Jana Dambrogio on ‘Letterlocking: the art and security of letter writing’ (guest post)

What is ‘letterlocking’?
Letterlocking refers to the process by which a substrate has been folded and secured shut to function as its own envelope. Letterlocking is part of a 10,000 year-old information security tradition, ranging from Mesopotamian clay bullae to internet Bitcoin. Locked paper documents have been used in cultures throughout the world since the late Middle Ages by regents, their secretaries, spymasters, soldiers, and the general public. Oftentimes the same person used more than one letterlocking format, some more secure than others. Why? Documenting the physical evidence – the tiny slits, folds, and cut-off corners – of well-preserved ‘opened’ original manuscripts helps to define their different ‘closed’ locking formats. Collaboration with experts in allied professions helps to figure out the significance of letters as artifacts in a specific moment in history.

A note on Jana Dambrogio
Jana Dambrogio is the Thomas F. Peterson (1957) Conservator for Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Her work with Dr Daniel Starza Smith of Lincoln College, Oxford, on John Donne’s letterlocking techniques brought her to Oxford for Smith and Dambrogio’s participation in the international symposium ‘What is a letter? An interdisciplinary approach’ in Oxford this past July.

Workshops on letterlocking and further information
Jana lectures and teaches workshops internationally on her process of making models to understand the physical nuances of historic letters and archival bindings and discusses how conservators preserve their function and format for access and interpretation. Workshop participants have a hand at ‘un-locking’  and securing shut models of several types of locked letters with varying levels of built-in security devices based on historic examples. Resources are available on a letterlocking website and a YouTube channel which feature a growing reference collection of documents and bindings in motion.

PS from MI Matthews-Schlinzig: There is another great blog post on this topic, ‘Let’s make a model’, which was co-written by Dr Heather Wolfe (Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library) and Jana Dambrogio.


The photos in this post were all taken at the letterlocking workshop Jana Dambrogio and Dr Daniel Starza Smith gave at the symposium ‘What is a letter? An interdisciplinary approach’.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.