©2016 Donald R. Snow -- This page was last updated 2016-02-26

These Freeware Corner notes are published in TAGGology, our Utah Valley Technology and Genealogy Group (UVTAGG) monthly newsletter, and are posted on  where there may be corrections or updates.

This Freeware Corner note will discuss the topic of letter collections and show some freeware programs to use.  It will be illustrated with the collection of Erastus Snow's family letters that my family and I have compiled, edited, and posted online. 

Family letters give a different view about a person and his or her family than official or business letters, or even a journal, since they are usually more informal.  They preserve family events, reactions to world events, sayings of the times, and even genealogy of the family.  And they help us turn our hearts to our ancestor, one of our goals in family history.

If you plan to do a letter collection about a particular person or family, you may find that family members already have many letters for the person.  You may also find letters, or copies of letters, in libraries or archives near where they lived or in organizations they were associated with.  You even find letters published in newspapers, especially small-town newspapers, since when someone wrote back home, the editor would frequently publish the letter because of local interest.  Good examples are people away in the military service.  I found several letters from my Dad written home to his Mother in St. George, Utah from Germany and France during World War I.  They were published in the local newspaper, the Washington County Times, since the editor felt that people would be interested.  One story that I heard my Father tell that I thought I would never be able to document was detailed in a published letter he wrote to my Grandmother from Germany.  For Utah newspapers the website  is based on a grant that the Library of Congress has given the University of Utah Library to digitize all Utah newspapers.  These digitized newspapers are posted online and are completely word-searchable, if the OCR'ing (Optical Character Recognition) software was working well.  On that website is a listing with the newspapers with bars to indicate the years that have been digitized so far.  As you find the letters, it helps to keep track of where each came from so you can attribute them correctly later.

There are many good scanners these days, but you can always just go to your local Family History Center and use one there.  The LDS Church is providing good-quality Lexmark scanners to FHCs that scan directly to a flash drive without having to go through a computer first.  I recommend scanning them to pdf (Portable Document Format) at about 150 dots per inch.  The pdf format makes them viewable by many free programs and
easy to work with.  If photos are included, or if it is from a newspaper and had a picture with it, you might want to scan at a higher resolution.  As a rule of thumb the Library of Congress recommends scanning documents or photos at about 250 dots per inch for each inch of the final product.  So the beginning picture and final product sizes determine the dpi to use.  This means that if you are scanning a slide, which is about 1 inch high, and you want to print it later to about 8 x 10 inches, you need to scan it at 8 x 250 = 2000 dpi, at least.  Otherwise, you might get pixilation (breaking up into little squares).  Since letters or a newspaper article are already about the size you want for a final print, scanning them at about 150-250 dpi allows you to view the scans at about the same size as the originals without a problem.  Most FHC's seem to set their Lexmark scanners to default to pdf at about 150 dpi.  I usually scan in just black and white unless there is any color on the page, even colored ink.

Once scanned, the simplest way to transcribe the letters is just to read the scans and type into a text editor what you see.  There are several variations of this, for example, instead of using a word processor, use a free program like EVERNOTE, available from .  In EVERNOTE you can set up a notebook for each collection of letters and type each letter into a separate note.  This keeps them all together and makes them easy to sort and find.  Another method of transcribing letters is to read them aloud and use voice recognition software, but I have found that there leaves so much editing to do afterwards, that it's easier to just type them in to start with.  There is a free program for personal use called TRANSCRIPT, available from , that works like FamilySearch Indexing where you see the image at the top and a place to type the information below.  As you type and press the Return key at the end of the line, it moves the image for you.  At present I am not aware of any program that will read handwriting and convert it into text without many errors, but people are working on this since it would be so helpful.

This is the key to being able to sort and find the letters you are looking for.  A system I have developed is the following and more details are in other class notes on my webpage .  Here's an example of the name I would give to a letter.
          ESLTRS-1884-09-03-From,SnowErastus,MissouriStLouis-To,BemanArtimesia(Snow),UtahStGeorge .
The ESLTRS (abbreviation for Erastus Snow Letters) adds a code at the start so these letters all sort together.  The date of the letter is next and written in International Date Format of YYYY-MM-DD, so they sort chronologically for that collection, no matter what order you type them in.  With this naming they automatically jump to where they belong, whether in EVERNOTE or any other program, without you having to move them manually.   The From and To formats make it so that you can easily find all letters from or to an individual and also sort on their locations.  And the locations are written so everything from each country or state sorts together.  If these are in EVERNOTE, they sort in chronological order there and are automatically backed up in your online EVERNOTE account.  If they are text files in some text format on your computer, the freeware program EVERYTHING, available from , will find, sort, and show them in chronological order, no matter where they are on your computer.  EVERYTHING also allows you to find how many letters of each type you have and even move the ones you want to a different folder, if desired.

As you work with the transcriptions, you most likely will find typos and want to add editorial comments.  Correct these in your original database so you always have the latest version on your computer.  Editorial comments can be put in square brackets, e.g. [.......], so people can tell that was not in the original letter.  I add editorial comments of the full names of people, full locations, and full names of events, so they will be recognizable to folks reading the transcription and will be electronically searchable.  I also add editorial comments with identifying information to events like the Civil War, since it was not called that at the time and this makes it so you can find such references by searching electronically.

When I find something interesting in a letter while transcribing or editing it, I write a short statement starting with the letter date and describing the item.  For example, when Erastus Snow wrote that he wondered if the "Union was going to burst up" (Civil War) I would write a note that said something like "1860-MM-DD - Erastus wonders if Union will burst up - Civil War" and add that to a list of Interesting Items.  Or if he is offering a bribe to get his children to study their geography, I would write "1871-MM-DD - Erastus offers his map to first child to learn the capitals of the U.S. states."  This has given me a list of hundreds of items of interest in the letters.  I later decide on categories to sort them, e.g. Family Life, LDS Church History, Health and Physical Well-Being, Sayings of the Times, etc.  From these categories it is easy to select excerpts for articles, talks, and classes.

I use EVERNOTE and form notebooks for the various letter collections I have.  When I am ready to post the set online, I export them from EVERNOTE using the Export command and save them to separate files in html format (computer jargon).  This forms a folder of all the files I have selected with an "Index" file showing all their names.  Clicking on the Index file opens my default browser and brings up the html index file.  Clicking on the title of any letter opens it to view in the browser.  This makes it look like you are on the Internet, but it is just in a browser on my computer.  When I find typos, I correct them in my EVERNOTE collection, so that next time I export the set, it includes the corrections.  When I am ready to post these to the Internet, I FTP (more computer jargon) the folder to the website and include the link on my FH Class Notes webpage.

After exporting from EVERNOTE, to search the file names on my own computer, I use EVERYTHING.  This allows finding all letters that have certain criteria or dates or who to or from or locations in their titles.  To search for words inside the files, and not just in the titles, there are several freeware programs that help.  One I like is FREE COMMANDER from .  In FREE COMMANDER click File > Search (or just CTRL-F) and you get a screen with search boxes for titles or for content.  To search the content of all files in a folder, enter the name of the folder and include subfolders, if desired.  Then enter the search terms in the content box, do the searches, and you see the titles of all files containing those search terms.  Click on a file title to open it.  The only way I have found to get the search terms highlighted with FREE COMMANDER is to click on CTRL-F and type in the search terms again.  There are several other free programs that will search within files and I wrote a Freeware Corner article about some of them last year.  To search on the files on my website, including the Erastus Snow letters, I have set it up to do Google searches by you entering the search terms -- see the "Click Here To Google Search" note at the top of my webpage .

EVERNOTE has a "Presentation" mode in the commercial versions.  To see a single note in presentation mode just click on the Projection Screen icon at the top-right of the note.  To see a collection of notes in presentation mode, highlight them all, right click, and select Present, or click on the Start Presentation button below.  You will see the notes in full-screen with larger text so it shows up well on a projector or even just on a computer monitor for several people to watch.  The mouse wheel, the arrows down and up, and the Pages down or up buttons move you down or up through a note.  When showing several notes, CTRL+(Right Arrow) or CTRL+(Left Arrow) takes you to the next or previous note.  When you reach the last note, it cycles back to the first note you highlighted.  The ESC key takes you out of presentation mode.  This is a simple way to show the notes without having to export them from EVERNOTE, but it is not available in the free version.

This gives you ideas and how to work with letter collections.  They are a good family history resource and tell good stories.