What to do with old letters, photos and more

Posted at 12:56 PM, May 09, 2016

For history lovers, items of ephemera are a treasure trove of facts, providing unparalleled insight into years gone by.

What is ephemera?
The precise definition of “ephemera” varies depending on who you ask, but here’s something on which everyone can agree: the word ephemera comes from the Greek word ephemeros meaning “for the day.” The original use of the word was associated with items that held importance for a short time, such as train tickets, dance cards, or postcards.

Over time, the word has come to represent a larger group of items, including objects that are obviously of more lasting nature, such as letters and photographs. Today, ephemera can encompass everything from postage stamps and report cards to diaries, scrapbooks, and birth certificates.

For families, an assortment of ephemera can provide a tangible link to the past, which is why many people hang on to items of ephemera and pass them down to family members. If you’ve recently inherited ephemera from a relative, you may feel conflicted on whether to automatically keep each and every item as a way to preserve the past, or to retain only the most important items. Here are some steps to consider:

Evaluate the items
It’s hard to make decisions about the ultimate disposal of ephemera until you’ve evaluated what you’ve inherited. This isn’t always a simple process, especially if the items are jumbled in boxes and require a significant investment of time in order to sort through everything. But getting a feel for the scope of the items (is it just a photo album and some letters? Six boxes of postcards, calendars, and diaries?) will help you determine your next steps.

Understand the value
Beyond the monetary value (more on that in a minute), items of family ephemera have a value that is hard to describe. Priceless is perhaps the best description of these precious family heirlooms. A diary kept by your grandmother during World War II, letters from your uncle as he traveled through Europe in the 1950s, photos depicting generations of your family — these are treasures that are impossible to replace, and you simply can’t put a price on that type of value. Bear all of this in mind before making final decisions.

Involve family members
Perhaps you’re just not able to permanently house the photo albums, letters, birthday cards, and boxes of assorted ephemera that you’ve inherited, but this may not be the case for other members of your family. Contact relatives to gauge their interest in preserving and storing the items. Do you have a cousin with an interest in genealogy and family history? The data and information contained in diaries and letters can be of substantial interest to someone involved in genealogical pursuits. Always check to see if someone else is interested in the material before making final decisions regarding its disposal.

Preserve ephemera
Photo albums and scrapbooks may seem commonplace, but they truly are an effective way to safely preserve items of ephemera in a compact, space-saving way. Or utilize the vertical space in your home by creating a one-of-a-kind piece of wall art that incorporates some of your favorite items of ephemera. Try a collage-style layout or showcase bulky items in a shadow box.

This is the digital age, after all, so take advantage of the benefits of technology for your inherited ephemera.  Make scans or take photos of old letters, important documents (birth certificates, marriage licenses), or photographs, then preserve the items digitally for future generations.

Offer to collectors
Once you’ve sorted through the ephemera, saved important keepsakes, divided the photos and memorabilia among relatives, and digitized important artifacts, then what? Or perhaps the material is just not of interest to anyone in your family and you just want to part with it due to space constraints. You’re in luck, because items of ephemera are highly collectible and in demand with collectors who love the unique aspect of these items. You may discover that the items garner a lot of interest at an estate sale or online auction.

Ultimately, the items are sure to interest someone — whether it’s you, your family, or a collector — so avoid the impulse to simply discard everything. Items of ephemera are almost always worth saving.