University of Minnesota
Digitizing Immigrant Letters

Digitalization of im/migrant letters, or for that matter of any sort of informal letter-writing, is of significant interest to folklorists. As vernacular expression, letters can be studied for their traditional form, their patterns of content, and their use of formulaic phrasing. Folklorists are also interested in oral genres that are embedded in letters: proverbs, poetry, personal experience narratives, anecdotes, and legends, for example. Analyzing these patterns and genres can help us identify cultural values and esthetics shared within a culture group and identify ways in which these may differ from group to group, or alternately be shared across presumed cultural divisions.
Digitalization offers us a technical means of access to these vernacular patterns by allowing one to search for keywords or formulas. Posting digitalized letters to an archival site also allows one to browse across a number of letters for larger patterns such as structural organization of letters or embedded genres. The current digitalization effort at University of Minnesota has the additional advantage of providing us access to im/migrant letters from numerous language groups translated into a common language, English. Whatever the imperfections and foibles of translation, one can now perceive, for example, the extent to which the overall structure of the vernacular immigrant letter was shared across Europe. One can look closely at the use of formulaic religious language by writers from differing religious traditions. One can read for modes of storytelling embedded within letters. There are many other possibilities.
The digitalization project involves very time-consuming processes that may ultimately limit the number of letters that can be included. However, the project will provide an invaluable comparative resource for anyone doing a study focused on a particular language group, region, and time period, even if not represented in the pool of letters digitalized. Someone like myself, interested in the Swedish immigration to the Rocky Mountain states at the turn of the 20th century, may be unlikely to find comparative material written in Swedish or from the Rocky Mountains or from the particular time period. But the digital archive would still be useful to me as a check across culture groups for patterns that one might be tempted to attribute to the Swedish Americans.
More broadly, the digital archive helps us identify the qualities of letter writing as an especially interesting kind of composition. Already well studied both by literary scholars and historians, letter writing has yet to be exhausted as a subject of inquiry. A significant portion of im/migrant letters are handwritten, providing us with access to examples of what we can call chirographic culture. Those engaged in orality and literacy studies and in the emerging field of multi-modality studies are especially concerned with whether and how media enable cognitive processes and communication. The digitization of letters provides a pool of primary sources accompanied by abundant contextual information for such efforts.

Jennifer Eastman Attebery
Idaho State University

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