Speaking in Absence: Letters in the Digital Age Conference Report

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It was John Donne (1572-1631) who wrote ‘More than kisses, letters mingle souls; for thus, friends absent speak.’ In an age dominated by ‘social media’, written correspondence networks are a formidable challenge for scholars. The increasing proliferation of digital formats has seen a transformation in the way we conceptualise ‘texts’ and ‘editions’ but also a remarkable resurgence in interest in printed books. Correspondence is a particularly fascinating vehicle for examining these phenomena. Digital tools can illuminate connections and patterns difficult to see through analogue handling, while drawing attention to aspects of the original material that might be lost when reading a conventional print edition. This material experience, in the case of a personal source, is something magical and ephemeral that warrants preservation as much as the source content. The Speaking in Absence: Letters in the Digital Age Conference (21 June 2016), then, was dedicated to exploring how new technology can help critics and historians understand, interpret and engage with the letters of historical men and women (both famous and non-famous); trace networks and connections among the almost limitless texts that can be preserved and searched in archives; and what roles there are for editors and publishers of letters in a world of ‘digital correspondence’.

Held at the Weston Library and Wolfson College the conference consisted of a keynote address, panel discussions, a practical demonstration, a visual tour, research poster presentations, and a conference dinner. Generously sponsored by The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH), Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Bodleian Libraries and Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute, and further involved the participation of Oxford University Press and Blackwell’s, the conference aimed to facilitate communication between the diverse entities involved in the digitization of correspondence. Professor Christopher Ricks opened the day with his keynote address The errors of our ways when editing letters, which drew upon material from several literary biographies and poetical works. Through careful and astonishingly good analysis, Ricks provided many elucidations and inspired emendations of the correspondences under examination.

The first panel focused on projects that bring letters into a digital forum through cataloguing and editing, or the digitisation of existing editions of letters. Panelists included representatives of Electronic Enlightenment,  Darwin Correspondence Project and Cultures of Knowledge who cast an interesting light on the potential for interconnection between both the projects they themselves are involved in, and the correspondence sources they host. In addition, they explored the infrastructure surrounding these resources, and the potential they hold for further collaborative development. Next Miranda Lewis (Digital Editor, Early Modern Letters Online) discussed how bringing manuscript, print, and electronic resources together in one space not only increases access to and awareness of them, but allows disparate and connected correspondences to be cross-searched, combined, analysed and visualized. Moreover, that the collection of unprecedented quantities of metadata, and the standardization of the means of describing and processing them, is the precondition for efficient collaborative work on the development of new digital tools, new scholarly methods, and new historiographical insights in this large and central field.

The morning portion had been a success; testament was the hum of conversations between academics from a multitude of disciplines, professionals, institutional representatives and the public that filled Blackwell Hall over lunch. Afterwards the audience reconvened for a visual tour of correspondence collections in the Bodleian Libraries with Bodleian curators and a lively discussion surrounding the publishing of letters. Professor Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin offered compelling Russian historical and literary case studies, while Jacqueline Norton of OUP Academic; Rupert Mann of Oxford University Press; and Kieron Smith of Blackwell’s revealed the relationships between the ‘editor’ as a critical textual scholar and the ‘editor’ who commissions or prepares an edited text for publication.

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The day’s final panel was held at Wolfson College in the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium. It boasted multiple award winning film editor Sabine Krayenbühl and photographer Zeva Oelbaum who presented their documentary film Letters from Baghdadbased on the letters of Gertrude Bell, a pioneering adventurer, diplomat, archeologist and spy; Georgina Ferry, author, dramatizations of the letters of Ada Lovelace and Dorothy Hodgkin; and Neale Rooney of Letters 1916 (Ireland’s first crowdsourcing project). Each of the projects being showcased explored letters through such varied media as radio, film, and the internet, as a means of communicating this personal material to a wider audience. Although nearing the end of the day Dr. Kathryn Eccles expertly chaired a lively and scintillating discussion about the place of letters in the digital age.

Winding down with a drinks reception postgraduates had the opportunity to display research posters covering topics as diverse as: the language of autobiographical letters sent by women in the Russian language to Soviet newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s; letter-writing in fifteenth century princely education; the use of fictional letters as a literary genre in early modern England; detecting patterns of interaction in ancient papyrus letters; and letters as a resource for biographical research. Finally, it was time for dinner and after a full program it seemed clear to all those who took part in the day that “letters have a bright future”.

This guest post was written by Michaela Crawley, DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford. For more information about the conference program and guest speakers, please visit The Digital Epistolary Network

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