Electronic Enlightenment Back

The Electronic Enlightenment (EE) database is a prime example of how digitization is changing scholarly research in eighteenth-century studies. EE’s goal is to promote enlightenment in our own time through the exploration of lives and letters in the long eighteenth century. In today’s fast-paced internet world, the accuracy, quality, and authority of information are often short-changed in commercial ventures. In contrast, EE, hosted by Oxford’s Bodleian Library, offers a site dedicated to academic excellence. It reconstitutes, and dwarfs, the original Republic of Letters in quantitative and qualitative ways.

Winner of BSECS’s Digital Prize in 2010, EE has been a part of the herculean efforts to engage with new data and ask new questions in ways unimaginable to previous generations. We can now represent, search, and interpret masses of information across disciplinary boundaries with consummate ease. Yet the breathtaking speed of technological change has created intellectual gaps between creators and users, with little time for reflection on the part of the average researcher. Though we routinely benefit from text mining, mapping, and computationally-based methods, we still live in a time of transition on the cusp of an unknown future. We have seen the limitations of traditional information structures like chronological calendars and subject classification systems. What will ultimately replace them is still unknown. But ‘whatever the future may be, we know it will be digital’ (as Robert Darnton put it in 2009 in The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, p.xv.). It will also be full of diversity and it is moving fast. Some databases will survive; others will fall by the wayside. We must apply well-honed tools of critical analysis to the burgeoning digital marketplace and look for quality and sustainability to meet a variety of needs.

The content, functions, and services of EE should be evaluated in this context. Robert McNamee, its director, realized early on that the letter form and digitization were made for each other. Indeed, the eighteenth-century letter is a historical, if slower moving, model of the web, offering a dynamic network of correspondents, as well as dates, places, and names. It not only lends itself to full text searching of isolated pieces of correspondence, digitization turns letters into webs of social and intellectual networks. Since each letter writer becomes the central node of a cluster of other correspondents, users can trace the transmission of ideas between interconnected individuals over time and space.

McNamee and his team spent a decade breaking up letters into their basic parts and reassembling them on a user-friendly web page. The result is a sophisticated database built on the various levels and elements of eighteenth-century communication. As of March 2011, it contained 58,776 records written by 7,114 correspondents in 11 languages representing 45 nationalities, and 689 occupations. It also provides links to manuscript and printed editions of letters, as well as 258,408 scholarly annotations.

EE’s advent is timely, for interest in the enlightenment and its major transmitter of ideas – the letter – appear to be stronger than ever. Publications, conferences, and databases have highlighted an eighteenth-century culture of letters seen in rising literacy rates, expanding postal services, and epistles in every genre, not least of all, the novel. Moreover, the interdisciplinary nature of the letter form enables research in all of the humanities, as well as science, law, and medicine. EE notes that its collections are culled from the ‘best critical printed editions’ and edited by a team of scholars. Though this has led, so far, to a bias of elite white male writers, the people they corresponded with are somewhat more varied.

The strength of EE lies in its flexible full text searching of lives and letters via countless pathways and terms. Letters may be searched by any mix of keywords, names of writers and recipients, languages, locations, and ranges of dates (the oldest is 1540; the latest is 1878). Clicking on a letter that is retrieved from a search brings the user to the full text of the document. In addition, a fully clickable side bar offers data on writers and recipients, envelope information, textual and editorial annotations, and cites to appearances or ‘instances’ of the letter in manuscript, print, and now ‘born-digital’ formats. Other tabs lead to data on versions, translations, and enclosures. Each person in EE has a unique life page offering biographical information –age, occupation, and nationality — as well as links to the individual’s letters and correspondents. Sources can be searched by country, archive, authors, and publishers.

The database has been designed to expand and accept modular additions such as letter images and geographical links. The first images of unpublished Voltaire letters will go live in the autumn in addition to the new texts. Another new project will link the geographical locations of letter writers and recipients to historical maps, starting with Switzerland and London. Users will soon be able to browse by ‘location’, similar to the way they do for ‘letters’ and ‘lives’. Thus searches will find all of the documents and people for a continent, country, province, state, country, or region. An EE Gazetteer will provide variant forms of locations, whilst charts and graphs will display geographical information linked to letters and letter writers.

Other features include a ‘PRINT HOUSE’ that contains a monthly miscellany on a search topic and a ‘letter book’ for publications by users. A ‘COFFEE HOUSE’ focusing on scholarly communication offers an EE Classroom with lesson plans and talking points submitted by teachers. To date the plans range from ‘The Restoration and the Early Eighteenth-Century Theatre World’ and ‘National Identity and Otherness’ to ‘Optimism and Cosmopolitanism’ and ‘Inoculation in the Enlightenment’. This classroom is very promising, for letters offer students short, readable, interdisciplinary texts that allow them to connect detailed information to larger issues and individual lives.

EE is also encouraging faculty and student involvement in a community publishing platform that provides a non-exclusive, publishing environment for ‘born-digital’ editions of letters. These will be integrated into the EE database through the use of an accessible Word template system. EE is promoting itself as a non-exclusive publisher for academics – a project of great interest to scholars, who use letters in their research. EE can be browsed without a subscription to determine which letter writers are included, and individual subscriptions are available for £50 per year.

EE’s strengths lie in its high academic standards, flexible interdisciplinary searching, dynamic networks, careful design, and ease of use. Its weakness lies in its present limited scope and content. EE’s plans that encourage user input of letters and ‘born digital’ projects offer an ideal way to obtain a wider group of correspondents – women, minorities, and non-elites. The early reliance on printed editions of famous people should now give way to a more inclusive database.

EE’s ability to expand in modular ways can help it to attain sustainability. Ironically, the success of epistolary research has created a number of disparate online projects based on correspondence. Their collaboration is crucial in an era of diminishing funds. EE’s plans to link the database with that of ECCO will allow it to offer a ‘works list’ for each letter writer. This is clearly a step in the right direction.

The current educational climate and financial pressures have placed a premium on services to the general public. But surely every database does not have to be watered down to the lowest common denominator in search of general consumption. The digital marketplace should and will offer a wide range of resources for a variety of users. The letter has a place in this universe as demonstrated by its unflagging, interdisciplinary presence in eighteenth-century studies. Furthermore, the scholarly text must remain an integral part of academic research. EE places it on centre stage. As an academic community, our own herculean job is not only to keep up with technology. We must critically use and, when possible, shape new online sources by insisting on standards of excellence.