Creating and Preserving the Digital Republic of Letters

Earlier this week I attended the excellent Durham conference on ‘Intellectual Networks in the Long Seventeenth Century’. With a theme like this it seemed inevitable for participants to talk about the early modern Republic of Letters and to draw parallels between early modern and modern networks around the (known) world. So I had the honour of chairing an exciting panel themed ‘Electrifying Intellectual Networks’ featuring ‘Three Case Studies in the Digital Republic of Letters’.

Professor Antony McKenna presented the critical electronic edition of the correspondence of the French philosopher Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) he is working on with colleagues at the University Jean Monnet at St Etienne in France. With this online database ‘we can accomplish the traditional tasks of a critical edition more quickly and efficiently’, including ‘indexing, annotation, and so on’, says McKenna.

Correspondance de Pierre Bayle
Correspondance de Pierre Bayle

Researchers can simply click on a highlighted name in any given letter to be taken directly to an entry with more information about the individual mentioned and a list of further links to letters authored by or featuring the person in question. There is also an extensive critical apparatus on the correspondence as well as plenty of visual material and more.

More than a gadget

But McKenna is eager to point out that the electronic Correspondance de Pierre Bayle ‘is not simply a fashionable gadget or another free-standing online edition, but in combination with other tools could be a key resource for the study of the social history of ideas.’

One of these ‘other tools’ is the brand new ePistolarium launched by Dr Charles van den Heuvel and his team at the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands in The Hague only three weeks ago. This resource helps ‘to analyse the circulation and appropriation of knowledge produced by Dutch scholars’, explains van den Heuvel.

‘With its global trade networks, its lively book printing industry, and its relative tolerance to religious difference, the Dutch Republic became a refuge for intellectuals from around Europe’, says van den Heuvel. Therefore the database will not just be welcomed by scholars in the Netherlands, but everyone interested in European knowledge exchange.

Many languages, one database

The website is available in English, even though the majority of the 20,000 letters currently available might be written in Latin, French, Dutch or a variety of other European languages. It features among others letters to and from the political philosopher Hugo Grotius, father and son Constantijn (poet, composer and government official) and Christiaan (natural philosopher) Huygens, the mathematician and philosopher René Descartes or the natural philosopher Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek.

The Dutch ePistolarium
The Dutch ePistolarium

However, for van den Heuvel and his team a database of learned correspondence is only the beginning. Ultimately, they also aim to connect the letters database to ‘the notes and working papers of scholars and early periodicals to better reveal the full range of textual practices of scholars in intellectual networks, and to investigate the cross-fertilization of different media as well as transition and change in the form of scholarly communication into the early eighteenth century.’

While the Dutch project is ambitious and creative in its aims, the Cultures of Knowledge project (CofK) based at Oxford University currently has the ‘widest geographical and numerical scope’ of the three case studies presented with material from all over Europe, explains Digital Project Manager Dr James Brown. Currently in its second phase of development, CofK ‘is building a large, open source repository to make basic “big (meta)data” on the Republic of Letters editable and discoverable at an international scale.’

The Oxford-based Cultures of Knowledge project
The Oxford-based Cultures of Knowledge project

With Early Modern Letters Online (EMLO), the team in Oxford have been building ‘a new editorial interface for a union catalogue of learned correspondence from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries’. Besides relatively ‘basic information’ on ‘people, space/place, and time’, the team hope to add ‘visualisations and other new features’ to EMLO, ‘designed to transform the catalogue from a finding aid into a genuine tool of comparison and analysis.’ The idea is to collaborate in the long run with as many individual scholars, projects and repositories around the world as possible to create an ‘increasingly definitive and representative electronic inventory of the early modern Republic of Letters.’


While all these plans look great, however, many open questions about the future remain. How compatible are the different projects? To what extent is it possible to search across a variety of databases? And what happens to a major digitisation project, as Professor Tim Harris of Brown University ventured to ask, when the money runs out? In short, how sustainable are these electronic databases?

They simply have to become ‘too big to fail’, suggests Professor Howard Hotson, Project Director at CofK. Older digital projects would have to be absorbed by more recent ones, so they can be updated and upgraded as technology moves one; and when the money for one project runs out, another bigger project will take over. The digital future lies in continual progress and development – certainly an idea the early modern Republic of Letters would have approved of.



By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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