University of Minnesota
Digitizing Immigrant Letters

Digitizing Immigrant Letters Project (2008 - present)

Continuing the tradition begun at the University of Minnesota by Theodore C. Blegen in the 1920s when he proposed an international collaboration to collect and preserve letters written by American immigrants and sent to Norway, it is appropriate that the IHRC - which has been collecting for research migrant correspondence since the acquisition of its earliest collections in the mid-1960s - should be the initiator of the Digitizing Immigrant Letters (DIL) Project. The Project aims to collaborate with a wide variety of institutions in North America and abroad in order to create digital archives of letters written between migrants and their loved ones, to provide their translations into English and promote research of migrant correspondence across disciplines - in accordance with the Center's mission to promote interdisciplinary research on international migration, develop archives documenting immigrant and refugee life, especially in the United States, and make specialized scholarship accessible to students, teachers, and the public. The following is a summary of events and activities developed as part of the Project so far, with generous assistance of the DIL Project's sponsors and supporters:

March - April 2015: Letters from Greek American collections at the IHRC Archives added to the project. (in progress)

March 2015: The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) makes content from the Digitizing Immigrant Letters (DIL) project accessible through its search portal. Connecting migrant letters in digital form from repositories in North America and Europe through metadata sharing between the DPLA and Europeana is another direction currently being explored by the Digitizing Immigrant Letters project.

January 2015: Letters selected from the Philip Hitti Papers held by the IHRC Archives added to the DIL project's website.

March 2014: Donna Gabaccia and Daniel Necas participate in a workshop organized by the "Digitising Experiences of Migration" project (based at the Coventry University, England) held in Omagh, Northern Ireland, and hosted by the local Mellon Centre for Migration Studies. The workshop focused on data visualizations. Daniel also visited the Europeana Digital Library headquarters in The Hague to discuss potential collaborations. As part of the trip, meetings took place with colleagues from the Naprstek Museum in Prague and from the University of Vienna as well.

December 2013: Letters selected from the Papers of Vaclau Panucevich held by the IHRC Archives added to the DIL project's website.

December 2013: Donna Gabaccia, Lisong Liu, Sonia Cancian, Chelsey Kueffer and Suzy Sinke attended a conference dedicated to letter writing and migration at Wuyi University in Jiangmen, China. Sonia Cancian reports that "The papers from the Minnesotan scholars were all highly appreciated,  and provided new perspectives on letters and migration for Wuyi scholars, while at the same time, the papers from the Chinese scholars opened a window into opportunities for further collaborations with DIL." 

November 2013: Emilie Wehle letters from the Sammlung Frauennachlässe (Collection of Women's Personal Papers) housed at the Department of History at the University of Vienna in Austria, added to the website.

August 2013: Donna Gabaccia, Sonia Cancian - "Migrant Letters Enter The Digital Age: The Digitizing Immigrant Letters Project at the IHRC"

May 2013: Donna Gabaccia participates in a workshop organized by the "Digitising Experiences of Migration" project (based at the Coventry University, England) in Utrecht, The Netherlands, where corpus linguists, historians, social scientists and computer programmers from Europe and North America gathered to discuss questions surrounding digitization and research of migrant correspondence.

August 2012: IHRC officially receives from the Society of American Archivists the Philip M. Hamer and Elizabeth Hamer Kegan Award "in recognition of successful efforts to increase public awareness through the use of archival and manuscript materials," at the annual meeting of the Society in San Diego, California.

SAA Award

June 2012: DIL Workshop in Vienna, Austria. Participants: Wladimir Fischer, Annemarie Steidl (University of Vienna), Donna Gabaccia, Daniel Necas (IHRC, University of Minnesota), Sonia Cancian (University of Montreal), Marija Dalbello (Rutgers University), Aleks Kalc (University of Koper), Andreja Klasinc Skofljanec (National Archives, Ljubljana), Helena Janezic (National Library, Ljubljana), Mirjam Milharcic Hladnik (Institute for Migration Studies, Ljubljana, Slovenia), Vlasta Bellova (Archives of Matica slovenska, Martin, Slovakia), Stefan Kucik (Catholic University of Ruzomberok, Slovakia), Martin Samal (National Museum, Prague), Csaba Szilagyi (Open Society Archives, Budapest), Tibor Glant, (University of Debrecen, Hungary), Melina Lucic (State Archives, Zagreb), Rebeka Mesaric Zabcic (Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies, Zagreb, Croatia), Marta Jaszczynska (Warsaw City Archives), Adam Walaszek (Jagiellonian University of Krakow, Poland), Christa Ehrmann-Hammerle, Li Gerhalter (Sammlung Frauennachlässe Archive, University of Vienna), Vlasta Vales (Komensky Archives, VIenna), Dirk Hoerder (University of Salzburg), Josef Ehmer (University of Vienna), Marusa Verbic (University of Ljubljana), Johanna Leinonen (Turku University, Finland).

May 2012: Letters from the Kovac Family (in Slovak) added. Thanks to Stefan Kucik of the Catholic University of Ruzomberok (Slovakia).

April 2012: Society of American Archivists selected the IHRC as the 2011 recipient of the Philip M. Hamer and Elizabeth Hamer Kegan Award "in recognition of its outstanding efforts in promoting the knowledge and use of documentation of the immigrant experience through the Digitizing Immigrant Letters Project. Established in 1973, this award recognizes an archivist, editor, group of individuals or institution that has increased public awareness of archival documents for educational, instructional or other purposes.
The award committee expresses its high regard for the team's efforts to promote access to immigrant letters through an inviting and useful web site. We particularly recognize the stellar presentation of transcriptions and translations of letters in several languages, which makes the multilingual material accessible both in the original language and in English. The web access, together with the project's sponsorship of scholars, public talks and exhibits, increase public awareness of American immigrant history for scholars, family historians, and the general public." (Letter from the Award Subcommittee Chair, Lisa Conathan, April 30, 2012)

January 2012: Antonietta Petris materials added. Thanks to Sonia Cancian of the University of Montreal (Canada).

November - December 2011: Establishing contacts with partners in additional countries of central Europe (Croatia, Hungary, Poland) in preparation for a workshop in Vienna to be held in June 2012.

November 2011: Sonia Cancian organized a round table at the annual meeting of the Social Science History Association in Boston, Massachusetts:Round Table Discussion: "Digitizing Immigrant and Homeland Letters: Problems and Opportunities" Chair: David A. Gerber, University at Buffalo, SUNY (History), Discussants: David A. Gerber, University at Buffalo, SUNY (History), Sonia Cancian, Concordia University (History), Dominic Pacyga, Columbia College Chicago (Humanities, History and Social Sciences), Emma Moreton, University of Birmingham (English, Corpus Linguistics), Ursula Lehmkuhl, University of Trier (History), Jadwiga Pieper Mooney, University of Arizona (History)

Donna Gabaccia and Sonia Cancian participated in the panel "Book Session: Histories of Italian Immigrants in Canada and the United States" Chair: Jadwiga Pieper Mooney, University of Arizona (History) Families, Lovers, and their Letters: Italian Postwar Migration to Canada (Cancian, Sonia); and A New Language, a New World: Italian Immigrants in the United States, 1890-1945 (Carnevale, Nancy)
Sonia Cancian, Concordia University (History), Nancy Carnevale, Montclair State University (History) Discussants: Samuel L. Baily, Rutgers University, Professor Emeritus (History), Donna Gabaccia, University of Minnesota (Immigration History Research Center) Linda Reeder, University of Missouri (History)

Sonia Cancian also participated in a panel at the same conference as above: "Personal Narratives of Migration: Biographical Accounts, Correspondence, and Memory" Chair: David A. Gerber, University at Buffalo, SUNY (History)
The Experience of Immigrant Children Through Personal Narratives: Argentina in the Second Postwar - Maria Bjerg, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes and CONICET (History)
“Tua per sempre”: The Intimate Letters of Antonietta Petris and Loris Palma, A Case Study of Romantic Correspondence in Separation and Migration - Sonia Cancian, Concordia University (History)
Geographical Dispersion and the Construction of a Family Memory: A Study of Italian Families Between 1889 and 1970 - Mariela Ceva, Universidad Nacional de Luján and CONICET (History)
Migration Strategies of Portuguese Families through Family Correspondence - Marcelo Borges, Dickinson College (History)
Deportation, Divorce and Disavowal: The Anti-Romantic Correspondence of Magda and Imre Farkas - Julia Creet, York University (English)
Discussant: Suzanne Sinke, Florida State University (History)

June 2011: Donna Gabaccia and Daniel Necas visited central European partner institutions in Austria, Slovenia, Slovakia and Cesko, establishing contacts and exploring the possibilities for collaborations in the future with the following individuals and institutions:

University of Maribor: Matjaz Klemencic, History Department, Andrej Rahten, History Department, Jana Goriup, Vice Dean for Scientific and Research Activity, Sociology Dept., Marusa Verbic, graduate student, History Department, Irena Markovic, graduate student, History Department
University of Maribor Library: Vlasta Stavbar, Head of Local History Services, (exile and samizdat literature collections), Milos Petrovic, Deputy Director
University of Maribor, International Relations Office: Mladen Kraljic, Head of the Office
National Archives of Slovenia: Andreja Klasinc Skofljanec, Archivist, Dragan Matic, Director
Institute for Migration Studies, Slovene Academy of Sciences: Mirjam Milharcic Hladnik, Research Fellow, Marjan Drnovsek, Research Counsellor, Janja Zitnik, Research Counsellor      
University of Ljubljana, American Studies: Igor Maver, Professor 
Studia slovenica library and archives: Janez Arnez, Founder and Director  
Institute for Ethnic Studies: Janez Stergar, Research Counsellor, Mojca Medvesek, Researcher, Danijel Grafenauer, Junior Researcher, Sonja Novak Lukanovic, Senior Scientific Felllow, Director  
National and University Library of Slovenia: Helena Janezic, Head of Emigrant Print Collection  

City Archives (Gasometer): Andreas Weigl, Leiter Wissenschaftliche Projekte und Kooperationen 
Komensky School Archives: Vlasta Vales, Archivist  
Sammlung Frauennachlässe: Christa Ehrmann-Hammerle, Professorin fur Neuere Geschichte/frauen, Li Gerhalter, Senior Scientist (Archivist)  

Institute of History, Slovak Academy of Sciences: Slavo Michalek, Director  
Emigration Museum, Matica Slovenska: Stanislav Bajanik, Vera Tapalagova
Archive of Matica Slovenska: Vlasta Bellova, Director 
Slovak National Library, Literary Archive: Magdalena Brinckova, Director 
Catholic University of Ruzomberok, History Department: Stefan Kucik, Assistant Professor     

Naprstek Branch, National Museum: Milena Secka, Director of Library, Martin Samal, Archivist  
Charles University, Institute of Ethnology: Oldrich Kaspar, Director and Professor    
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Czech Republic: Ivan Dubovicky  (Strategic Planning Department)     

July - August 2011: Russian-language letters from IHRC's collections added.

March - April 2011: "A Heart Connects Us" exhibit featuring content from the project, Andersen Library, University of Minnesota. Video from the exhibit is available here.

December 2010: Minnesota Public Radio featured the project in its program "The immigrants' story, told through letters". Included are passages read by DIL team members - available here.

Summer 2010: Survey of Minnesota repositories holding migrant correspondence. (Funded in part by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund)

May 17-18, 2010:

"The Migration Letter: Archiving Intimacy in the Postal Era."

Symposium sponsored by the IHRC in Minneapolis. Program and participants:

Greetings and Introduction: Evelyn Davidheiser, Director, Institute for Global Studies, and Donna Gabaccia, Director, Immigration History Research Center

Opening Address
Orm Overland, Emeritus, Bergen University, “The Role of the Norwegian-American Historical Association and the Making of a Collection of Immigrant Letters in the Norwegian National Archives, 1923-1929”

Panel 1: “Roundtable: Assessing the Scholarly Field” Chair: Sonia Cancian, University of Montreal/Concordia University, Panelists: Walter Kamphoefner, Texas A&M, Suzanne Sinke, Florida State University, Solveig Zempel, St. Olaf College, John Willis, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Liz Stanley, University of Edinburgh, Wolfgang Helbich, Bochum University

Panel 2: “Introducing the IHRC Digital Pilot Project: Letter Writing as Emotional Connection among Finnish, Ukrainian, Italian and Latvian Immigrants” Chair: Suzanne Sinke, Florida State University, Panelists: Ilze Garoza, IHRC, Johanna Leinonen, IHRC, Sonia Cancian, University of Montreal/Concordia University, Daniel Necas, IHRC, Halyna Myroniuk, IHRC, Chelsey Kueffer, IHRC

Panel 3: “Letter Writing in the Postal Era, Part I” Chair: Liz Stanley, University of Edinburgh, Paper-givers: Jennifer Attebery, Idaho State University, “Swedish Immigrant Letters as 'Written Oral Texts'”; David Fitzpatrick, Trinity College Dublin, “Letters from Home: Themes and Functions of Letters addressed to Irish Emigrants in Colonial Australia”; Orm Overland, Bergen University, “Listening to Immigrant Voices: Reflections on Completing Seven Volumes of Letters from Norwegian Immigrants, 1838-1914”

Panel 4: “Letter Writing in the Postal Era, Part II” Chair: John Willis, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Paper-givers: Haiming Liu, California State University at Pomona, “Letters as a Primary Source in Understanding Chinese American History”; Sonia Cancian, University of Montreal/Concordia University, “Intimate Letters in Italian Postwar Migration to Canada: A Case Study”; Wladimir Fischer, University of Vienna, Post-doctoral Fellow, Center for Austrian Studies, University of Minnesota, “South-Slavic Correspondence between the U.S. and Austria-Hungary”

Final Roundtable: “Researchers and Letters Archives in the Digital Age” Chair: Donna Gabaccia, IHRC, Nando Fasce, l'Archivio ligure della scrittura popolare, Ursula Lehmkuhl, Free University Berlin, Wolfgang Helbich, Bochum University, Haven Hawley, IHRC, Auvo Kostiainen, University of Turku

Archivists' Workshop: "Letters of Migration: Collecting, Surveying, Collaborating and Digitizing" Participants: Tessie Bourdamis (Daughters of Penelope, Friends of the IHRC), Sonia Cancian (University of Montreal/Concordia University), Marija Dalbello (Rutgers University), Gary De Krey (St. Olaf College), Ferdinando Fasce (University of Genoa), Donna Gabaccia (IHRC), Haven Hawley (IHRC), Christina Johansson (Augustana College), Walter Kamphoefner (Texas A&M University), Nahid Khan (University of Minnesota), Natalia Khanenko-Friesen (University of Saskatchewan), Auvo Kostiainen (University of Turku), Kevin Kurdylo (University of Wisconsin), Ursula Lehmkuhl (Freie Universitaet Berlin), Johanna Leinonen (University of Minnesota), Halina Misterka (Polish Museum of America, Chicago), David Muhlena (National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, Cedar Rapids), Barbara Scott Murdock (University of Minnesota), Halyna Myroniuk (IHRC), Daniel Necas (IHRC), Piret Noorhani (Estonian Studies Centre, Tartu College, Toronto), Orm Overland (Emeritus, University of Bergen), Alf Redekopp (Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg), Jason Roy (University of Minnesota Libraries), Jeff Sauve (St. Olaf College/Norwegian-American Historical Association), Teresa Sromek (Polish Museum of America, Chicago), Selia Tan (TAN Jinhua) (Wuyi University), Lee Pao Xiong (Center for Homng Studies, Concordia University, St. Paul)

May 2010: Web site for pilot project launched.

January-May 2010: Development of pilot project.

December 10-11, 2009:"Creating Digital Archive and Website About Letters, Literacy, Emotions and Migration"

Exploratory workshop sponsored by the IHRC is held in Minneapolis. Participants: Donna Gabaccia (IHRC), Sonia Cancian (University of Montreal), Haven Hawley (IHRC), Jennifer Jones (Minnesota Historical Society), Ginny Larson (University of Minnesota), Erika Lee (University of Minnesota), Johanna Leinonen (IHRC), Molly McCoy (University of Minnesota), Halyna Myroniuk (IHRC), Daniel Necas (IHRC), Louis Pitschmann (University of Alabama Libraries), Daniel Pitti (University of Virginia), Elena Razlogova (Concordia University, Montreal), Koit Saarevet (National Archives of Estonia), Barbara Scott Murdock (University of Minnesota), Elaine Tarone (University of Minnesota), Amy West (University of Minnesota), Eleanor Yuen (University of British Columbia)

October 2008: Donna Gabaccia and Sonia Cancian organized a presidential session featuring a roundtable of contributions including those on digitized migrant correspondence at the Social Science History Association's annual meeting in Miami, Florida: "Time in Migration History: Explorations through Various Media." Chair: Sonia Cancian, Discussants: Royden Loewen (University of Winnipeg), Leo Lucassen (University of Leiden and Amsterdam), Lynn Tjernan Lukkas (University of Minnesota), Daniel Necas (University of Minnesota), Bruno Ramirez (Universite de Montreal)


The Digitizing Immigrant Letters Project team:

Sonia Cancian, Kelly Condit-Shrestha, Marija Dalbello, Wladimir Fischer, Donna Gabaccia, Ilze Garoza, Haven Hawley, Chelsey Kueffer, Johanna Leinonen, Halyna Myroniuk, Daniel Necas, Keit Osadchuk, Bruno Ramirez, Annemarie Steidl

Sonia Cancian (Project Leader)

Donna Gabaccia (Project Leader)

Daniel Necas (Digitization and Archival Coordinator)

Chelsey Keuffer, Keit Osadchuk (Scanning and Metadata)

Letters selection, transcription and translation, context research: Lucia Bolechova, Sonia Cancian, Marija Dalbello, Wladimir Fischer, Ilze Garoza, Li Gerhalter, Stefan Kucik, Ihar Labacevich, Johanna Leinonen, Halyna Myroniuk, Daniel Necas, Josh Olson, Keit Osadchuk, Justin Schell, Marusa Verbic

Exhibit curator: Haven Hawley, Student Exhibit Curator: Kao Choua Vue

Thanks also to the University of Minnesota Libraries' Media Archive and Jason Roy for providing a platform - U Media Archive - to host and deliver the project's digital content.


Scholarly Advisory Committee:

Suzanne Sinke, Florida State University
Walter Kamphoefner, Texas A&M University 
John Willis, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Ottawa
Ursula Lehmkuhl, Trier University 
Wolfgang Helbich, Bochum University, emeritus 
Solveig Zempel, St. Olaf College
David Fitzpatrick, Trinity College Dublin


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