Navigating the African Letters Project Database

The African Letters Project is a living collection of data. This means that volunteers are adding letters and the datain those letters into the database on a regular basis. Because of the ongoing aspect of the project, viewers can enter directly into the live database through the link below.


Each row of the database is related to one individual letter. Rows include:

  1. The names of the letter writer and receive (if known). There is a column for gender of the letter writer. This can at times be difficult to discern. The database does not include this information where it is unclear (and on occasion mistakes are made). The intention with including gender is to give more detailed information about the writers/receivers that can be quantifiable.
  2. There are columns for the cities the writer and recipient were in at the time of the letter. The database uses the current name for cities, although in some cases it includes both thecolonial and current name, with a / between the two names.Additionally, the GPS data for the city is given, allowing users to create maps with the data.
  3. The date the letter was written (if known). Dates are given in a Year, Month, Day format. In someletters the date may look slightly different than given in the database because Americans use a month, day, year format and English format dates by day, month, year.
  4. In most cases, there is a brief description of the lettercontent. Sometimes these descriptions go into significant detail, in other cases they are very limited.
  5. There are columns for the names oforganizations and individuals mentioned in the letters.However, this data is incomplete.
  6. Each letter has an archival code number. The archival code number is designed to allow an archivist from the institution the letter lives in, to identify exactly where the letter resides in their collection. The archival code numberis the label for the photograph of the letter. Ifa letter has multiple pages, then the code number will note that with a “-2, -3, -4” at the end of the code. The archival code numberlookslike this: ARC.MSK.S1.B2.F5.P1. This code tells an archivist that the letter resides at the Amistad Research Center (ARC), in the Maida Springer Kemp collection (MSK), in series 1 (S1), box 2 (B2), folder 5 (F5), and is photograph 1 from that folder. If the code is ARC.MSK.S1.B2.F5.P1-2, that indicates the letter has two pages.
  7. The last column in each row includes a google drive link to a folder that contains a photograph of theletterfor that row. Thegoogle drivefolder matches thearchivefolder. Readers can use the specific archival code numberto quickly locate the photograph of the letter they are looking forin the google folder. However, they can also browse the other letters in the folder since often the letters are part of a larger conversation.


The manner in which a user approaches the database will depend on what they are looking for within it. If a user wants to find a couple letters, then working within the live spreadsheet is probably sufficient. However, users can also download the database so that they can manipulate the spread sheet by reordering information in the columns.

Finding specific people

If a user wants to find letters from specific individuals or organizations, click on CTRL+F to bring up a search box. This will allow the user to do a quick search based on a name.* Organization names have not been unified yet, thus you should search under both the acronym for the organization AND it’s full name. A list of all named organizations in the database can be found here.

*Be aware that some African names get spelled in different ways depending on the orthography used. We have standardized our spelling based on the usage of the letter writer. Likewise we use the current name of African cities in the database, even if the colonial names are given in the letter.


Pulling information from the database

For example, if a user wanted to find all the letters that were sent from Nairobi, Kenya, they should download the database, and then click on the “D” column and sort the sheet A to Z. This will put the location of the letter writers in alphabetical order and allow the letters written from Nairobi to be visible in one group. A user could then copy all the letters from Nairobi into a new excel sheet. Once a user has the data in smaller sheet, it becomes more manageable for research. Perhaps the user wanted to know the names of people writing from Nairobi or the years which people were writing from Nairobi, or the organizations people from Nairobi were writing about. All of that information would be easily located in that small batch of data.



To download the database, click on the File tab (located toward the left top of the page), click on File, scroll down to “download” and choosethe format forsaving the database. The most usable will be to download it as anExcelor .cvsfile.


Publication of Images and Copyright Notice 

Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) states that all copyright owners can send a notification to a website owner to take down or remove content on websites not owned by the website owner.   

The digital images linked to in the African Letters Project database are owned by the archives which provided and/or allowed the images for private use of individuals in classrooms or research and are NOT for publication usage. If a user wishes to publish an image from the database collection (whether in print or in a digital format) they must contact the home archive of that collection. “Home archive” is defined as the institution which holds physical rights to the original letters as part of their intuitional holdings. The home archives are identifiable by the first three letters in the image code in the database. For example, in an image code: ARC.MSK.S2.B45.F89.P1 – the archive code ARC denotes the image is derived from a collection at the Amistad Research Center. Thus, for the publication of images in any format, permission must be received from the home archive and/or copyright holders.  

Individuals who believe they are the copyright holder of a letter (such as a descendant of a letter writer) and wish for the image of a letter to be removed from availability on the website, a takedown notice should be sent to Elisabeth McMahon ( If copyright is confirmed, the image of the letter will be removed, however, the letter itself will continue to be available for in-person public viewing at the home archive. The access policies of home archives and their agreements with donors govern such access because they are the physical owners of the letters. 

Takedown notices should include information documenting the writer’s claim to be the copyright holder for that particular letter and an explanation of why it should be removed. In conjunction with the home archive, the website owner will respond in a timely manner to all takedown notices.