What better time to consider research purposes letters can fulfill? Barton and Hall (2000) observed that “letter writing is one of the most pervasive literate activities in human societies” (p. 1) They point to the importance of letterwriting as a phenomenon has been widespread globally and historically, as one of the earliest forms of writing.
Letters offer a unique form of data, representing thoughts, feelings, and observations of the writer. Some are formal or professional, and others are deeply personal. If we are fortunate enough to have access to the response, we can observe an unfolding conversation that may occur over a period of time– sometimes across a span of years. In addition to first-person letters between individuals, letter-writing can occur in the open, as in letters to the editor.
The materiality of written letters adds other dimensions lost in today’s era of ephemeral email or texts. Paper letters are touched and held, folded into pages of a book or diary. We have visual cues in typewritten or handwritten styles with pencil or pen. The writer might have chosen ink colors, as well as doodles or drawings, styles of cards or stationary the writer has chosen to give a personal touch for this particular message.
When I conducted archival research for my Masters’ thesis, I read both sides of two individuals’ correspondence by spending countless hours in archives at the Cornell University Library and the Rockefeller Foundation Archive Center. Librarians in white gloves brought boxes of original letters so I could read them and make notes– they could not be removed to make copies. Today’s researchers might still need to study original letters, however, many missives of public or historically-important individuals are readily available in digital formats.
Want to know more about how to research letters? See some examples listed below, which you can freely access during April. ( Log in here to browse and download articles. See this related post for search and navigation tips on the journal hub.) The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Data Collection, also open access for April, includes chapters about the methods to use when studying letters as data. Many libraries now offer digital materials open access; here are a few repositories of letters you can download and examine, if you’d like try this research approach. Use the comment area to add other suggestions or resources.
Explore Digital Libraries with Open Access Collections of Letters:
- British Library: Letters
- Digital Public Library of America: Letters
- Letters of Note
- Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letters
- Rockefeller Archive Center Online Collections
- US Library of Contress: Letters
- US National Archives: Letters
While SAGE Journals are open access in April, read these and other articles from SAGE Journals based on analysis of letters:
“The Work of Making and the Work it Does: Cultural Sociology and ‘Bringing- Into-Being’ the Cultural Assemblage of the Olive Schreiner Letters” by Liz Stanley, Andrea Salter, Helen Dampier
“Letters, Imagined Communities, and Literate Identities: Perspectives from Rural Ugandan Women” by Maureen Kendrick and Hizzaya Hissani
“Nurse going native: Language and identity in letters from Africa and the British West Indies” by Jessica M. Howell
“The Rhetoric of Shared Grief: An Analysis of Letters to the Family of Michael Brown” by Felicia R. Stewart
Analysis of public letters, for example, letters to the editor:
“Colombian cries: Internal armed conflict and emotions in letters to the editor” by Marta Milena Barrios
Barrios, M. M. (2015). Colombian cries: Internal armed conflict and emotions in letters to the editor. Journalism, 18(2), 159-175. doi:10.1177/1464884915605030
Barton, D., & Hall, N. (2000). Introduction. In D. Barton & N. Hall (Eds.), Letter writing as a social practice (pp. 1–14). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Howell, J. M. (2015). Nurse going native: Language and identity in letters from Africa and the British West Indies. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 51(1), 165-181. doi:10.1177/0021989414563149
Källén, A. (2014). The invisible archaeologist: Letters from the UNESCO Secretariat 1946–1947. Journal of Social Archaeology, 14(3), 383-405. doi:10.1177/1469605314545580
Kendrick, M., & Hissani, H. (2007). Letters, imagined communities, and literate identities: Perspectives from rural Ugandan women. Journal of Literacy Research, 39(2), 195-216. doi:10.1080/10862960701331944
Stanley, L., Salter, A., & Dampier, H. (2013). Work of making and the work it does: Cultural sociology and ‘bringing- into-being’ the cultural assemblage of the Olive Schreiner letters. Cultural Sociology, 7(3), 287-302. doi:10.1177/1749975512473463
Stewart, F. R. (2017). The rhetoric of shared grief: An analysis of letters to the family of Michael Brown. Journal of Black Studies, 48(4), 355-372. doi:10.1177/0021934717696790
Tamboukou, M. (2011). Interfaces in narrative research: Letters as technologies of the self and as traces of social forces. Qualitative Research, 11(5), 625-641. doi:10.1177/1468794111413493
Young, N. (2011). Working the fringes: The role of letters to the editor in advancing non-standard media narratives about climate change. Public Understanding of Science, 22(4), 443-459. doi:10.1177/0963662511414983