“Digital Letter Organizer”: Organizing and Searching Relations in Correspondences

My digital resource works in two ways: organizes primary sources in a digital file and examines materials visually. The idea came when I was thinking about the problems I have while examining primary sources. Whenever I look at the photocopies of primary materials (paper-based or PDF files saved in a computer), I find myself get lost in the tremendous amount of materials. I spend several amount of time searching for the specific material when I check the quotations or footnotes in a paper. I also get confused how to organize these sources in a order that makes sense to me. And therefore, I would like to solve this problem of examining primary sources, in particularly correspondences, by introducing a tool called “Digital Letter Organizer.” (Hopefully, a better name for this tool will come up.)

There are similar tools, however, that solves my problem. In Zotero, for instance, you can upload images of primary materials and save them in your digital library. Although this requires huge amount of hours and days scanning and uploading every single letters and migrating it all in your computer, you can organize and preserve your important materials in a paperless form. This method saves a lot of time from finding letters from a pile of other correspondences or scrolling down every single letters on a computer screen. 

So, to begin with, “Digital Letter Organizer” borrows similar existing tools from Zotero; It includes 1) author, 2) recipient, 3) location and 4) keywords. First, we create separate files for authors, recipients or the location of the letter that was sent to. Then, we apply subject keywords on each correspondences. Later on, when you look for a specific letter, you can type in the keywords in a search engine and every letters that were tagged shows up. 

In addition, there are 5) timeline, 6) charts, and 7) time of delivery, so that you can see the letters and its relations visually and this makes my digital resource different from Zotero and other the existing tools. In timeline, the materials are sorted by dates so that every correspondence will be in a chronological order. Click on a date/year and it will give you the letter you want. The chart works by pulling lines from one letter to another that are related to each other. For example, the letter written by author A wrote a letter to author B on April 17th 1910. Then, author B wrote a letter to author C on April 21st, 1910. Author C responded to B after he received a letter from him, but he wrote to A before he received the letter from B. You can create a chart that describes these complicated relation in letters appears in my new digital resource. 

The time of delivery is also helpful when looking at relation in letters. It tells us approximately how long it took the mails to arrived at certain places in the 1900s or any period that you are looking at. For example, author C wrote to author D on April 29th and D wrote to A on May 15th, 1910. The problem is that we don’t know if D wrote to A before or after he received the letter from C. In this case, if we know the time of delivery in the early 1900s, we can make a guess whether or not D wrote to A before receiving C’s letter.

Another example of why time of delivery can be helpful is because we can estimate when the author wrote on a letter that does not indicate the date. Let’s say, for instance, it took 10 days for a letter to deliver from where C lives to D. We don’t know the date when C wrote to D, but if D mentioned about C’s letter to A on May 15th, we assume that C had written at least 10 days before May 15th. By using timeline and the time of delivery and applying it to a chart, we can picture the complicated relations in correspondences.

Any historians – students, professors, independent researchers, or history fanatics – who struggles in finding the relationship in correspondences can use this tool. Moreover, the user does not have to be limited to historians. Anyone who has overwhelming amount of letters and are confused by the dates and its relations can find this tool helpful. By placing correspondences in a digital chart and looking at its relations visually, I hope it enables us to discover the untold relations written behind letters.

<EXAMPLE>

My research is about Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 and the continuing debates on racial categorization of Indians in the early twentieth century. The Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America, formed by a group of white supremacists in 1922, supported enactment of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which for the first time introduced the “one-drop rule” and was known to be the nation’s strictest anti-miscegenation law. Three main members of the Clubs, John Powell, Earnest Cox, and Walter Plecker, exchanged letters to each other while passing and enforcing the law (which are the authors in my digital resource). In order to solve their “race problems,” they engaged in several conversation with other eugenicists, state governors and lawyers (which are the recipients). They also wrote to many Indian in Virginia (another recipient) saying that they cannot claim as “Indians” anymore and must be categorized as “black” in any official certificates. These letters were sent to many tribes that lived in different counties of Virginia (so, the file for location is categorized by counties in Virginia). Angered by the law, some Indians fought against Walter Plecker and continued to claim their independent racial identity.

The Clubs exchanged hundreds of letters during 1900s to 1940s. So, the timeline divides the letter chronologically by decades. Moreover, a few options for keywords for correspondences on race relation in Virginia in early twentieth century, for instance, could be “inter-racial marriage laws,” “eugenics,” and “Virginia Indians.” Finally, a visual image, a chart, that draws lines between correspondences and authors/recipients appears to examine the relation of letters. 

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