Technology and the “Republic of Letters”


The “sell” for a recent article on Mapping the Republic of Letters, a Stanford University digital humanities project led by Dan Edelstein and Paula Findlen, highlights the ways in which technology is altering our understanding of the past and shaping the kinds of questions we can ask:

Researchers map thousands of letters exchanged in the 18th century’s “Republic of Letters” – and learn at a glance what it once took a lifetime of study to comprehend

In this case researchers have applied GIS (geographical information system) mapping technology to explore the wealth of letters exchanged by Enlightenment figures. As the article details, the computer mapping of correspondence from the Enlightenment (the dates focus on 1759 to 1780, but the project also contains letters from the Renaissance) has enabled the relationship among vast amounts of material to be organized and presented in flexible ways. This YouTube video, Tracking 18th-century “social network” through letters, shows snapshots of the trajectories of Locke’s and Voltaire’s correspondence:

The “big pictures” that this project facilitates are altering perceptions of Enlightenment networks and their influences. As the video demonstrates, despite French views of England as an incredible site of religious freedom and tolerance, Voltaire actually corresponded very little with those in England.

What is especially interesting (but not surprising) is the importance of metadata and collaboration to this project’s success. That Oxford “supplied the metadata for 50,000 letters,” Dan Edelstein explains,
“allow[ed] the project to go “beyond any of our expectations.” Mapping the Republic of Letters has also acquired the data for all of Benjamin Franklin’s correspondence, and talks are underway to obtain data from other European sources.

Projects such as TCP and 18thConnect, which are establishing rich, reliable metadata for digital texts, are expanding the possibilities for scholarly exploration of past textual worlds, both for individual and collaboratively-driven scholarship.

Jonathan Rose, whose post on SHARP-L drew my attention to this project, noted the potential of GIS technology for literary and intellectual history. Canadian book historians Bertrum MacDonald and Fiona Black have already begun to realize this potential for book historians. Their article “Geographic Information Systems: A New Research Method for Book History” (Book History 1 (1998): 11-31) can be found through Project Muse, and they have also

proposed a long-term, international, collaborative project using GIS for comparative analyses of defined elements of print culture in several countries. An Advisory Board is being established, which currently includes scholars in the United States and the United Kingdom. The project has three primary goals: to explore the methodology through a variety of applications concerning various aspects of book history; to aid comparative studies; and to provide the foundation for an electronic atlas of book history (GIS for Book History International Collaborative Project, description from Fiona Black’s website).

Such technology of course has rich potential for other projects, and we have had various mentions of such projects in past emob posts including comments on the Monk Project.

For more recent work on uses of GIS in historical research, see the special issue of Historical Geography: An Annual Journal of Research, Commentary, and Reviews, Emerging Trends in Historical GIS, ed., Anne Kelly Knowles, vol. 33 (2005).


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8 Responses to “Technology and the “Republic of Letters””

  1. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Thanks, Eleanor. I like the way GIS mapping
    technology exposes trade routes for an individual
    writer’s activity in the Republic of Letters.


  2. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Yes, I could see a number of uses for this tool from tracing distribution patterns for a particular work, mapping editions and translations, detailing networks among various publishers or authors (as well as those among authors and publishers), holdings of libraries or reading societies, and much, much more. It could also be useful in charting the patterns of book distributions in relationship to other forms of cultural commodities including music, art, ceramics, and the like.


  3. Anna Battigelli Says:

    All good points. Each pattern you mention helps us see historical habits of reading or other forms of engagement within book culture more clearly.

    I would like to know how easily these maps can be produced to, say, track exchanges by members of the Royal Society to one another, or tracking the epistolary activity of a specific salon, or of networks of women writers, or of specific religious groups. Such maps would help us get a feel for the day-to-day experience of figures like Robert Hooke or Robert Boyle or Mary Wortley Montagu and of clusters of figures in literary, scientific, religious or other kinds of networks. Even if we have read the letters, seeing them charted like this exposes both the pattern of daily experience and significant life rhythms. This is an important aid for activating a properly calibrated historical imagination.


  4. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Mapping technology has the capability of charting spatial and temporal relationships.

    At the 2009 SHARP conference in Toronto this past June, Fiona Black presented more of her work on using GIS for print culture:

    Abstract/Proposition: This paper presents the results of the first usability study to explore print culture historians preferences around the visualization of information relevant for their research. Many elements of print culture involve a spatial dimension, relating to the location of activities and areas of distribution and influence. Print culture cannot therefore be fully understood without incorporating the spatial dimension into the investigative framework. Investigating print culture’s complexity by “layering” and synthesizing information from multiple databases is now feasible using geographic information systems (GIS). This paper builds on the author’s previously published work on GIS in Book History and Social Science History. The long-term goal of the research is to foster a more nuanced understanding of print culture’s complexity by making spatial and temporal research possible and convenient for a wide range of scholars. This will be achieved through the development and application of an historical geographic information system (HGIS) for print culture. A common conceptual framework considers each variable as a “layer” within the spatial system. Layers in an HGIS of print culture will include print production, occupations within the book and allied trades, literacy rates and schooling, political affiliation of agents of the press, religious background and gender, amongst others. Synthesis of these factors will facilitate new perceptions concerning patterns and trends. Historical applications of GIS have been implemented for about a decade. Such systems have enormous potential to benefit a wide range of scholarly enquiry and analysis. One aspect that is missing from the literature of the various projects is user studies or needs assessment exercises to determine what is of meaningful aid to scholars. This research fills that gap by engaging print culture historians in the design and application of a web-based system that will contribute to their research endeavours. Visualizing book history takes the discipline no further forward if its representations do not reflect accurately an honest analysis of the historical record. The paper concludes with a discussion of how an HGIS can indicate the authenticity of historical information.

    As her abstract indicates, Fiona highlighted the importance of these visual tools being meaningful and useful for scholars (and of course historically accurate). She also pointed out that scholars interested in experimenting could do so with Google Earth and map (there’s a way to overlay historical maps using these tools). I have played around some with Google Earth, but I have nothing that is up and running to show right now.

    Google Earth has instructions for how educators can use this tool for pedagogical purposes. Some of the sample projects it offers also use Google Sketchup. The link provided for a project for history did not seem to work (though a Google search did yield access). The link for literature examples (“Google LitTrip), however, is operating. The literature examples I have viewed varied in detail, and none seems to offer the type of flexible connective mapping that the Stanford project offers or the type of sophistication that characterized Black’s work.


    • Anna Battigelli Says:

      I liked how Mapping the Republic of Letters allows one to search by either author or by period. One can also contrast two correspondents’ correspondence. A map of the correspondence of Richard Steele can be overlaid onto a map of the correspondence of his collaborator Joseph Addison (or any other of the other correspondents listed). The different colors keep the correspondents separate. One sees at a glance whether a writer is primarily writing to correspondents within a country or whether the writer has a more cosmopolitan network.

      There are clearly things I do not yet fully understand about this mapping technology. Calling up Lady Mary Wortley Montagu yielded only 1 letter, for example. I would love to hear more about plans to expand the correspondents or know more about how fully the correspondence of any single author is reflected within this project. It is not surprising that print and electronic technologies need to be used together for a fuller study of any single author’s correspondence. This technology is interesting and helps us see patterns, not so much within a single writer’s life but within the Republic of Letters.


  5. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Anna’s comment prompted to seek a list of correspondents, offering the number of letters, for Mapping the Republic of Letters. While I did find this page on Standford’s “Tooling Up” site, which offers a good overview of top cities and correspondents, I also discovered the the Electronic Enlightenment project constructed and maintained by the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

    This project does require a subscription: individuals can subscribe for $39.95 monthly or purchase an annual subscription for $325.00. K through 12 institutions evidently pay $100 for a month (which offers on and off-campus access to all at the school), while higher ed instutions pay, depending on their size, anywhere from $1,895.00 to $5,295.00 for an annaul subscription. Charges go toward advancing and maintaining the project. As the EE site explains,

    Why subscriptions?
    Electronic Enlightenment is not a once and for all resource — it is not a defined run of a periodical, it is not a collection of static digital objects (fixed images, PDF files, etc.). Electronic Enlightenment is a dynamic digital resource. Every new letter, correspondent, annotation or manuscript reference has the potential to alter information across the entire data set! THERE IS NO SINGLE, FIXED, SALEABLE OBJECT. Electronic Enlightenment is a service, a fluid, dynamic combination of library, classroom and conference.

    Fostering dynamic collaboration, users of this resource can also contribute by adding additional notes, letters, and more.

    As both these projects indicate, they are works that are continually in progress. And as we have seen through our rudimentary costs analysis of TCP, they are expensive to produce.


  6. Technology and the “Republic of Letters” | Mapping the Republic of Letters Says:

    […] Early Modern Online Bibliography gives an overview of the Mapping the Republic of Letters Project.  Click here to view the article. […]


  7. SHARP 2013 Digital Projects and Tools Showcase | Early Modern Online Bibliography Says:

    […] presented at SHARP. Finally, the Mapping the Republic of Letters project the EMOB discussed in a post several years ago, served as the inspiration for Mitch Fraas’s Expanding the Republic of […]


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