There are certain things that a genealogist or family historian will immediately recognize as heirlooms. Old photos, an ancestor’s wedding dress, and bronzed baby shoes are obvious “keepers”. What about the old family letters that you come across? There is some debate about what should be done with those.
The controversy started in a March of 2016 AARP Bulletin that was titled “20 Tips to Declutter Your Home”. The information wasn’t aimed at genealogists or family historians. The bulletin was adapted from an older article by the same author that focused on downsizing the family home. What resulted was a list of advice about what to keep and what to let go of.
One of the items on the list was love letters. The advice had two parts. If those old love letters are yours – it is ok to keep them. However, if the love letters belonged to your parents (or another relative), the advice was to “burn them ceremonially and send the love back into the universe”. The concept here was that the words in those love letters were never meant for your eyes to see.
A response was written by professional genealogist Amy Johnson Crow. In a blog post titled “Don’t Burn Your Family Letters When You Declutter”, Amy Johnson Crow notes that she could go along with much of the advice in the AARP Bulletin – but disagreed with the idea of burning old family letters.
Amy Johnson Crow’s opinion was that you should not destroy family letters (including love letters). Once those letters are gone – they are gone forever. She points out that old family letters give genealogists and family historians a unique way of viewing their ancestors.
Unlike vital records or photos, the letters give a person insight into how their ancestor thought, what made them happy, and what broke their hearts. She also argues that if we burn these letters because they weren’t meant for us, then it would also be wrong to have read Anne Frank’s diary or the letters between John Adams and Abigail Adams.
The Family Curator blog has advice regarding “Ethics, Etiquette, and Old Family Letters”. It appears to be in response to the AARP Bulletin because it brings up the idea of burning old family letters.
Her blog post does not give readers a definitive answer about whether or not they should burn old family letters. Instead, it suggests that genealogists consider three questions before they read old family letters. Who will benefit from it? Who will be harmed from it? Do you personally feel that reading someone else’s old letters is unethical?
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