There’s a fascinating article on the BBC News website today, explaining how the postal service managed to deliver millions of letters to and from front-line soldiers during World War One (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25934407). It’s answered many of the questions we in the Conservation Team have been asking ourselves while we clean, repair, digitise and re-package the hundreds of WWI letters in our collection. Many are still in fantastic condition, even though the paper used wasn’t very good quality. But after a hundred years they can all do with a gentle clean and some snug, made-to-measure packaging. Some of the letters are still folded inside the original envelopes – wonderful to see, but not so good for their long term survival. Creases in paper have a tendency to turn into tears, so we’re opening out the letters, mending tears and strengthening creases where necessary and then storing the letters with the envelopes but not inside them.
As conservators it’s our job to look at paper and inks, to make decissions about a document’s condition and treatment and to ensure its availability to researchers now and in the future. The one thing we’re not supposed to do is read the contents; that’s a job for the archivists and we’re usually very happy to leave it to them. But in this case, it’s proving very difficult not to get caught up in the words that jump out at us. How are you supposed to glance over a letter from a soldier who you know died soon after and ignore his touching comments about his baby daughter? Or see al the kisses he sent to his wife without contemplating the many lost husbands, fathers and sons and the pain of those who were left behind? Handling and reading these letters provides a powerful link to a time not really so very long ago and a group of people we’re still much closer to than we often realise.
We’re currently looking for volunteers to help with our Derbyshire Lives in the First World War project, so if you’d like to find yourself surrounded by some of the thousands of words that were sent across the Channel or would enjoy the opportunity to delve deeper and investigate the impact of the First World War on the people of Derbyshire, why not have a look on our volunteering website http://www.derbyshire.gov.uk/leisure/libraries/services/volunteering/default.asp