Sonja Lindberg pores over letters, the majority of them more than 60 years old, inside a tiny, dimly lit room.
The letters were never addressed nor intended for Lindberg. Quite the opposite, in fact. They’re deeply personal messages from Canadian soldiers to their loved ones.
Lindberg, a second year geo-science student at Vancouver Island University, is just one of a handful of student volunteers with the Canadian Letters and Images Project, an online database that has digitalized thousands of letters and photographs from hundreds of Canadian soldiers.
The Letters and Images Project began in 2000 and is headed by Vancouver Island University’s Department of History. The project receives the letters and photographs from family members of the soldiers. Student volunteers then transcribe and scan the letters and photographs they receive and store them online at www.canadianletters.ca.
As a volunteer, Lindberg’s job is to scan the letters onto a computer, ensuring they’re preserved for generations to come. Although a simple task, it can become time consuming, according to Lindberg, who said it is difficult to not read the letters.
“It’s hard,” she said. “You want to read everything, but you’ll only get one letter done in the next two hours if you do it that way. You get caught in it and you can’t help but read and go through the entire letter.”
Lindberg, whose grandfather served in the Second World War, said in high school she learned mostly about the logistics and causes of both world wars, but not so much about the human aspect, adding that being involved in the project has allowed her to understand the emotional and human toll of war.
“You see more of the human side of it,” she said about the project. “You see the actual effects of it on people.”
Stephen Davies, project director said volunteers are actually encouraged to read the letters when they can, adding that without the students the project wouldn’t be where it is today.
“It’s very much student driven,” he said. “The bulk of the work is done by students. This is a hands-on student project, which is again, unique in Canada. This kind of work being done by undergraduates, you won’t see it at other universities.”
He said aside from the personal stories, what makes the project unique is that the majority of letters they have are just from the soldiers.
“We have the letters from the soldiers, which 80 to 90 per cent are from soldiers,” he said. “It’s the letters from the home front to soldiers that we don’t have because the soldiers simply couldn’t carry them around. So they would read them, answer them and very often just burn them because after a couple years they simply couldn’t carry all that. So, that is one of the causalities of war is the other side of the story. We see them answering questions that we don’t know what the question was.”
For Lindberg, one letter that really stood out to her was in a series of letters written by a navy seaman serving in the Atlantic. She said most of the letters he had written were to his fiancée, but there was one letter that was simply talking about one of his convoys being attacked by the Nazis.
“Just seeing how he wrote it, it completely changed. When he was writing to his fiancée turned wife, [the letters] were very personal and loving,” she said. “And then he is writing this report and it is very to the point. There was no flowery language at all.”
Lindberg said she’s yet to read a series of letters from a solider who was actually killed overseas, but knows when that day comes it will be hard on her.
“I haven’t done a collection yet where I know the solider passed away,” she said. “I’ve done the ones with the happy endings. Probably when I get to that point it will be tough.”