January 18, 2022

International Group of Experts “Explore 17th-Century Postal Archive in ‘Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered'”

From MIT Libraries:

A recently rediscovered trunk containing 2,600 letters sent from France, Spain, and the Spanish Netherlands between 1689 and 1706 will soon provide a fascinating glimpse into the plight of the early modern European everyman. These letters remained undelivered — including 600 letters never opened — because their recipients could not be found or would not pay outstanding postage costs. The trunk has been stored in The Hague’s Museum voor Communicatie since 1926. Now, an international team of experts from MIT, Yale University, University of Leiden, University of Groningen, and Oxford Univeristy is exploring each missive in a ground-breaking project called “Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered.”


The seals and the unique ways the letters were folded are crucial to understanding the letters’ dissemination, reception, and use. [ [Nadine] Akkerman [University of Leiden] and Daniel Starza Smith, from Lincoln College at Oxford University, approached Jana Dambrogio, the Thomas F. Peterson conservator at MIT Libraries, to join the project team because of her expertise in minimal intervention repair approaches to the conservation of library and archival materials and “letterlocking” — the tradition of folding and securing a writing surface to function as its own envelope. Dambrogio says of this cache of letters, “The inventiveness and complexity here is like nothing we have ever seen. ‘Letterlocking’ is an entirely new area of study, so the trunk offers us amazing research opportunities.”

Dambrogio is developing a number of resources to help scholars and the general public understand the history and technology of letter writing and document security, including instructional videos that show how to lock and unlock letters found in historic collections. She has also created an effective and highly engaging teaching tool, the so-called, “locked letter” give-away, which allows people to experience tearing the security tab to read the letter’s content. A favorite format is one modeled after a highly secure structure used by Queen Elizabeth I and her spymasters during the imminent arrest of Mary Queen of Scots. Dambrogio has given away more than 4,000 “locked” letters to students, professionals in allied disciplines, and the general public to convey the nuances that are hard to put in words. She and Starza Smith lecture and teach “letterlocking” workshops around the world to varied audiences — from elementary school children to PhD candidates.

For “Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered,” MIT Libraries will collaborate within the Institute to develop digital and physical tools used to image manuscripts — in this case, handwritten missives collected by the postmasters of the Dutch city of The Hague, Simon de Brienne and his wife Maria Germain. The Briennes were at the heart of European communications networks, serving William of Orange both before and after The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw William and his wife Mary depose King James II following a successful Dutch invasion of England, Scotland, and Ireland — which shocked the world and changed Europe forever.

Read the Complete MIT News Article (approx 1050 words)

Direct to “Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered”

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.