Preserving Veterans’ Memories

By Bob Patrick

A shoe box full of letters, a stack of photographs of men or women in uniform, a diary written in a pocketbook calendar, a yellowed paper memoir, disorganized pages of military documents, a scrapbook of military service mementos, or a hard drive full of photos and emails – these are common items that contain the memories of those who have served or continue to serve in America’s military. They represent the personal accounts of the human experience of war and contribute to answering the question: “Daddy or Mommy, what did you do when you were serving our country?”

Since 2000, the Veterans History Project (VHP), a congressionally mandated effort at the Library of Congress, has been collecting, preserving and making accessible veterans’ oral histories, original personal documents, and images. The VHP collects materials from World War I through the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that are submitted by veterans or their family members. As older veterans pass away, records of their lives in the military are left behind, and families find themselves faced with the dilemma of what to do with them. To keep the records may mean more deterioration of these fragile items. To get rid of them becomes a difficult decision based on sentiment and attachment to an honored family member. For more recent service members or veterans, there are new challenges for the preservation of these items. Traditional forms of communication and documentation—letters, photographs, handwritten journals—have been replaced by emails, digital images, and blogs, all dependent on an ever-evolving array of hardware and software. Fortunately, the Library of Congress provides many resources to aid in the preservation of these valued mementos – from guidance in preservation practices for individuals, to a world-class repository of personal accounts, open to the participation of all Americans who have served their country.

It is important to understand why we should be preserving materials that contribute to telling a veteran’s story, and why we seek to make them available to a broad audience. It is easy to understand that many of these items have historical significance or personal value to the veterans themselves, and to their families. However, when housed in a repository like VHP, or in a local library, museum, or historical society, these resources can provide so much more than a simple family history.

Perhaps the most important reason for preservation is that this material aids the efforts of researchers and educators. To be able to hear a veteran’s voice, read their words and view one-of-a-kind images; provides a first-person, grassroots level account of what military life, particularly during a time of war, is all about. Scholars can learn about the big picture from military historians and leaders but they also want to try and understand what it was like to be there—the sounds, the smells and the feelings. The letters from a P.O.W., a diary written in the desert or a jungle, a video of day to day life, or a memoir that reflects on the meaning of it all provide words and images that inform and instruct. This information provides a human face to scholarly works and to classroom instruction. Additionally, it inspires future generations with a reminder of what veterans have done through their service and sacrifice.

Of more personal importance, these collections of memories are of value to the families and friends of veterans. Some military members or veterans freely discuss their experiences and proudly display items related to their service. However, often for reasons from humility to discomfort with their past, veterans are reticent to talk about or review their service. In the latter case, families are unknowing and may never get the full story. The preservation of military materials can ‘open the door’ for discussion of what they did and how they feel about it. It can also assure that these important materials fill an empty chapter in the overall family legacy that can be passed down from generation to generation. Families do benefit, and so do veterans, knowing that their story will remain long after they are gone.

If veterans or family members want to hold on to military service items, it is very important that they take the necessary steps to make sure they are treated and stored in a manner that preserves them through the years. The Library of Congress provides the advice of its expert preservation staff on how this can be done. The Library’s Directorate of Preservation website contains information, techniques and the answers to frequently asked questions on this matter. The Library of Congress also offers personal archiving guidance to those seeking to preserve digital materials. Local libraries, historical societies, or museums can also provide similar advice.

So what can a service member, veteran or family member do if they don’t want to retain military service materials? One of the best things is to donate them to an archive dedicated to preserving and honoring veterans’ service and that makes their material accessible to the donor and the public. The Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress contains over 85, 000 collections that include oral histories and hundreds of thousands of individual items preserved to the highest archival standards. VHP is a national archive that is accessible to families and researchers and willingly accepts original materials that tell a service member’s or veteran’s story. Instructions on how collections can be submitted are available through the VHP website. For those who wish to keep their materials close to home, local public libraries, museums, or historical societies may also collect and preserve records of military service.

Some final thoughts – It is never too early to start preserving the memories of the service members or veterans in our lives. While older veterans may have stored away their photographs, letters, and diaries, and rediscovered them years later, largely unchanged; younger veterans whose memories are stored digitally may not have this luxury. Unlike paper documents and photographs, digital records will require periodic maintenance to ensure that the files can still be accessed as technology advances. As we pass through the seventieth anniversary of World War II and the fiftieth anniversary of the Vietnam War, we have thousands of well preserved documents from those eras. And with early action, the photos, emails, and blog posts of today’s service members will still be available when future generations ask, “Grandpa or Grandma, what did you do when you were serving our country?” .

Bob Patrick is Director of the Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Article illustration: Lawrence C. Raftery Collection (AFC/2001/001/67700), Photographs, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

A photo slide held up to the light showing two people in the picture