This week has been National Preservation Week, a week when libraries and other institutions call attention to what we can do, both individually and collectively, to preserve our personal and shared collections of various kinds.
It’s also spring cleaning time, a time when we try to “get rid of the stuff” while “keeping the memories.”
And of course, in less than a month we will celebrate Memorial Day, honoring those who have given their lives in service to our country.
So this seems like an appropriate time to address the question of what to do with old war letters we may be keeping–or finding–in boxes or drawers, on shelves or in files, in our homes.
Clearly, old war letters are not just “stuff.” They’re an important part of our collective history. They can be valuable to historians–and to the rest of us–in trying to help us understand wars as they have been experienced by those who lived through them, not just as they have been written about in history books. They should be honored, and preserved, as valuable documentation of servicemen and women’s lives: of the sacrifices they made, the fears they felt, the difficulties they overcame, the pride they felt in serving their country.
Keeping old letters in homes, especially in rooms where they are subjected to extremes of temperature and humidity, or to dust, is not a good idea. But how should they be kept, and where?
The good news is, there’s a whole new Center for American War Letters being created to provide just such a place. The Center is directed by Andrew Carroll, who in 2013 donated his entire collection of 100,000 war letters to begin the Center. The touching story of how he came to this work is told in a Washington Post story here. “Every day, letters get thrown out,” Carroll says, in the interview. “When people move or pass away, they get lost.”
That is really just a shame.
So, as you work on downsizing or spring cleaning this year, you should know that if and when you are ready to find a safe home for any family war letters you may be holding onto, that now there is a safe place for them to be.
And if you’re not ready to give them up yet, you can find good advice about how to keep them safe for posterity here.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.