University of Minnesota
Digitizing Immigrant Letters

I would have to be very hard pressed to find arguments AGAINST digitalization of letters or any other historical source for this matter. It is, of course, all about access, and private correspondence by its very nature remains often among most personal and thus not easily accessible possessions.  The more we know about the process of migration from the migrant themselves, the richer our understanding of history and the migrant experience.
There are, however, some issues that demand careful consideration and attention. Transcription and translation, as in case of any traditionally published sources, have their pitfalls and shortcomings, which we don’t need to dwell on here, but which should be kept in mind. The choice of letters or series of letters and their representativeness for ethnic groups might be another problem, which needs to be addressed throughout the process of selection. The accessibility, price, and rapidly changing electronic platforms might also become an issue. What nowadays is on the cutting edge of technology might be outdated (and inaccessible) tomorrow.
Perhaps my biggest concern is with the very definition of a letter, which seems to be promoted by the DIL project. Although many migrants corresponded mainly on the spectrum homeland - country of settlement, many also wrote letters which circulated within broad Diasporas, connecting individuals in different countries and on different continents, and accompanying migrants at different stages of their migration and settlement process. Often strong emotional bonds were created not only between family members, spouses, and loved ones, but among people who shared specific experience, for instance (and let me use here some examples from my own research) Polish exile writers in the post-World War II period, leaders in the political diaspora, soldiers from the Polish Army in the West resettled in different places, etc., etc. In addition, and perhaps quite surprisingly, letters from refugees to particular resettlement agencies or to their individual sponsors often included also very personal details and emotional content, comparable to private correspondence.
And last but not least, as my most recent research indicates, letters to the editor, especially in long-lasting sections of ethnic newspapers were often not really directed to the editors, but rather to the entire community of readers (again, often in its Diasporic dimensions), who developed strong emotional bonds and even personal relationships.
Obviously, any project needs to find its focus and purpose, and to have its limits. But I do think that we need to continue expanding the definition of immigrant correspondence in new and creative ways to the benefit of research in the immigrant and ethnic experience.

Anna D. Jaroszyńska-Kirchmann
Eastern Connecticut State University

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