Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Online Letter Archive

The online letter archive seems to be a popular project for humanities researchers. Such archives offer the correspondences of either a well known individual, or of people who experienced a historical event and wrote letters about it. The online archive is a model for the digital organization of of a collection and a brief survey of a few current online letter archives reveals some interesting tendencies, features and limitations to the present format.

The Darwin Correspondence Project (DCP) "exists to publish the definitive edition of letters to and from Charles Darwin". The site promises; "you can read and search the full texts of more than 7,000 of Charles Darwin’s letters, and find information on 8,000 more. Available here are complete transcripts of all known letters Darwin wrote and received up to the year 1868. More are being added all the time."With such a vast amount of material an efficient search system is essential. The basic search system on DCP is keyword motivated. As such it is an efficient but limited system. For example, in the general search window, by searching for the keyword "Galapagos" it returns 170 entries. More fine-grained search is available, with a) People, b) Places, c) Keyword (with four fields available; 1. All Content, 2. Only Summary, 3. Only Transcript, 4. Only Footnote) and finally d) Time Range. Entering "Galapagos" in the Places field only returns 59 entries; which seems odd. There is no graphical interface available (that I could find anyway) on the site for place correlation, such as a map that imposes time over place, to see some progression in the movements of Darwin, and thus connecting the letters together in another searchable field (i.e. place). There are a number of glossaries in the website for DCP, the most interesting of which is perhaps the Physical Descriptions. Here the original artefacts are coded according to genre and materiality (eg. original, handwritten, condition status etc). The coding of genre and materiality is an efficient way to present something of the objects it is representing, but it would be good to have seen at least some scans. There is however the Darwin Behind the Scenes virtual exhibition, which is linked from the site on the News section, where you can see high resolution images of some of the objects. Searching for Galapagos on the Behind the Scenes website brings 0 returns, but the images are stunning.

The Olive Schreiner Letters Online (OSLO) project "is funded by the ESRC. It will transcribe, analyse and publish the complete extant Olive Schreiner letters presently in archival locations world-wide". There are currently 4800 letters from Schreiner known to be in existence. The letters presently in the archive are organized alphabetically around the surname of the recipient. There is a general search function. Searching in it from the Index page for "Churchill" returns 10 entries, from letters not addressed to anyone by the name of Churchill, but that do contain the name within them. There seems to be an element of virtual portraiture to the OSLO, with the How to Use section stating; "Essential Schreiner' features Schreiner's 'Must Read' letters, letters concerned with transitions and turning points, and those which show the lighter side of her letter-writing practices, as well as an outline chronology of events and happenings in her life." A personality behind an archive always helps with relating to the materials within it. Interestingly, the OSLO contains "two indexes. The first is a list of all the letters in which she mentions or discusses her writing, including both particular publications and also her comments on writing as an activity, her work. The second is a sub-set of this, and it lists those letters which discuss publishers and editors and her dealings - not always very happy - with them." How these are cross-referenced is unclear. These is also an index of letters by topic, and this is an invaluable addition to the system. It is in the Letters by Topic section that we get a good overview of the possible uses for the OSLO. In the Letters by Topic we can see how rich an archive we have here, with a very broad range of possible applications.

We have chosen to include Letters from the American Civil War (LACW) as it is a good example of attention to the artefacts represented in the archive. The archive is actually a portal to a number of other archives. The letters are reproduced both visually and textually; with images of the letters and their envelopes (including addresses and stamps) alongside clear copies of the letters. These is no notation in the archive.The LACW archive is an archive at its most basic in terms of infrastructure, but the use of images of the represented artefacts adds a historical and material dimension that is lacking in many online letter archives.

The final archive in this collection is a recently created one from Sweden. Hjalmar Bergman Korrespondenser (HBK or Hjalmar Bergman Letters) contains hundreds of letters written between 1900 and 1930 by the Swedish writer. What is interesting about the archive is how the material is organized: i. from the date, ii. from the town it was sent from, iii. from the address, iv. from the people who are named in the letter, v. from works that are named in the letter, vi. from the genre of works named in the letter, vii. from where the letter is kept today and viii. from visual reproductions of the letter in the archive. In this way the HBK archive covers many of the possible search combinations in the organizing of the material. Tagging is of utmost importance to the organizing of materials in digital archives. Footnotes are included in each reproduction of text of letters. There is no general search function in the archive website that we could find. We think this is very interesting; instead of relying on a general search, the material is tagged to such a degree that users are directed towards specific themes in the archive.

To summarize, we thought it was interesting that none of the archives offered downloadable content. The result is materials cannot be extracted from the archives and worked with 'off site'. In this sense the archives as they appear online function more as interfaces than spaces to work in. However, as they are online and accessible, they do allow controlled access to materials and the opportunity to work from outside institutions for anyone interested in the subjects they cover. We would have liked to have seen more Creative Commons or Open Access statements attached to these archives. A design that allows linking and uploading to research that reference the archives, and feedback from users would have also been useful. The organization of digital artefacts is an important element in the management of events and the archives discussed here provide inspiration for the possibilities for storage, access (include searchability) and distribution for any materials stored online. In our discussions in the workshops next week the concept of 'The Archive' will feature, and we hope this short post inspires some consideration of the role of the archive in event management and the dissemination of research.

(This was originally posted on the SMKE Website).

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