Historic Postal Records as Open Data

Scott Ziegler is the Head of Technology at the American Philosophical Society Library where he manages digitization services, digital scholarship...

This post is part of a brief series celebrating the American Philosophical Society's 275th Anniversary in 2018 and Benjamin Franklin's birthday on January 17. Follow our blog for more content this month related to Franklin and the Society's history. 

The Center for Digital Scholarship has published a dataset of letters arriving in, and being sent from, Philadelphia between May 25, 1748 and July 23, 1752. Recorded  during Benjamin Franklin’s tenure as Postmaster of Philadelphia, the data lists incoming letters individually and includes name of addressee, weight of letter, amount of postage and if the postage is paid. Aggregate information is recorded for outgoing mail. These records present a snapshot of the information network of colonial America during this time period.

The data is from a post office record book, held at the APS Library. The book is digitized and available on the APS Digital Library. During the Summer and Fall of 2017 the book was transcribed into spreadsheets and is now open as downloadable data.

Post Office Book page
Example page of Post Office Book (Page 38).


Corresponding spreadsheet view of transcribed data.

This project is part of the Center for Digital Scholarship Open Data Initiative, and aims to make the post office records more accessible to scholars interested in postal history, the history of information networks, among other topics. While the post office book has long been available to scholars in its original form, this is a unique reimagining of the possibilities of working with the data in a new way.

Other recent open data projects include “Eastern Apps: Visualizing Historic Prison Data” (see related blog post) and the ongoing indenture records data initiative.

The data is available through the APS digital Library, as well as the APS Github page.


Cynthia Heider scanned the Benjamin Franklin Post Office book and did the majority of the transcriptions. Bayard Miller, Digital Projects and Metadata Librarian, assisted with the transcription and project oversight. The project was managed by Scott Ziegler, Head of Digital Scholarship and Technology.

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