[Untitled photo, possibly related to: Washington, D.C. Lynn Massman, wife of a second class petty officer who is studying in Washington, writing letters while her baby is having his afternoon nap]

How Archivists Save Lost Voices: Letters Live

Imagine: you have just been asked to offer feedback on part of a monograph that a colleague in the History Department is drafting. Two chapters appear in your inbox. As you read, you find yourself more engaged with the second and struggle to pinpoint exactly why it seems more compelling.
It dawns on you after reading several pages that there is a significantly larger amount of correspondence utilized in this chapter, and it has given a kind of face to the narrative. The people who could more easily be generalized with statistics suddenly have names. The time during which the correspondents wrote becomes more “evocative” because their point of view takes center stage – and recently in more ways than one.

[Manuscript letter from Oliver Wendell Holmes to Charles Deane]

[Manuscript letter from Oliver Wendell Holmes to Charles Deane] 1874 Feb. 18th. LOC: 2007683256

With the ubiquity of audiobooks, podcasts, etc., the unique voices found in correspondence and similar documents provide an even more important connection with the past. If we are not able to listen to these texts, we sometimes try to create voices of our own, imagining how those writing might have sounded while speaking with one another. For just over ten years, the Letters Live Program has done just this, recruiting world-renowned stage and film actors to perform humorous, insightful and often poignant letters that bring the past to life for twenty-first century audiences. Audiences attend the event in person, and viewers can later access recordings on YouTube.

Olivia Colman, the Academy Award-winning actress who is no stranger to work in period pieces, has read numerous letters for Letters Live. In one dated 1610, a married aristocratic woman addresses the husband who received her father’s inheritance upon his death. In a rendition that has the audience laughing from beginning to end, Colman reads the woman’s litany of requests. The author’s assertiveness is both amusing and likely surprising for us looking back through our twenty-first century lens. Determined to ensure that she is fairly compensated despite minimal legal protections, this wife personally requests that her husband take care of her servants; provide furnishings for her home and clothing for use in a variety of social situations; and “also” that he pay all her debts. “Obviously,” Colman laughingly adds. This reading provides insight into the practical implications of the laws of the time, and allows us to better understand how those laws affected relationships from day to day.

[Letter from Mathew Brady to President Abraham Lincoln, asking Lincoln to sit for a photograph]

[Letter from Mathew Brady to President Abraham Lincoln, asking Lincoln to sit for a photograph] 1865 March 2. LOC: 2018667218

Having such easy access to these and other readings, one might easily overlook the fact that the letters included as part of Letters Live are now digital because the real letter written so many years ago has been properly preserved, often with the help of professional archivists. As private family collections make their way from attics into archival repositories and museum collections, archivists are often the ones making crucial decisions about preservation and access. Their professional training allows them to determine how best to store newly acquired correspondence; contextualize it as part of the repository’s collections; and provide access to researchers and the public. Without the work done in archives, correspondence and other documents that offer essential clues into the past would be lost. Actors bring to life the experiences of people living centuries ago – and archivists make sure they can take inspiration from their firsthand accounts.


Our expert archivists can help you preserve letters for generations to enjoy. Reach out today and see how we can help your letters live! Want to learn more? Check out our case study featuring letters from a WWI nurse.

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Stephanie Webster

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