Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday From The Collectors - November 21

My Family’s Letters, Preserved with Digital Photography

I have had an interest in genealogy since I was in my teens but really had no idea how to go about discovering more than what had already been recorded by other family members. In 1999 we connected to the Internet and I became obsessed. I really had no idea how to use search engines effectively but I started searching for Hannah Carlisle, who I knew to have been a nurse during the Civil War. I had lots of patience back then and hunted though page after page of results until I found a link to the Carlisle Family at Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.

"The papers of the Daniel Carlisle family of Buchanan, Mich. include thirty-two family letters (Aug. 17, 1862-Apr. 7, 1866) relating to Mrs. Hannah L. Carlisle, who served as a nurse during the Civil War."

Carlisle Family collection, Box 1

I called the library and asked about having the Carlisle Family collection copied and sent to me. They were very polite in explaining to me that the collection was 1.5 linear feet and they could not possibly photocopy that much. They would be willing to copy the collection to microfilm if I was willing to pay for it. The cost was prohibitive and that was the end of that. I don’t know why I didn’t ask them to copy just the thirty-two letters mentioned. Perhaps it was Providence.

17 August 1862, Daniel Carlisle writes to his wife,
Hannah, a nurse during the Civil War

A year or two later I took my mother to Buchanan, MI to visit her brother. I asked them about the collection and they both knew that some papers had been donated but thought they were mostly pamphlets and religious tracts. Mom wasn’t up to a side trip to Ann Arbor and my uncle and aunt had a shoebox full of old family pictures they were willing to let me scan as we visited. I felt so lucky to be able to talk with them about the pictures and family history that thoughts of the letters at the library were once again pushed aside.

Earlier this year I decided that it was time to make the trip to Michigan and started making plans to travel during my April vacation. I wrote about my plans and my genea-friends responded with encouragement and suggestions. The one suggestion that would never have occurred to me on my own, and for which I will forever be grateful, was to take my digital camera. I followed other suggestions and contacted the library prior to my visit and copied the finding aid. I read everything I could about the Carlisle Family collection and the Bentley Historical Library.

29 June 1883, Fannie Dillenbeck writes to her brother,
Ashley Carlisle, with congratulations on
the birth of his daughter.

Prior to the trip I had decided to request photo copies of the Civil War letters and then I’d see what else there was. My preparations did not prepare me for what I found. I was only able to request one box at a time and the first was full of folders. I was soon engrossed in reading and trying to decide what was important enough to have photocopied. After the first couple of hours I realized that with only two days planned at the library I was never going to get through the box and that I had to have it all!

I took a short break and then went back to the very first folder and started photographing every page. It had been suggested that I practice before I left and I wish I had. I cut off corners and occasionally the top, bottom, or side of a page. I still skimmed through the letters as I photographed them, I couldn’t stop myself. Many of the pages were written across in different directions and I took close-ups of these areas and any other hard to read pages. That first day I took 669 photos - less than a third of the letters. After I got back to the hotel I downloaded the camera card to my computer and then immediately backed them up to a flash drive. Many of the first images were unreadable and I noted which ones I needed to retake and recharged the batteries.

18 October 1873, Roscoe B Ashley writes to his aunt,
Hannah L. Carlisle, regarding a business matter
following the death of her husband.

My second day at the library was spent methodically taking pictures and turning pages. It took almost three hours to fill the card and drain the batteries. I took a short break to download, backup, change batteries and have a snack before starting again. Day two ended with more than 1,500 pictures taken and about a quarter of the first box was yet to be done. My plan had been to leave Ann Arbor early the next day. Instead I returned to the library and 1,000 photos later I completed Box 1. I was able to see Box 2 and photograph the letters my mother wrote while she was in the Navy and a few other things before I had to leave. The letters of my aunt and uncle as well as the diaries of Hannah L. Carlisle remain in the box, waiting for me to either return or find a student to photograph them for me.

I wish I had had a larger card for my camera or perhaps extra cards. I really needed three sets of batteries because when the two that I had were done, I was done for the day. I also needed either additional flash drives or one very large one. Standing over a table for hours on end is hard on the back and I should have taken more short breaks. I made notes on a pad as I went along and photographed the notes as I went so they are in the file at the proper place. This has saved me wondering, as I go through the files, if I forgot to photograph a page or if it was missing.

5 July 1882, Rose Camfield writes to her mother-in-law,
Sarah A. Camfield, and describes her new home.

In all I took close to 3,300 pictures. Many of the letters were several pages long and there were many pages that I took more than one picture of. I have had them more than six months and still have not read them all nor have I figured out how many individual letters there are. As I transcribe the letters I find it very easy to work between two screens. I can take my laptop anywhere and they are there for me to read or transcribe. Because the images are digital rather than photocopies it is very easy to zoom in on a section of a page that is difficult to read. I can also adjust the contrast as necessary. I could crop and straighten each image as I work but the task is already so overwhelming that I simply resize the images before I publish them.

As pictures go, they are not all that exciting to look at, yet to me they are just as priceless as the photographs that I scanned at my uncle’s, as each letter is also a snapshot of a moment in time. I can see Sarah Ann sitting in her bay window as she writes to her daughter and I laugh at the image of the cattle trying to walk after the ice storm. I sip my coffee and smile with Rose as she sits in her kitchen writing about her new home with window blinds. I cry as I see baby Russell’s coffin, covered with sprays of carnations and roses.

30 December 1885, Sarah A. Camfield writes to her daughter,
Anna Carlisle, to tell her she has a silver dollar
for her newest grandson.

I hope to make connections with distant relatives by publishing the letters. Many of the letters reference friends and neighbors. There are also letters written by friends or business associates of family members and these little gems of the family history of others will never be found by a search of the Bentley Historical Library catalog. I hope that as I transcribe and publish them that someone will find a piece of their family’s history too.


Carlisle Family; para. 1

Bentley Historial Library:

Apple’s Tree

Carlisle, Daniel. (Buchanan, MI) to “Dear Wife” [Hannah L. Carlisle]. Letter. 17 August 1862. Digital Image. Privately held by Apple, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Fulton, New York. 2008. [Carlisle Family, Box #1, Correspondence, 1862, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. 2008.]

Ashley, Roscoe Boyd. (Rochester, NY) to “Dear Aunt Hannah” [Hannah L. Carlisle]. Letter. 18 October 1873. Digital Image. Privately held by Apple, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Fulton, New York. 2008. [Carlisle Family, Box #1, Correspondence, 1870 - 1874, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. 2008.]

Camfield, Rose. (South Bend, IN) to “well mother” [Sarah Ann Camfield]. Letter. 5 July 1882. Digital Image.
Privately held by Apple, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Fulton, New York. 2008. [Carlisle Family, Box #1, Correspondence, 1884 - 1886, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. 2008.]

Camfield, Sarah Ann. (Noble Center, MI) “well we got your letter” [Anna Carlisle]. Letter. 30 December 1885. Digital Image. Privately held by Apple, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Fulton, New York. 2008. [Carlisle Family, Box #1, Correspondence, 1884 - 1886, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. 2008.]

Dillenbeck, Fannie. (Anthony, KS) to “Dear Brother Ashley and family” [Ashley Carlisle]. Letter. 17 April 1887. Digital Image. Privately held by Apple, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Fulton, New York. 2008. [Carlisle Family, Box #1, Correspondence, 1887 - 1888, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. 2008.]

Copyright © 2008


Blogger Sheri Fenley said...

What a wonderful opportunity you had. I am really interested in your experience with the library staff, tips on taking the photos of letters and documents for the camera- challenged and what would you do differently.

Sheri Fenley

November 21, 2008 at 2:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I just loved this story! In fact you've actually helped me. I have a scrapbook of my mother's letters she wrote and received while she was in the Navy during WW2. They are glued to the pages of the scrap book and I just couldn't figure out how I was going to scan I read your post, I slapped myself in the head and wondered why I didn't think of using a camera instead of a scanner!

I really enjoyed reading about your adventure in Michigan and being able to learn from your experience.


November 21, 2008 at 4:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greetings fM,
Apple was an excellent choice as a guest author of FFTC. I always learn something new from your guest authors. Thanks.

Greetings Apple,
I enjoyed your wonderful letters. What a treasure trove. My mom's second husband was a Carlisle of Michigan. Wonder if there is a connection?


November 21, 2008 at 8:08 AM  
Blogger Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

My #1 tip is to practice ahead of time and understand the settings on your camera. The library staff pretty much left me to myself but they were very helpful in getting me started and answering my questions.

Photographing the scrapbook pages will hopefully work out well. You should be able to take your time and get good quality images. I'd love to see them on your blog when you get them done!

Thanks! I think that, with the exception of my uncle, all of my Carlisle relatives have left Michigan but I'd love to compare notes. There are several that my branch of the family has lost touch with and they could have moved back.


November 21, 2008 at 10:33 AM  
Blogger Nikki - Notes of Life said...

Apple, it sounds like you need an assistant! Still, you've done a wonderful job of getting photos of all that treasure! I bet you can't wait to get back there :)

November 21, 2008 at 12:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apple, you rock! You need to treat yourself to a massage to get rid of the kinks in your back and neck after that amazing feat.

I've been working on photographing my g-grandfather's scrapbook which is too big and too fragile to copy, but it's been weeks and I've still got a long way to go. You have shown us what we can all do if we set our minds to it.

November 21, 2008 at 4:14 PM  
Blogger JEWELGIRL said...

Great stuff, next time I visit a repository
I am going to pre-ask about photographing
documents! Soooo lucky to have found all this
great stuff!!!

November 21, 2008 at 10:17 PM  
Blogger Terry Thornton said...

APPLE, I'm still giving thanks that you discovered such a cache of family treasures --- and that you were able to see them, read them, and to photograph them.

What would we do without digital cameras? I am so glad that you were pleased with the results of your trip.

Thanks for sharing your experiences --- and congratulations for a project "well done."

Terry Thornton

November 22, 2008 at 6:24 AM  
Blogger Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

Nikki-ann, With help I might have finished while I was there but I am looking forward to a return trip.

Denise, A massage would have been wonderful! I hope your project goes well and I hope you'll share at least some of it.

Jewelgirl, I have been very lucky, and I hope my luck rubs off on everyone else!

Terry, If I'd made the trip before I got a decent digital camera I'd have only been able to copy a very small fraction of the collection so I really do think I was meant to wait.

Thank you all for your kind words.


November 22, 2008 at 3:33 PM  
Blogger Donna Hague Wendt said...

Wonderful story and excellent description of your very productive efforts with research and digital camera. There are many days of work ahead, but you've made a big discovery and have saved them for future generations. Congratulations and thanks for writing the post. Sincerely, Donna Hague Wendt

November 22, 2008 at 3:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Apple,

Wonder post!
(I got aches in my shoulders just reading it. lol).

The value of getting extra memory cards and batteries can't be underestimated!

Question; did the library allow you to bring a tripod and set up in a separate space such as a conference room?

Oh, I hope you don't go blind during the transcription phase!

"Guide by the Ancestors"

November 23, 2008 at 11:17 AM  
Blogger Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

Thanks! I do nope it's not years of work ahead but it is a labor of love.


I didn't ask the library about setting up a tripod because I don't have one. (I have a little Kodak Easy Share c533) I worked at a table near the window in the main room. There weren't very many tables in use when I was there. There was a student behind me that was also using a camera and I don't think we disturbed anyone.

My bifocals are coming in handy as I transcribe. lol


November 23, 2008 at 1:06 PM  
Blogger Judith Richards Shubert said...

What a wonderful treasure you've found, Apple! Thanks so much for all of the great tips on photographing documents and letters. I never once thought about that. Like Tim Agazio I have a scrapbook with oversize pages that do not fit on the bed of my scanner. NOW I look forward to using my camera instead. Many, many thanks.

November 30, 2008 at 9:18 AM  
Blogger Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...


I hope photographing the scrapbook works out well for you and I'd love to see the results!


November 30, 2008 at 3:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Instead of a digital camera use a camcorder with some commentary. Storage is cheap. Years back we scanned in the family albums. If I had it to do again. I'd use my camcorder. Zoom in on the individuals and other details.

May 3, 2009 at 7:03 AM  

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