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Old Documents

The Epistolary Research Network (TERN) is pleased to announce its fifth conference, to be held 4-5 October 2024 (online symposium)

  1. On February 28, 1943, someone found scraps of paper in their garden, thrown from the window of a train going to Auschwitz-Birkenau. This person delivered these scribbled messages from resistance fighter Simone Alizon to her father. [Arch. Nat. 72A fonds Alizon.]

  2. James Lee Byars wrote more than 100 letters, using a variety of materials, forms, and ideas, to artist Joseph Beuys over a period of 16 years. Received but never replied to, they explore the day-to-day of his artistic practice.


Whether composed under difficult circumstances or elaborated as part of a creative experiment, these examples share one feature. They raise the question: What is or should be considered a letter? Must it be written on socially recognized media, be it papyrus sheets, potsherds, or vellum, to qualify? Must it have a date, greetings, closing, and include epistolary conventions, like asking after someone’s health? Must it have a specific addressee, or be delivered via a postal institution?


TERN2024 will serve as a forum to discuss and elaborate a definition of ‘letter.’ Is one definition even possible for this form of communication that has been adapted in many ways by many people over millennia and across the globe? We are interested in bringing together examples that challenge in some way current thinking or current definitions of ‘letter.’


Topics might include:

  • epistolary communications on atypical materials (pages torn from books, fabric, handmade ink)

  • written under duress or difficult situations (war, exile, prison, refugee camps, censorship, travel)

  • examine conventions specific to one group of people (secret societies, coded letters, academic or philosophical letters)

  • letters written by those unfamiliar with letter conventions and formats (children, those with limited literacy, or those writing letters for the first time)

  • hybrid forms (poem letters, essay letters, petitions, literary letters, etc.)


TERN2024 welcomes both individual and panel submissions. Abstracts should be a maximum of 250 words and sent as a Word document or PDF to by Friday, 31 May 2024. This conference is online only.

Fourth Conference: 6-7 Oct, 2023, Virtual

Our fourth symposium revisited themes surrounding temporality, whether in reference to material form or technology, delivery, calendar time or epistolary contents and conventions. We welcomed topics such as 


  • anachronisms

  • letters written or delivered under temporal constraints (war, illness, incarceration, difficulty finding carriers)

  • epistolary tenses, time expressions and dating conventions

  • time spent letter writing vs email, societal expectations

  • undated letters, letters removed from calendar time

  • periods when letter writing gained or lost popularity and the social context

  • open letters, letters written for later time periods or no specific time period

  • epistolary conventions concerning letter or letter archive dating

  • best time to write and reply to letters

  • mail art that addresses the concept of time

  • causes and consequences of postponements, delays and other non-delivery

  • letters used to date events in history or the lives of people

  • chronology of letter collections, gap between date letters composed and published

Book Stack

Third Conference: 30 Sept - 1 Oct, 2022, Virtual

This online symposium sought papers from scholars everywhere who have an interest in letters and correspondence throughout history. For thousands of years, in every region of the globe, letters brought people together when physical distance separated them. They derive from many parts of society. From princes to prisoners, letters transported greetings and farewells, news from distant friends, consolation in times of anxiety, triumph against rivals, submission to fate. We usually know who wrote them, but who read them?


TERN addressed a theme which emerged from last year’s conference, “The Other Reader(s).”


From the ancient world to the post-modern, epistolary efforts have often been undertaken with at least one eye toward future unknown readers. For instance, Pliny the Younger used his private correspondence, reworked into books, to give himself and his uncle, Pliny the Elder, distinct identities that continue to impact how we understand these men today. And it was not always the case that letters were destined for the general public or even a specific person. Sometimes epistolary writings ended up in unexpected hands with unintended consequences for those who composed them.

Writing Letters

Second Conference: 1-2 October 2021, Virtual

For thousands of years, in every region of the globe, letters brought people together when physical distance separated them.  From princes to prisoners, letters could offer reports across time and distance – greetings and farewells, news from distant friends, consolation in times of anxiety, triumph against rivals, submission to fate. TERN held its first virtual meeting to explore this aspect of letters and letter-writing in the broadest possible sense, across a range of disciplines and times.  Who wrote letters?  To whom, and for what reason? What did they discuss?  What light do they shed on the human condition, and how are they different from simple conversation? 


So many great presentations from participants around the globe! 

Mail Boxes

Inaugural Conference: 5 July 2018, Bangor University, Wales

The theme of TERN’s inaugural symposium was Correspondence & Communities. Communities might have referred to the linking of groups or individuals who share common interests or facets of identity. Themes included the communal reading of letters, exchanges between individuals, and governing bodies concerning public issues or open letters. Contributions addressed questions exploring the dynamic nature of letters and letter writing.

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