DITA: Considering Innovative Methods within Archival Science

The Student Perspectives category collects posts written by current CityLIS students.

Emma Ramsey considers innovative methods within Archival Science: A Brief Review of “Unlocking history through automated virtual unfolding of sealed documents imaged by X-ray microtomography”


Considering Innovative Methods within Archival Science: A Brief Review of “Unlocking history through automated virtual unfolding of sealed documents imaged by X-ray microtomography”

Unfolding of Sealed Documents Imaged by X-Ray Microtomography

From: Fig. 1 in “Unlocking History through Automated Virtual Unfolding of Sealed Documents Imaged by X-Ray Microtomography.” https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-21326-w

During our first sessions of DITA, I was reminded of an article which I found a few weeks ago, which describes using X-ray microtomography scans to virtually open and inspect letters which are folded in specific, methodical ways (Dambrogio et al. 2021). This latter concept is referred to as letterlocking, a process of “folding and securing” a writing material – paper, parchment, or papyrus, for example – in such a way that it functions as its own envelope and security measure (“Letterlocking : Dictionary” n.d.). In consideration of length and focus, I will not go into too much detail on the study itself; rather, I will briefly give context and then consider the implications of the technology itself on future archival efforts.

The article was published in Nature Communications, volume 12, in March of this year. The study uses volumetric scans, which are produced by high-contrast time-delay integration X-ray microtomography, followed by a process of segmentation, flattening, hybrid mesh propagation, and texturing to produce their data sets (Dambrogio et al. 2021). Using case studies from the Brienne Collection, a collection of (largely) unopened letters held at the Hague (“The Brienne Collection – EMLO” n.d.), a categorization scheme is formed according to the letters’ manipulations – folds/rolls, tucks, slits/holes, adhesive, and locks, the latter itself split into three separate subdivisions– and level of security (Dambrogio et al. 2021; 2021). The authors claim that the study is the first to propose both a complete systemization of evidence and to tie it consistently to security (Dambrogio et al. 2021). They also note a few limitations of the study, including low-contrast inks and the presence of scanning artifacts such as lead or other metals compromising segmentation scans (Dambrogio et al. 2021).

The article concludes with an emphasis on the “emerging conceptual shift in the digital humanities by adding to the body of methods that cross the digital-material divide” and a call for cultural historians to “reconceptualize hidden, secret, and inaccessible materials as sites of critical inquiry” (Dambrogio et al. 2021).

Now, while I don’t claim that all archives should, or even could, feasibly reproduce this study with their own materials, I do believe that this article highlights the increasing need of archivists and other information scientists to embrace technological innovations as they come. This is not only for the sake of patrons using the resources provided in the archive, but also to better conserve the materials themselves. For example, if the X-ray imaging above was not utilized, should these letters be physically compromised to reveal their contents, there is the risk of potentially losing the actual processes of letterlocking.

Of course, saying is easier than doing. Actively seeking out technological advances and implementing them in an archive or other organization is a unique challenge itself. However, I argue that it is a necessary part of a contemporary information scientist’s profession, though I may be preaching to the choir, as all of us in DITA likely feel the same. In short, archives are based in history, but the methods and technologies used are not necessarily themselves historical – and, in fact, should not be. In order to maintain relevance and to better provide for patrons and users, archives must actively and intentional utilize new advances in technology.


Dambrogio, Jana, Amanda Ghassaei, Daniel Starza Smith, Holly Jackson, Martin L. Demaine, Graham Davis, David Mills, et al. 2021. “Unlocking History through Automated Virtual Unfolding of Sealed Documents Imaged by X-Ray Microtomography.” Nature Communications 12 (1): 1184. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-21326-w.

“Letterlocking : Dictionary.” n.d. Letterlocking. Accessed October 17, 2021. http://letterlocking.org/dictionary.

“The Brienne Collection – EMLO.” n.d. Accessed October 17, 2021. http://emlo-portal.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/collections/?catalogue=brienne-collection.

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