Letters of 1916: An edition, an archive, a thematic research collection, a network?

As an as-yet incomplete project, certainly an unpublished one, the potential value of the Letters of 1916 is necessarily speculative. We do not know in what precise form the project will be disseminated, nor what uses future scholars will find for it. This is, of course, always the case in scholarly editing. As Peter Robinson argues, the quality of an edition is ultimately dependent on its usefulness (Robinson 2013); and the usefulness of an edition is, essentially, a combination of the usefulness of the edition’s material and the usefulness of its presentation. While the first aspect of this usefulness can be more readily assessed (and, especially if the material is previously unpublished, it is almost useful by default), determining precisely how future researchers will want to engage with the material is more difficult. That said, some speculation of use-cases — ideally, a systematic and critical engagement with potential users — is a basic necessity in the construction of a digital scholarly edition. At this point in the project, then, and within the scope of a blog post, it seems fair to speculate.

By the broadly sketched criteria above, it is clear to see why the Letters of 1916 has such potential value as a project, though some of these ‘points of value’ will often seem to overlap and must be unpicked. Clearly, the source material is useful: inevitably, some letters are more important than others, but such a wealth of letters — covering the period Easter Rising, and set against the background of the First World War — will undoubtedly be valuable to researchers. In this regard, the more material accumulated, the more useful the resource. We can add to this the fact that much of the material was previously unavailable for one reason or another: either pragmatically (being stored in an archives and thus inaccessible without, at best, a deal of inconvenience) or actually (remaining unknown in the collections — or attics — of private individuals). Thus the materials themselves are useful, and digital availability is useful as it allows access to the materials.

I have considered the latter argument — allowance of access — as a part of the ‘material usefulness’ of the edition for the reason that it does not necessarily prescribe any particular form for the edition, except that it exist and be viable form of dissemination for the material. This separation of the value of the material and the value of the edition is particularly relevant with the Letters of 1916 due to the heterogeneous nature of the source materials. More conventional editions tend to be editions of something, normally a work of some kind. While this term is far from unambiguous, it suggests both a cohesiveness and completeness, within some named boundary. Collections of letters published as editions — the correspondence of Charles Darwin springs to mind — normally have a central focus, in this case, Darwin. The chronological ordering of the letters again reinforces this centrality.

As such, the word ‘edition’ applies only in so far as Letters is the product of ‘editing’. Each letter digitised, encoded and disseminated is an ‘edition’ of that letter (itself cohesive); an ‘edition’ of all the letters could be more properly considered as an electronic archive (McGann) or a ‘thematic research collection’ (Palmer). The distinction would depend, ultimately, on the extent to which the collection could be deemed ‘thematically coherent’ (Palmer); this is very much a matter of debate, but ultimately I would suggest, merely a matter of terminology. In either case, however, the only way to begin to explore the letters is through ‘searching’, either via a free-text search or by browsing and filtering lists of letters.

The obvious solution to this is ‘compartmentalisation’ into an appropriate number of ‘sub-editions’. The separation of letters that do not, by this rationale, ‘belong together’ seems advantageous. Both the MacGreevy Archive[1] and the Shelley-Godwin Archive[2] follow an approach of separating the content into collections (with the latter, this seems to be the case, even though only the Frankenstein papers have thus far been published; and in both cases, the division of content is perhaps more obvious). Such a compartmentalisation could be achieved by manually assigning ‘categories’ to letters.

Dividing the letters into categories has many advantages. The redundant complexity necessary to create a data structure applicable to all the letters would be avoided. Alternatively, it avoids the ruthlessness normalisation of letters fit within a more generally applicable structure. In short, the representation of letters can be tailored much more appropriately to the letters themselves. The strong imposition of some ontological categories — whilst normative and externally derived, they may also be externally documented — may make it easier for researchers to retrieve specific information. It may thus be possible to consider each sub-edition properly as a thematic research collection.

There are problems with this, however. Categorisation, as opposed to tagging, requires — from a standpoint of usability — that the categories as applied correspond to the user’s notion of how a category should be applied. Tagging letters (in other words, assigning multiple categories) partially solves this problem, but at the expense of making the categories themselves less informative.

This is one suggestion. Another possibility to be considered is that a more cohesive edition might be constructed through tracing links between individuals writing or receiving letters, individuals named in letters, places named in letters; or derived characteristics, such as topics generated through latent semantic analysis. The former provide strongly identifiable aspects that letters may have in common; the latter, by assessing similarity, can identify letters that are ‘closer’, and thus linked-to by ranking.

This provides a level of ‘forced’ cohesion to the edition as a whole, while at a level of usability providing researchers with alternative modes of investigation. Radford, in ‘Positivism, Foucault, and the Fantasia of the Library’ refers to the conceptualisation by Umberto Eco of the library as a labyrinth, a ‘net’ where “every point can be connected with every other point, and, where the connections are not yet designed, they are […] conceivable and designable”. This conception, which appears similar to the Deleuzian idea of the ‘rhizome’ and Latour’s ‘Actor-Network Theory’, is explored as a model for data representation by Lyn Robinson and Mike Maguire, and by Sukovic. An edition constructed along these lines would permit a researcher to ‘walk’ through virtual corridors, following a myriad of links between texts of various types; the notion of ‘searching’ is replaced by one of exploration.

To be borne in mind is the fact that such a ‘labyrinth edition’ is only valid as a form of investigation from the inside. Strictly as a mode of exploration, it links letters together by common features, but, at the level of user interaction, never rises above the level of the letters — as individuals entities — themselves. The user is only ever guided from one letter to the next.

Viewing such a labyrinth externally, we essentially have a complex graph of links (a rhizome). Analysing such links should allow the creation of a general picture of the edition (or archive) as a whole. This perspective is, however, constrained due to the ‘fixed incompleteness’ — it is bounded by the limits of the content of the edition. In principle, this rhizomatic network should be able to reach out to include aspects beyond itself (in what Deleuze calls ‘lines of flight’), which become assimilated into this network (in other words, more letters, all letters, even lost ones). The implication of this is that such a network is never closed; at the same time, latent semantic analysis is dependent on closure — deriving some positivist conclusion from what is present.

In this analysis, an external view of this network is a model derived from the content itself, and is therefore a model only of the content itself; it is not a model of, say, correspondence by post in 1916. As such, methods along these lines are dependent on the means by which ‘closure’ is achieved. These means are very much factors in the real world: what kinds of letters have survived; what kinds of letters make it into archives; constraints of digitisation put in place by archives or other copyright holders; and myriad other factors. A model of the letters that can make valid claims beyond the materials of its construction must also model, or ‘reassemble’ (in Bruno Latour’s words) the factors of its construction.

 


Deleuze, Gilles. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Print.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social an Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Open WorldCat. Web. 14 Aug. 2014.

McGann, Jerome. “Electronic Archives and Critical Editing.” Literature Compass 7.2 (2010): 37–42. Wiley Online Library. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

Palmer, Carole L. “Thematic Research Collections.” A Companion to Digital Humanities. N.p. Web. 11 July 2014.

Robinson, Lyn, and Mike Maguire. “The Rhizome and the Tree: Changing Metaphors for Information Organisation.” Journal of Documentation 66.4 (2010): 604–613. CrossRef. Web. 14 May 2014.

Robinson, Peter. “Towards a Theory of Digital Editions.” The Journal of the European Society for Textual Scholarship (2013): 105. Print.

Sukovic, Suzana. “Information Discovery in Ambiguous Zones of Research.” Library Trends 57.1 (2008): 82–87. Web. 15 May 2014.

 

[1] http://www.macgreevy.org/

[2] http://shelleygodwinarchive.org/

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