What Can One Do with Archival Material when Downsizing?

0429150831 (1)

Photo copyright Janet Hulstrand

One of the experts I interviewed in the process of researching our book was Mona Nelson, who was at the time the executive director of the Kandiyohi County Historical Society in Willmar, Minnesota. When I asked her in the course of our conversation what kinds of things she wished people wouldn’t throw away when they were in the process of clearing out a home, she picked up a greeting card from her desk and said, “This kind of thing.” She explained that these kinds of things–old cards, letters, brochures, tickets, maps, etc., which she called “ephemera”–could be of interest to historians and that they welcomed the chance to review these things for possible inclusion in their collections.

I must admit that this knowledge was a bit problematic for someone like me, who already has a pretty acute sense of the potential historical value of things that everyone else tends to throw away. On the one hand, it puts one in something of a bind. What do you do with things that are not yet of historical interest? Do you keep saving them until they are? Or do you realize that you simply cannot save everything, and that if you do, that way lies madness?

In the years since, I have managed to adopt a middle-of-the-road approach for myself. On the one hand I no longer keep items that are of potential interest to either collectors or future historians, no matter how interesting and/or beautiful they are (stamps, for example). On the other hand, I do not throw away things that are already pretty old (let’s say 50 years or more). I don’t keep them either. I try, rather to get them to someone, or at least put them within reach of someone who might find value in them and help safeguard their future, as I wrote about in this post.

One special category of archival material is war letters, and in 2013 a special collection was established to collect American war letters. As Family History Month draws to a close and Veteran’s Day approaches,  one very meaningful way to contribute to our national history would be to consider donating old letters you have found in your home to the Center for American War Letters, which I wrote about here.

There are a number of other organizations that can help those who care about preserving historical documentation and archival materials. Here are a few of them:

The American Institute for Conservation of Historical and Artistic Works has helpful information about how to safeguard your own personal or family treasures.

Center for American War Letters

Ephemera Society

The Society of American Archivists has a helpful guide to how to go about donating personal papers or records to a repository.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of  Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

Family History Month: Spotlight on the Center for American War Letters

0429150831 (1)

“Tucked away in attics, closets, and basements throughout this country are millions of letters written by men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces….” says the opening line on the “Letters” page of the website for the Center for American War Letters.

A relatively new entity, the Center  for American War Letters was established in 2014,  when  Andrew Carroll  donated  the vast collection of war letters he had started in 1998 (known as The Legacy Project), to Chapman University in California. The Center is performing a valuable service to the nation by preserving letters from soldiers, and their loved ones, from the nation’s earliest days to the present.

It is also providing people who are downsizing their homes and don’t know what to do with the stashes of old letters they find in the process with a wonderful solution to the problem, by providing a home where they will safely preserved, and can contribute to a better understanding of our history, especially as seen from the point of view of the “ordinary” men and women who have served the nation in times of war.

If you think you might want to donate letters to the Center, you can find out more about how to do so here.

The Center also has a page with helpful tips about how to properly care for old letters, for those who wish to keep them.

October is Family History Month, and Veterans Day is coming up soon. Wouldn’t it be a nice way to honor the veterans in your family, or among your friends, to find  a way to honor and preserve their documentation of their wartime experiences, their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives–and to safeguard them for future generations?

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Remembering Memorial Day

EssoyesSquareCombatants

The French do not forget.

What do we remember on Memorial Day? Do we remember the lives that have been sacrificed in service to our country? Or do we remember the Memorial Day sales? Or do we think of it just as a three-day start to the summer ahead, and a great day for a barbecue?

How can we restore meaning to this national holiday?

I am currently in a little village in France, and in France they do not forget their war dead. The carnage of World Wars I and II left France devastated, a legacy of loss still very much in living memory, one that would be hard to forget. Every little French village has a war memorial, and the number of names etched upon these memorials, especially from the First World War, even in the tiniest towns, is sobering.

The French do not forget the millions of French lives lost in recent wars, nor do they forget those who helped them to win those wars. In the little village where I live, there were solemn, respectful ceremonies on both Armistice Day (which marks the end of World War I, in November), and on May 8, when V-E Day is remembered in France. On May 8, a small and stately parade of villagers met at the mairie and proceeded to the war memorial next to the church. There they laid flowers, played taps, read a proclamation from the Minister of Defense. As I struggled to follow the meaning of the words, among the phrases that stood out to me was one expressing gratitude for sacrifice made by the citizens of nineteen countries–nineteen!–who gave their lives in the struggle for France to win back its freedom in 1945.

They don’t forget in England, either, how could they? In both World Wars, before the U.S. joined the war effort, many thousands of British lives were lost in France.

In the U.S., Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day, because it was a day when families and friends decorated the graves of the loved ones they had lost through war. In the U.K., the analogous day of commemoration is called Remembrance Day. Perhaps that is a better name. Perhaps it would be harder to forget the real meaning of the day if it were called Remembrance Day.

As Memorial Day approaches I hope we will remember American lives lost in past wars. But I hope we will also begin to think of ourselves more as part of a global community, just one nation among many on this earth. It is the only way we will ever find our way to peace, that seems pretty clear. It seems pretty clear that good people everywhere have to work together to stop bad people from doing harm. Preferably sooner rather than later. That is one of the lessons handed to us through history.

In 1994, usmemorialday.org was established to help remind Americans of the meaning and intent of Memorial Day. And in years past we have published posts here and here, offering ideas for a few ways to make Memorial Day more meaningful.

Here’s one of those ideas, right here: if, in your downsizing, or moving, or spring cleaning, you come across some old war letters, we hope you will consider donating them to the newly established Center for American War Letters, so that the history of war, as seen from the point of view of individual soldiers, and their loved ones, may be preserved.

Is it too much to hope that future generations may learn from the bitter lessons of the past not how to fight better wars, but perhaps a way to end them?

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Preserving War Letters

0429150831 (1)

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.

Five Ways to Celebrate Memorial Day

IMG_0001

Monday is Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember and honor those who died in service to their country.

Sometimes it’s a little hard to remember that it’s not just a “bank holiday” that marks the beginning of summer, or a great weekend for sales. So here are five  suggestions for ways to put the “memory” back into Memorial Day.

1. Put flowers on a grave. Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day, because that was the day people decorated the graves of those who were being remembered. My father did not die in service to his country, but he did serve his country. In the little country churchyard where his ashes are buried, every Memorial Day my aunt and uncle put  flowers on his grave and on the graves of all the veterans. That simple token of love and respect for those who served their country means a lot to me.

2. Tell your chldren (or nieces or nephews) about someone in your family who lost their life in service to our country. The serviceman in the photograph above is my father’s cousin, Howard, who was like a brother to him. Howard was a pilot who served in the European theater in World War II. His plane went down over the Adriatic Sea and he was never found. When I look at this picture of him, so young and strong and full of life, and think of how much he gave up, and how much his mother lost when she lost him (he was her only child), it makes me feel sad. It also makes me want to be sure that Howard, though he never had the chance to have a family of his own, will never be forgotten by the family he came from.

3. Write about that person, who they were, how, when and where they died, what they were like, and add it to your written family history. Writing this blog has made me want to know more about Howard. So one of my Memorial Day weekend activities is going to be to try to see what I can find out, and then record it in my family history files.

4. Find  any war letters that may be in your home and make sure they are safely stored.  If you don’t want them, consider donating them to a historical society, museum, or to WarLetters.com.  Warletters.com also has great advice for how to help preserve the letters you want to keep.

5. Go to a parade, and honor the veterans who are living. I don’t know how many small-town parades are still taking place on Memorial Day. I think some of us have been relying just a bit too much on “the greatest generation” to keep these things going. But look around your area and find out who’s doing what to keep the real meaning of Memorial Day alive, and support them! Go ahead and let your heart be stirred by the sign of the stars and stripes. Enjoy the patriotic music of the day. (I happen to know that there’s a wonderful, old-fashioned Memorial Day concert each year in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery.)

So there you have five perfectly wonderful things to do on Memorial Day weekend. You may notice that not a single one of them has anything to do with going shopping, or buying stuff.

That’s not what this blog is about. And it’s not what Memorial Day is about either.

Wishing you a meaningful Memorial Day, and a great start to the summer!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

%d bloggers like this: