Letters in the Attic: Not digital, but analog
I have a bunch of letters to my grandparents that date from 1906(!!) to 1940s. I considered how to process them digitally. Should I scan? Should I play with metadata? I did a test of scanning, during one of the scanfests. Feh. Too much trouble, given the volume of letters and the amount of time each one takes. I decided to do good old fashioned manual index-card method to keep track of the letters. Here’s the method I’ve devised.
I’m going with analog for several reasons. I want to work in a comfortable chair, away from the computer. I feel as though the task of designing a database would take up too much overhead, making me focus far more on my tools than the letters.
Here’s my work process for going through the letters: Notebook, index cards, letter, pen, pencil, reading glasses.
Metadata, manually described.
Even with my manual index card method, I needed to think about what to put on the cards. Here’s my list of metadata:
- Postmark date
- Postmark place
- From Whom (and where)
- To Whom (and where)
- Date of letter, if it differs from postmark by too much
- A physical description of the contents (3 sheets, enclosures: 3 news clippings)
- Brief description of contents and subject
Things I’ve begun to add to my description, now that I’ve begun: People mentioned in the letter. I suppose that’s what the detective stories call “routine work”—at least it lays the foundation to discover patterns, or uncover names of friends of the family, or places to follow info leads.
I’ve also added a Group, which is an arbitrary letter of the alphabet assigned to all the letters that I found wrapped in the same string. I’m filing the letters by date, but I want to indicate something about what group they were in when I found them.
I tried out my metadata schema on a few three by five index cards, but discovered they were too small. I didn’t feel confident that I could scan the contents of a bunch of cards while sorting and analyzing their contents. 4 x 6 cards work a little better.
Here is a photo of one card, with some of the meta data regions marked on it.
How much and when should I do it?
This one was a toughie until I hit upon my solution. It’s fine to go away on a vacation to the old family house and spend a couple of days doing nothing but reading letters. It’s a vacation! Read away, that’s what you’re here for. That stack of letters and absorbing hours to read them are completely different once they find their way into your own home. And life. And work schedule.
For a while, they just sat. And sat. Then I gave myself permission to step away from the computer to go and spend an evening with them. That was fun. Just reading, just exploring them. But it was like eating a huge bag of M&Ms in one sitting. I picked up the next letter before I made it through this one (especially if I had difficulty with Great Grandpa’s handwriting). The next day, I didn’t know what I’d read, only that I’d read a lot.
I decided to call upon the inspiration of Anthony Trollope, brought to me by Elizabeth Perry. How do you get something done? A little bit at a time.
A year ago at Blogher, I got inspired by Elizabeth Perry, who draws (or paints) a daily picture, and then posts a photo of it on the web. Her inspiring quote comes from Anthony Trollope, a novelist who’d write 2500 words a day before he left for his job at the post office.
“A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”
Small, regular efforts add up.
I made it into an inspiration poster, it’s above my computer monitor. (like it? Download the PDF and print out your own.)
My new small daily task
I decided to choose a doable amount. Two letters. I read two letters. I fill out an index card for each. And then I write in my notebook about the letters, whatever additional thoughts, ponderings, questions. I do that every day.
I discovered it takes about half an hour. I do it early in the day, first thing. My indulgence for me. I’ve only begun. The cards are starting to stack up.
I really like how it’s unfolding. Two letters is not too much; I remember what I read. One day, I wanted to do more, so I did a third. But I’d already begun to set a nice pace. Read two letters, filling out index cards for each as I read, then writing about the two letters in my notebook. Then I read and filled out index card for the third, and wrote my thoughts in the notebook. It’s not gorging; it’s a meal. I can see that if I want to do a marathon, the two-at-a-time method will work well to pace myself.
Will I go digital later?
Will I digitize a portion of the letters or the metadata I’m beginning to collect? I might. Everything on the index cards can be entered into a database later, if need be.
And as for the letters themselves, there are some, written by my grandfather’s sister, that are destined to be sent to her son. I plan to scan those. But that’s a do-able subset of the overwhelming whole.
Do you have any documents you’re trying to make your way through? How are you doing it? What is working (or not working)?
Postscript for Places
UPDATE (5 May, 2008): I’ve recently begun to create a second index card collection for my letters; they’re devoted to places mentioned in the letters. Standard 3 x 5 size and yellow (for ease of distinction). On those, I write the city and state at the top, and each yellow index card is for a PLACE. and then I cross reference the letter by my year-month-date routine. As in, some church in Boston is mentioned by a friend back home in Montana (did you get to visit the Great Church in Boston?):
Boston, MA [the heading on the card, right corner, similar to date for letter]
Old Church, Boston
mentioned in 1917-04-06 from [name of letter writer]
If I come across a mention of the place in another letter, I add the date of that letter under the first date mention. It’s a form of manual cross reference.
I began that 2nd set so that I could easily look up places. When grouped by place, I figure that if I take a trip to Billings, or Boston, I can pull those cards for that city and then do research on the places mentioned. Like I said originally, I could do all that digitally, but I want to read the letters wherever I want to read the letters, and writing stuff by hand is A Very Good and Easy Thing.