University of Minnesota
Digitizing Immigrant Letters

Digitizing Immigrant Letters: Problems and Opportunities

Digitizing the vast international archive of immigrant letters constitutes an excellent opportunity for academic researchers, genealogists, family historians, teachers, and students to have easy access to the intimate world of individuals and families engaged in the life-transforming processes of leave-taking and resettlement.  The importance of the democratizing potential of digitization cannot be overestimated. Placing these letters on line makes it possible for large numbers of individuals who have never had access to the travel grants that make academic research possible not only to do research, but also to share in the world of their interpretation and to participate in discussions about their meanings in the on line forums that have been proposed to accompany these digitized collections.  The only skepticism I have about digitization processes comes out of their pairing with the technology of semantic indexing, an electronic process that generates a key word search into texts, and potentially thousands of texts simultaneously. Through semantic indexing it becomes possible, for example, to trace every instance in which words from seasickness to streetcar to steelworkers’ wages come up in letters. Most immigrant letters are personal correspondence between individuals, often but not necessarily always family and kin. These letters are about relationships, which are inscribed on paper and embedded in each text. They are a dialogue between individuals in which personal relationships are maintained on paper in the absence of physical proximity. They give us access, in consequence, on the most intimate level to the psychology of the writers and readers, who literally form themselves through writing to their most significant others. I fear that if we are encouraged to do no more than scan these letters for facts or anecdotes that lend color to narratives in the service of other projects, we will ultimately deny ourselves the opportunity to study the writers and readers as people involved in dialogue, and to understand immigrant experience at its most intimate and personal levels.

David Gerber
University at Buffalo

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