Friends of the Leatherby Libraries are well-acquainted with the Center for American War Letters, and the CAWL Archives housed on the lower level of the Leatherby Libraries, and we’re always delighted when even more people learn about this treasure trove of American history, which now includes more then 150,000 war-related correspondences from every conflict in US history – and the number keeps growing. These letters and emails help people from all walks of life, whether they’re teachers or students or members of the general public, better understand the service and sacrifices of our nation’s troops, veterans, and their families.
The Center for American War Letters has been fortunate to receive unanimously positive media coverage over the years, and the past few weeks have seen a rise in attention. Reader’s Digest, one of this country’s oldest and most respected magazines, featured a large story on CAWL in its October issue, and CAWL was more recently – and unexpectedly – highlighted in the nationally syndicated advice column “Ask Amy”! In her column, writer Amy Dickinson encourages a letter writer (along with any readers in a similar situation) to donate to CAWL the letters her father sent to her mother while he was in the Navy. Alluding to both the appearance of CAWL in a “Dear Abby” column on Veteran’s Day in 1998 and an interview with CAWL founder Andrew Carroll in Smithsonian Magazine, Dickinson suggests that, “Perhaps in celebration of Veterans Day this year, people will be inspired to open that suitcase, shoebox, or plastic bin — and read, re-read, scan, and donate these important slices of history.”
We discussed these exciting developments with the Center for American War Letters team.
The first person we spoke with was Andrew Carroll, founder and current director of the Center for American War Letters. Andrew writes:
While I knew the Reader’s Digest piece was going to be published, I almost dropped my cup of coffee when I read the “Ask Amy” column in my morning’s newspaper and saw her tell readers about our project to save America’s war letters. Amy mentioned learning about us in Smithsonian Magazine, and that article ran a year ago! What I especially loved is that Amy encouraged her readers to recognize that even seemingly “everyday” war letters are still valuable, and we cherish every war letter–and email–shared with us, whether they’re first-hand accounts of major battles or short, sweet letters written between servicemembers and their loved ones. Amy’s wonderful column informed millions of Americans that there’s an organization, our Center, working to seek out and preserve these letters and emails from every war in American history, both by servicemembers and their loved ones.
We spoke as well with Special Collections librarian Rand Boyd, who played an instrumental role in the creation of the Center for American War Letters Archives in the Leatherby Libraries. Recalling the creation of the Archives, he writes:
The Center for American War Letters Archives officially began in 2013. At the time, it was quite a challenge for the Special Collections Department because of the huge amount of material that Andrew Carroll donated to Chapman and our limited staff size. There was just Claudia Horn, the head of the department, and me. Luckily, we had a couple of sharp student workers who helped me with the initial survey of the collections. The material came to us in a wide assortment of cardboard boxes and US Postal Service baskets. We were fortunate that the original mailing envelopes and boxes had been kept, which helped us so much when it came time to begin accessioning [library term meaning “recording the addition of a new item to a library or collection”] each collection. First off, we did an initial sorting of the collection by war, and while we were doing this, we also evaluated the collections for any preservation issues that might be present: insect damage, mold, fragile materials, etc. This is part of our standard workflow for accessioning any archival collection. As we worked our way through accessioning each collection, we also rehoused the letters in archival-quality containers and then, eventually, wrote finding aids to describe the contents of each collection. These finding aids were uploaded to the Online Archive of California to make it easier for researchers to find this new archive.
At the same time we were accessioning the collection, we were also busy getting our archival storage and reading room in the Leatherby Libraries ready to house this massive archive. We worked with Facilities who made the necessary modifications to the space. We also engaged Professor Eric Chimenti’s art students to produce some evocative banners that highlighted the mission of the archives as well as some important letters from the collection. Once the reading and storage spaces were ready, we moved all these archival containers into their new home. Of course, the accessioning of these collections and the new ones that we are constantly receiving is an ongoing process.
To learn more about that current and ongoing process, we spoke with Andy Harman, who is the archivist for the Center for American War Letters Archives. Andy recounted how his time with the archives began, and how it’s been going recently:
I began working with the Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections & Archives in Fall 2014 as a student worker, which was my first experience in an archive. I worked as a student for two years, the latter half of which included considerable time working with the war letters materials. After completing my graduate work in the War and Society program, and my term as a student worker, I returned a little over a year later as a project archivist and worked to expand my archival education in order to enter into the field professionally. When the position of archivist with CAWLA opened up, I earned the post with my continuing education in archival science as well as my familiarity with the subject matter and the war letters themselves.
Beginning in August, I started work with Dr. Jennifer Keene to figure out how we could best accommodate her History 500 class, “The Soldier’s War,” this year. Students in her course typically work with primary sources from CAWLA in person, but with remote learning, as well as the remote work of the library, digital surrogates seemed the best solution. With some collaboration, we were able to digitize fifteen collections for the students in the course to use, including some already digitized on the Chapman University Digital Commons.
The students chose which collection they each would use to write their term papers, and I met with them via Zoom to discuss how to use the materials. Since that initial group Zoom, I have met individually with some students to discuss their preliminary research. Given the circumstances and the fact that we have provided all we can digitally, the students will not need to physically come into the library unless absolutely necessary. One such student has gone through the protocols and process to schedule an appointment to look at a collection that is not digitized so that she may use it for supplementary material related to her subject.
Ultimately, despite some initial setbacks, it seems we are having a smooth semester of research here in CAWLA, with students getting as much of the archival research experience as possible, albeit digitally.
Finally, thanks to a chance email exchange between Andrew Carroll and Dr. Emily Carman, who teaches film history at Chapman, CAWL was also featured in an issue of the Military Officers’ Association of America (MOAA) magazine, which led to even more press. “I was watching CNN,” Carroll says, “when I saw Dr. Carman being interviewed about a documentary she was a part of, and she was identified as a professor at Chapman. Even though I didn’t know her, I sent her an email just saying what a wonderful job I thought she had done and had made the Chapman community proud. After Dr. Carman saw my bio and that I was the founder and director of CAWL, she told me that her father, Jim, was a Navy veteran and a member of MOAA. He and I ended up meeting, and he helped us get an article in MOAA’s magazine, which brought in a ton of responses. Thanks also to that article, I did my first Zoom speaking engagement for an MOAA chapter, and one of the listeners was a producer for an ABC News affiliate, who contacted me after the speech about doing a story on us for her station. And indeed, we got an incredible story about CAWL that ran on Veterans Day!”
We’re delighted with every mention of the Center for American War Letters in media, because every article that mentions the Center ensures the survival of more letters and emails and raises the awareness of this important historical archive located in the Leatherby Libraries at Chapman University.
If you have war-related letters or emails to share, please visit CAWL’s website, and whether you do or do not, please share this link so that others will know about CAWL and its mission.