German Heritage in Letters: Understanding knowledge transfers by migrants and their networks
German Heritage in Letters is a project to create a digital collection of German-language correspondence currently held in private hands, or by archives, libraries, museums, and other institutions. The project is managed by the German Historical Institute of Washington DC, and it is made possible by generous funding from Deutschlandjahr USA, an initiative of the German Federal Foreign Office celebrating 2019 as the Year of German-American Friendship. We talked to Atiba Pertilla, who is managing the “German Heritage in Letters” project at the GHI Washington.
Atiba, where did the idea of this project come from?
The “German Heritage in Letters” project was inspired by the GHI’s long-standing interest in the history of migration and our specific current focus under director Simone Lässig on understanding the transfer of knowledge within families and communities affected by migration. Thus, letters are an obvious source base. The German-speaking lands were one of the largest sources of immigration to the United States, and more than 300 million letters were exchanged across the Atlantic over the course of the “long” 19th century. Scholars have come to recognize that the history of migration should be studied from the perspective of the people living in “sending” communities who maintained ties with those who departed, not only from the perspective of those who left; ironically, one of the best ways to do so is by seeking out collections in the “receiving” country, the United States. In this way our project parallels the Auswandererbriefe project, which we’re collaborating with, whose collections include more than 11,000 letters sent by immigrants in the United States to family and friends in Germany. We’re fortunate to be able to put the resources provided by the Deutschlandjahr initiative to work on a similar campaign of gathering letters from the public that takes advantage of the new capacities of digital research.
What makes these letters a valuable source on the one hand for researchers working on mobility and migration in the 19th century – and on the other hand, why are they also an interesting source for a broader public interested in migration streams during that time period?
The letters illustrate quite well the variety of exchanges of information that occurred within families. Not surprisingly, migrants received news about relatives and friends—whose barn had burned down, who was marrying whom, and so forth. But, as a scholar who studies financial history, I was interested to see several letters that included page-long lists of prices—for example, the going price for a pig, or for bushels of rye—which was likely useful information for immigrants deciding whether or not they were actually profiting from their time in the United States. Such exchanges may well have shaped decisions to remain in their new communities or return home.
More broadly, in the United States the framework of “Old World” vs. “New World,” in the context of German and European migration in particular, often makes it seem as though sending communities remain frozen in time after the immigrants depart. However, the letters from Germany often describe dynamic changes taking place, such as the opening of new factory in town, or a new hydroelectric dam project that has drowned a field where the immigrant played as a child. Letter authors will often say that they wish they could see the immigrant they’re writing to, but they rarely chastise them for leaving or wish they themselves were in the United States. Migration, in these letters, is not discussed as a “good” or “bad” decision but instead as fitting logically within a framework of hopes, motives, and curiosity.
One amazing feature of the site is that not only can anyone upload letters they privately own, but also that anyone can contribute to the project by transcribing already uploaded letters. Why did you include this aspect to the project, would you describe it as “citizen science” and why do you think it is important?
Yes, I would certainly describe this as “citizen science”! The bulk of our letters, since they were sent from Germany in the nineteenth century, are written in old German script, a style of handwriting that has not been taught since the 1940s. In addition to archivists and historians, many genealogy researchers in both Germany and the United States have learned to read this writing. One of the great features of having an online interface for the project is that we can invite these citizen scholars to apply their expertise to our collection. For those letters which do not already have transcriptions or translations, using citizen scholars is absolutely essential to efficiently process the large amount of material we’re taking in; we are expecting to have about 2,000 letters digitized by the end of the year, and we’ve identified several thousand more letters that could be included in the future.
That said, citizen scholarship has been important at multiple stages of the process. We’re really fortunate that descendants of the original recipients are providing letters that their families have recognized as important historical documents. It is often the case that family members have created their own transcriptions and translations even before they are contributed to the project, and these have been incorporated into their donations.
What is the main aim of the project, what would be a perfect outcome you hope for in a few years?
In the future, we look forward to offering open-access datasets of our transcribed letters that researchers will be able to use to study a variety of different research topics—whether it’s studying relationships between siblings, the exchange of financial knowledge, changes in vocabulary use over time, or other questions we can’t even imagine yet. We also hope that our translations of these letters will allow English-only readers in the United States and elsewhere a glimpse into the rich past of German migration history.
Atiba Pertilla is a research fellow and digital editor at the German Historical Institute of Washington. His primary interest is American history between the Civil War and World War II, with a focus on studying financial history through the lens of cultural analysis. He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation at New York University on the history of Wall Street in the Gilded Age and is now researching how immigrants in the United States adapted to the American financial system.
Citation: Atiba Pertilla, German Heritage in Letters: Understanding knowledge transfers by migrants and their networks, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.07.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18987.