USPS: Protecting Your Privacy for Over Two Centuries

May 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

You might not know this, but we’re in the middle of Choose Privacy Week, which is an initiative of the American Library Association.

Choose Privacy Week (May 1-7, 2012) is an initiative that invites library users into a national conversation about privacy rights in a digital age.

The right to privacy is a big deal in the field of librarianship.  Working in a public library, I spend a lot of time thinking about privacy issues––protecting users’ privacy, advocating for continued strong privacy practices, providing materials that will help users make informed choices about their privacy, etc.  I also spend a lot of time considering both logical and unexpected ways in which things can be grouped together.  This goes with the territory of librarianship, but it’s also something my brain does naturally.  I thrive on finding points of connection.  Thanks to these factors, my mind managed to work its way around to pondering the intersection of privacy and letter writing.

Based on my gut instinct, I quickly came to this conclusion: when the news is full of stories about how online privacy can only ever be semi-achieved and even that requires constant individual vigilance, it seems that the tried and true pen to paper, tucked inside an envelope, sealed, stamped, and sent is a hands-down winner for sharing your thoughts discretely.

Then, lo and behold, on the first day of Choose Privacy Week, I found myself at the National Postal Museum (check that off my list of Things to Do in 2012!) studying an exhibit panel entitled Freedom of Speech in the Mail.

It turns out that privacy was one of founding principles of the U.S. Postal System.

For anyone with a smidgen of knowledge about the American Colonial times, it will come as no surprise when I say that the original 13 colonies were under British rule.  What you may not know, though, is that the colonial British Post Office was not run with an eye to the privacy of letter-writers.  In fact, it was quite common for agents of the Crown to scrutinize the mail looking for hints of treason.  The wrong words in a letter could result in a death sentence.  Needless to say, this didn’t go over too well with the feisty revolutionary minds of the day, many of whom resorted to engaging private carriers in order to ensure that their personal correspondence and the latest newspapers were received.  In 1774, William Goddard, a printer who had “formed a partnership with Benjamin Franklin to publish the Pennsylvania Chronicle, a paper sympathetic to the revolutionary cause” presented a petition to the Continental Congress (Pope, 2006). He was motivated by a local postmaster who took it upon himself to disrupt Goddard’s mail delivery and prevent him from receiving newspapers containing critical information.  Goddard’s proposal made the case for founding a postal system that would be an alternative to the colonial British Post Office and would be based on the “principles of open communication, freedom from governmental interference, and the guaranteed free exchange of ideas” (Pope, 2006).  Less than a year later, the Constitutional Post was up and running and the foundation of what would become the USPS was in place.

You may be thinking, “But that was centuries ago!”

True.  However, the USPS hasn’t backed away from making privacy central to its operations.  In the Ponemon Institute’s 2007 Privacy Trust Rankings of U.S. Government Agencies, the USPS, for the third year in a row, ranked #1 out of 74 agencies that collect information about individuals.  83% of respondents perceived the USPS as trustworthy when it came to safeguarding citizen’s privacy and personal information.

And so, in celebration of ALA’s excellent initiative and the USPS’s longstanding record on protecting your right to communicate freely and without interference, here’s my advice to you:  Choose Privacy–Write a Letter

International Mailbox Exhibit at the National Postal Museum.
(Off-topic?  Yes!  But still very cool.)

Sources for Info about USPS & Privacy Protection

American Society for Public Administration. (2007, March). 2007 Privacy Trust Rankings of U.S. Government Agencies announced. PA Times, 30(3).   Retrieved April 29, 2012 from MasterFile Premier.

Hentoff, Nat. (n.d.) Case in point: Freedom of speech in the mail.  National Postal Museum exhibit, Washington D.C.  Visited May 1, 2012.

Pope, Nancy. (2006). Goddard’s petition to the Continental Congress [National Postal Museum online exhibit].  Retrieved May 3, 2012 from http://arago.si.edu/index.asp?con=2&cmd=1&id=76935&img=1&pg=1

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The Life and Times of Mr. Zip

February 18, 2012 § 5 Comments

If you’ve ever looked at items that were mailed a generation ago, you’ve probably noticed that something is consistently absent.  Here, take a look:

Do you see what’s missing? (hint: look at the end of the address)

The reason behind this omission is that the Zone Improvement Plan Code system hadn’t yet been invented.  First proposed in 1944 by postal inspector Robert A. Moon, it took nearly twenty years for the idea of a national coding system to be adopted. Hoping to improve the efficiency of sorting and delivering mail, Mr. Moon submitted several additional proposals over the years.  He is now recognized as the father of the first three ZIP code digits, which are used to divide the country into roughly 900 geographic areas.  The 4th and 5th digits, proposed by postal employee H. Bentley Hahn, were added to more precisely pinpoint locations, allowing a piece of mail to be placed on the most efficient route to its final destination.

Improved efficiency and faster delivery were clearly winning ideas, but the USPS still faced the challenge of convincing a whole country of people to buy in to the notion and start tacking five digits on to the end of their addresses.  And change, even positive change, can be difficult to enact.  So how did they do it?

Image courtesy of the National Postal Museum's virtual exhibit Flashing Across the Country: Mr. Zip and the ZIP Code Promotional Campaign

They introduced Mr. Zip!

Originally named “Mr. P.O. Zone,” he’d been rechristened (good decision!) by the time he made his first public appearance at a 1962 convention where he posed for photos with all the attendant postmasters.  In the 9 months leading up to the official implementation of ZIP Codes, Mr. Zip popped up all sorts of places–buttons, letter satchel decals, the side of mail trucks, posters, TV ads, rubber stamps–touting the benefits of using ZIP Codes.

Although ZIP Code implementation got underway in 1963, citizens were given several years to acclimate before ZIP Codes became a hard and fast requirement for sending mail.  During this time, all sorts of promotional materials were created to encourage acceptance and use.  Give a listen to the ZIP Code Ballad and see if it doesn’t endear you to those five special digits!  (More ZIP Code PSAs can be found here.)

By the 1970s, USPS mail was nearly 100% ZIP Code compliant.  Mr. Zip, having achieved his objective with great success, began making fewer appearances.  Although not often seen in official capacity these days, Mr. Zip has been spotted here and there recently.  So keep an eye out for him!  And remember:

Image courtesy of the National Postal Museum's virtual exhibit Flashing Across the Country: Mr. Zip and the ZIP Code Promotional Campaign

Sources* for Info about the History of ZIP Codes:

Curtin, A. (n.d.)  Flashing across the country: Mr. Zip and the ZIP Code promotional campaign [virtual exhibit]. Smithsonian National Postal Museum.  Retrieved from: http://postalmuseum.si.edu/zipcodecampaign/index.html

Martin, D. (2001, April 14). Robert Moon, an inventor of the ZIP Code, dies at 83. New York Times.  Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/14/us/robert-moon-an-inventor-of-the-zip-code-dies-at-83.html

Stein, L. (2003, July 14). Post haste.  U.S. News & World Report, 135(1), p. 15. Retrieved from EBSCO MasterFile Premier.

“What does ZIP Code stand for?” (2011, September). Journal of the Retired United Pilots Association, 14(9), p. 13. Retrieved from: https://www.rupa.org/uploads/RupaNews_09-11.pdf

If you are intrigued and want to know more, I highly recommend checking out the National Postal Museum’s virtual exhibit.  It has lots more information, as well as many examples of the promotional materials used to get the public excited about using ZIP Codes.

Sunday 7: Things To Do in 2012

January 1, 2012 § 4 Comments

I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but I do like the idea of having a focus for the year.  For 2012, I’m going for turning ideas and intentions into actions.

How does this relate to Scribbling Glue and letter-writing in general?  Well, I often come across or dream up creative opportunities and think, Ooooooo, I want to try that!  But I don’t always get beyond the thought and into the fun of making or doing something new.  This year, though, I’m going to do a lot more creating and trying things!

Here are 7 projects I plan to tackle:

  1. Positively Postal’s A-Z of The U.K. Mail Art Project.  Scott Thomson of Positively Postal is currently running a neat mail art project/competition.  I need to hop to it and create a piece, though, since my entry needs to be in England by the time the competition ends on January 31st.
  2. Letter-Writing SocialAs I mentioned before, I love the idea of hosting a letter-writing social.  This is exactly the sort of idea that I think about and don’t make happen.  This year I’m going to change that!
  3. Writing an Epistolary Story.  A dear friend and I have decided to co-write a story for our own amusement.  She proposed that we each take a persona and write the story in the form of letters exchanged by our characters.  A similar idea had been in my mind since I recently read (and thoroughly enjoyed) the Regency Magic trilogy, co-authored by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer.  The first book in that series grew out of an in-character letter-writing game the two authors played.  This is going to be fun!
  4. Cork Stamps.  There is something delightful about stamping things.  Also, I see lots of potential for making and gifting them to friends.
  5. Stamp Collage Ornament Tags.  This is a cool way to re-use stamps.
  6. National Postal Museum.  I’ve wanted to visit the NPM for quite a while.  2012 is the year I make it there!
  7. Do More Scribbling.  Sending letters, writing notes, making cards–this is going to be a joyful undertaking.

    A fresh page to begin recording my 2012 Letters Sent.

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