Reader question: Scanning old airmail letters

Reader Sam wrote in to ask:

“I have been sorting things and found a suitcase full of old airmail letters from my parents. I want to scan and save them as they go back to the 1950s. What is the best way to scan, organize, and sometimes translate them into English? Any advice is welcome as I want to start the project soon. Is it best to scan all of them first or organise them one-by-one?”

Thank you for this great question Sam. How exciting to find your parents’ airmail letters! It is a wonderful portion of your family history that deserves to be preserved. Paper, especially airmail paper, ages quickly and can become brittle so you are wise to embark on this conservation project.

I would suggest that you first organize the letters and then scan them. This way you will know exactly what you have before beginning the scanning process. Because airmail paper is delicate, you should handle it with cotton gloves to prevent oil or dirt from your fingers damaging the letters.

It is probably easiest to sort the letters by date. Don’t be too fastidious on your first sort through. You can do a first run by separating the letters by year and then second sort by separating each year by month.

Store the letters in acid-free boxes, preferably unfolded. Be very careful in unfolding the letters and straightening the creases. You do not want to damage the paper. Do not use tape or glue to fix torn letters. If you are worried about a letter falling apart, place it in an acid-free sheet protector. By storing the letters in the acid-free boxes, you are keeping them protected while waiting to be scanned.

Scanning can be a rather long process and there are a few things to think about before you start.

Use a flatbed scanner. Scanners with auto-feed could very easily rip or tear your letters beyond repair.

You want the electronic version of the letter to retain the quality of the original document yet be of a reasonable file size. You may need to scan one letter at several different quality levels (colour or greyscale; 200, 400, 600 dpi; JPG, TIFF or PDF) to determine what the right balance is.

Once you’ve found the correct settings, scan one letter and note the file size. Multiply the file size by the number of letters you have and add about 20%. This will be the amount of space the files take on your hard drive. Should you need to, purchase an external hard drive on which to store your files.

Once you have determined the scanning parameters, decide on a file name format. Personally, I prefer a combination of date and name. For example, 19580214_Mom2Dad.pdf would be a letter sent on February 14th, 1958 from your mother to your father. By using the format YYYYMMDD_name, all of the files will stay in chronological order on your hard drive.

Now you can begin your scanning process. Remember to handle the letters carefully and wear the cotton gloves. Once scanned, you can return the letter to its acid-free storage box. You can leave an index card between two letters as a bookmark in case you don’t get finished scanning the entire box in one sitting. Do not use paperclips or staples as they can warp or rip the paper.

When you’ve completed scanning, send the electronic files for translation and keep your original documents preserved. You can name the electronic translation as YYYYMMDD_name_translated

If you’d like to keep a paper copy of the translation with the original letter, use an archival pen to write the translation on archival paper. Home printers do not have archival quality ink and the ink may do damage to your airmail letters if they are stored together.

If you’re having difficulty deciding how to scan your letters, take a few to your local archive or a nearby college/university’s archives department. They should be able to provide recommendations. Some community archives will, for a fee, take on a private conservation project. If the archives cannot help you, they may be able to recommend a private company who would be able to convert your paper documents to electronic ones. If you choose to take this path, we recommend that you organize and properly store your letters first.

All the best of luck with your family heritage project Sam!

Unclutterer welcomes new writer Alex Fayle to the team

It gives me great pleasure to welcome a new writer to the Unclutterer team. — Alex Fayle. Alex is originally from Ontario, Canada. He has a Masters of Information Studies from University of Toronto. Alex ran an organizing business for several years and is a former president of Professional Organizers in Canada. In 2006 he moved to Europe and currently lives in the Basque region of Spain.

Welcome Alex!

Unitasker Wednesday: Wash and Drain dish tub

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

In my kitchen, I have two rather large stainless steel sinks. I can fit my biggest stock pot in either one. One of the great things about my kitchen sinks is that when I’m finished washing my dishes I simply pull the plug and the water goes down the drain. I clean my sinks regularly because they can harbour germs. Cleaning two functional and practical sinks clean takes time and effort so I cannot fathom why I would ever need another sink especially a very small, plastic, portable one.

wash and drain dish tub

The Joseph Joseph Wash and Drain dish tub is basically an expensive plastic washtub with handles and a drain. It is smaller than the average bar sink. I’m not sure even sure it would fit my smaller pots and pans. I would suggest that if you have a perfectly functional kitchen sink, the Wash and Drain dish tub would fall into the unitasker category and would probably not be something you would use.

However, If you do not have a functional kitchen sink, perhaps you’re camping, living in a dorm or RV, or undergoing home renovations, the Wash and Drain dish tub might come in handy.

Thanks to reader Melanie for pointing out this unitasker to us.

Organizing for hot desks

The terms “hot desks” and “hot desking” have nothing to do with temperature. It a business term used for shared office desks. Instead of assigning each employee a desk, offices will provide spaces with desks that are occupied as required. This is usually done for sales people and remote workers who only occasionally work at the office. A business can save money by implementing this practice because it doesn’t have to maintain unused space.

If you work in an office with hot desks, you’ll need to organize yourself and your belongings a bit differently. No longer can you leave piles of files stacked on the desk or sticky notes on the computer monitor as reminders of what tasks to work on. Alternative solutions include my favourite project managing system, On Top of Everything but you may prefer a combination of paper planners, digital calendars, and/or to-do lists.

In some hot desk offices, employees may have lockers where they can store their computers and a few personal belongings. If you do not have a locker, you should invest in a durable briefcase that is easy to carry around, holds all of your items, and can be locked when needed.

Here are a few things you might wish to carry in your briefcase:

Organizers: A Grid-it (or two) will help keep your computer cables and other items organized and easy to find. Even though your office may provide supplies, a plastic divided container is useful for keeping a small stash of paperclips, staples, etc., close at hand.

Sanitizing wipes: Clean the arms of the chair, telephone, and any other items touched frequently by multiple people. As a courtesy to the next person, use the wipes again before you leave the desk.

Temperature control: I’m always cold while working at my desk. I carry a pashmina type shawl with me to wrap around my shoulders. If you’re always warm, a portable fan may be useful.

Noise control: If you’re more productive when it is quiet, use earmuff-type noise cancelling headphones rather than the smaller ear buds. If your co-workers can see you’re wearing headphones, they will interrupt you only for important matters.

Name tag: Since employees change desks frequently, you may wish to get a simple nameplate to display at your hot desk so your co-workers will know where to find you.

If you have experience hot desking, please chime in with organizing tips for our readers.

Unitasker Wednesday: Flying screaming monkey

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

The Flingshot Slingshot Flying Screaming Monkey can be launched like a slingshot. The arms are made of rubber tubing and the hands have slots where you can put your fingers. Just pull back the feet and tail and the monkey flies up to 15 metres (50ft). The included battery allows the monkey screams out like Tarzan when it flies.

I remember when I was a little girl and I saw the movie the Wizard of Oz for the first time. I loved Dorothy and Toto, and the magic of the Land of Oz but that green-faced witch was very scary. Even more frightening were the witch’s evil servants, the Winged Monkeys! I had nightmares about those things for weeks afterwards!

Fast-forward to the scenario of me at work, quietly typing away in my cubicle, looking up, and seeing a screaming monkey flying across the office. I’d definitely be having more nightmares.

Retailers’ tricks contribute to clutter

We’ve talked before about how to avoid clutter by careful purchasing. It isn’t always easy and sometimes it is downright difficult! Recently, I watched an episode of CBC Television’s Marketplace entitled, Retail tricks: How stores make you spend more which exposed some psychological tricks that retailers use to entice consumers to buy more and to increase their impulse purchases. Many of these persuasion tactics act on the consumer’s subconscious to coax them to buy at emotional level, bypassing logical, rational, decision-making process leading to increased spending.

One of the strategies used to encourage spending is the Gruen effect. This is when consumers enter a shopping mall or store with an intentionally confusing design. They lose track of their original intentions and are more susceptible to making impulse buys. I’m sure anyone who has shopped in a large, wholesale-type store knows the feeling.

The ambiance of the store also influences consumer purchases. “Easy-listening” music, free samples, wide and welcoming spaces all encourage consumers to slow their pace because spending more time in the store directly relates to spending more money in the store.

Other tricks the retailers use:

  • Larger shopping carts and baskets encourage customers to buy more.
  • Placing staples and lower cost items at the back of the store (e.g., milk in grocery stores) forces consumers to walk through many other aisles increasing their likelihood of purchasing premium products.
  • Grouping items together at a marginally lower price such as 3 for $5 instead of $1.75 each influences consumers to buy three instead of just one.
  • Limiting the number of items (for example, “limit of 6 per customer”) creates the illusion of scarcity and consumers tend to buy up to the limit.

One of the most important ways to combat these tricks is to be aware of them. Learn to shop consciously. Avoid shopping when you’re tired, hungry, or pressed for time. Stick to your list and avoid those last-minute sales.

If you’re interested in the psychology behind these retail tricks, watch the Marketplace episode.

Unitasker Wednesday: Baseboard Buddy

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

The Baseboard Buddy is designed to clean baseboards. At first glance, I agreed that this item was definitely a unitasker. It’s promotional video certainly has the same characteristics as many other unitaskers we’ve featured.

However, the Baseboard Buddy has an extendable handle and 360° swivelling microfibre head that eliminates the need to get down on your hands and knees. It also will allow you to easily dust behind furniture. You can use it to dust crown moulding and the tops of door frames too.

An independent reviewer has suggested that the Baseboard Buddy is rather flimsy for deep cleaning but this might be a useful tool if have reduced mobility and intricate baseboards that need regular dusting.

Thanks to reader Spadlo for bringing this unitasker to our attention.

Hold the mail

On our post Becoming a more organized traveler, Maria, one of our readers, wrote us to say that she always has her postal mail delivery suspended when she goes on vacation. This is a great idea because if mail piles up in your mailbox advertising that you’re not home, it makes you a target for theft and identity fraud.

Even when you’re at home, the “hold mail” option from your postal service can also help keep you organized during short-term events when mail would overflow your home mail centre. These events include:

Stay-cations. On a stay-cation you spend your days zooming around to attractions, restaurants, and treating your house like a hotel. Rather than have important mail get lost in all of the shuffle, have the post office hold it for you until guests have departed and you have returned to your regular mail processing routine.

Special Occasions. Weddings, anniversary parties, and family reunions take time and effort to plan, attend, and especially host. Consider having mail delivery suspended from a few days before, until a few days after the event. When the event is over, you’ll have time to sort through your mail properly and you won’t accidentally send your payment for the electric bill enclosed in a thank-you card.

Home Renovations. The house is being torn apart and work crews are everywhere. Mail can be easily lost (or stolen) in the tumult. Suspending mail delivery during this time may save you from losing important bills and payments. You can always pop-in to the post office and pick up your mail weekly if the renovations are over an extended period.

Some people who travel regularly choose to rent a post office box and have all of their personal mail delivered there. They pick it up every week or so and process it all at the same time. Even if you don’t travel, this option might work for you depending on the quantity of mail you receive and the ease of visiting your post office box.

Have you ever used a “hold-mail” service other than when going away on vacation? We’d love to hear how it worked for you.

Unitasker Wednesday: Rub Away bar

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

The Rub Away bar is a piece of stainless steel that resembles a bar of soap. It claims that you can remove odours (garlic, onions, fish, etc.) from your hands simply by rubbing them with this stainless steel bar.

I’m not sure why you couldn’t just rub your hands on one of the other pieces of stainless steel already in your kitchen such as the sink, faucet, pots, pans, or cutlery to remove the odour – IF stainless steel actually removed odour. There have been no scientific studies to show that this actually anything more than an old wives’ tale.

If you’re going to spend money on something that keeps odour from building up on your skin while cutting smelly foods, use soap and water. Regular washing will not only remove odour but also any dirt, oils, bacteria, and viruses – something that stainless steel won’t do.

Thanks to our reader Deb for bringing this unitasker to our attention.

Review of the S.P.A.C.E. program

Tomorrow, January 14, is Organize Your Home Day. The first book I ever read about home organization was back in 1999 while I was pregnant for baby #2. The book was Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern. The book is as valuable now as it was 17 years ago.

With this book, Morgenstern organizes the approach to organizing. Her acronym S.P.A.C.E. (sort, purge, assign, containerize, and equalize) helps people (including me!) develop a systematic method for uncluttering quickly and easily. Let’s look at each step in a little more depth.

Sort

Group similar items together using common characteristics. You might decide to group clothing by putting all “tops” in one pile, and “bottoms” in another pile. Or you could sort by “work clothes” and “weekend clothes.” The way you group items together may be different from someone else but sort them in a way that makes sense to you.

Purge

Once items are sorted, you can see exactly what you have. Now is the time to physically remove items from the home. Keep only what you love, what you need, and what you use. Reduce the number of unitaskers you own. Consider renting, borrowing, or sharing items you do not use often.

Assign a home

Designate a spot in your home where specific items will “live.” My stapler lives in the second drawer of the cabinet beside my desk. Items that are not used all year-round may need a “vacation home.” For example, the duvet lives on the bed from November to March, then it moves to its vacation home in a zippered bag in the linen closet from April to October.

Containerize

Only after the first three steps have been completed should you choose containers appropriate to the item and the item’s home. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of buying bins large enough to hold my items but they would not fit on the shelves where the items were being stored! Always measure twice so you only have to buy once. You may wish to consider using inexpensive baskets or even cardboard boxes at first. Once you’ve determined that the “home” for the item is in the correct spot, then spend the extra money for high quality containers.

Equalize

The last step is often overlooked but you will need to schedule maintenance time during which you put things back in their homes. You can schedule daily, weekly, and seasonal maintenance. If the maintenance seems to be more work than originally anticipated, consider changing homes for certain items. Keep refining your system until it works well for you.

Morgenstern’s S.P.A.C.E. program won’t get you on a Journey to Mars but it will help you make your home on planet Earth a lot more enjoyable.

Unitasker Wednesday: Finger lights

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

When I first saw these finger lights in a local department store last month I knew I had to include them in a Unitasker Wednesday post. Children clip these little LED lights to their fingers at birthday parties to make “cool designs” while waving their hands around in the dark. My young-adult offspring informed me that finger lights are also worn by the older crowd at “raves.” Either way, I figured finger lights were still unitaskers.

However, just last week my husband and I went for a walk around our neighbourhood after dinner, on a dark street, past a small park, and  heard rustling in the leaves, and saw in the shadows an unknown animal with fur and lots of teeth – and I kind of wished that I had LED lights clipped to my fingers and running shoes and every article of clothing I was wearing.

Happy birthday to us! Unclutterer turns ten!

On January 6, 2007, we published our first blog post with our manifesto of simple living. We’re thrilled that over the past ten years we’ve been able to provide tips, tricks, and inspiration to help people unclutter and stay organized and productive.

Here are some highlights from our first decade:

We would like to thank all of the regular and guest writers that have contributed to Unclutterer but most of all, we’d like to thank YOU, our readers, for your continued comments, ideas, and support and encouragement.

Here’s to another ten years of simple living!