronicle some of my closest friendships. These are the kinds of things that I'd love for my grandchildren to have one day, to see what it was like being a young woman at the turn of the millennium. But for that to happen, I'll have to take active, careful steps to ....I don't even know what...but to do something to pull these stories and thoughts out of inboxes and into some kind of archive. The days of correspondence that survives on its own, under a bed, just by virtue of being ignored, are numbered. To willfully destroy these, when so much family and personal correspondence of the 20th and 21st century will almost certainly be lost just by virtue of its electronic medium, seems almost sacreligious.

So please....PLEASE.....dont. destroy. the. letters.

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