Safely Scanning and Preserving Old, Fragile Letters

Dear Donia,
How do I safely scan and preserve old, fragile letters?

preserving old, fragile letters

Q. Dear Donia,

I have several letters written to my great grandmother from her family in Ireland after she immigrated to Philadelphia. They are dated from 1864 through the turn of the century and are mostly about everyday matters of life in Ireland and family, although there are also interesting historical references. I never met her but apparently her family was extremely concerned about her as she rarely answered any of her family's correspndence. In fact, one letter included locks of hair of two of her brother's children in an apparent attempt to guilt her into writing. As I recently have taken possession of them, I would love to scan them and share with other family members, but they are very fragile. Could you please advise me as to the best way to scan and preserve them? Thank you, Margie 

A. Dear Margie,

How wonderful that your family saved these letters! There are a couple of things to consider when digitizing brittle letters. First is the question of handling. I know a lot of people think that you need to be wearing gloves when handling old paper but this is really not recommended anymore as you don't have the tactile sense with gloves on and particularly if you wear cotton gloves, the hairs of the cotton can catch on small tears and make them worse. Clean, dry hands are preferred.

As to digitization, letters that are stable and not torn or otherwise fragile can be scanned as they are on a home scanner at 300ppi so you can capture the finer lines or faded ink. Be sure to brush off the glass of the scanner so you don't have crumbs obscuring any writing. It also helps to have a thin-bladed icing knife or a butter knife without serrations to help lift the letter to turn over. This prevents any unnecessary flexing at the corners which may cause them to break off.

If the letters are very brittle or already tearing at the folds, you can put them into polyester L-sleeves like these from our sponsor Holling Metal Edge. This will be a great way to support them during scanning as well as in storage. You can scan through the polyester and the letter will be protected when turning over for scanning the second side.

If you do not have a scanner or camera at home, check with your local library (the main branch would be best) to see if they have scanners available for use in their computer area. They would also have someone who could help you get set up if you need it. 

Once scanned, the letters (in or out of a polyester L-sleeve) can go into an archival (acid-free, lignin-free, buffered) folder and then in a box. Then, store the box somewhere in the main part of your house. Attics and basements are poor choices because the environment will increase the rate of deterioration, not to mention the risk of pests and flooding.  

I hope this helps.