Letters are a rich resource for teaching and learning, transcending disciplinary and methodological boundaries. Correspondence collections are of great interest to those working within the academy, and also to schools, community groups and private individuals who are interested in researching the lives and experiences of letter writers. Until recently correspondence research has concentrated on letters written by more privileged members of society, but interest has been growing in the letters of emigrants, belonging to all social classes. Emigrant letters are expressive and indicative of correspondents' identities, values, preoccupations and beliefs; they are a powerful source of information and understanding about migration issues, provide a colourful picture of domestic life from an emigrant perspective, and shed light on processes of language change and variation. Although many of these letters have now been digitised, not all are properly archived; some are reduplicated and others are in danger of being lost. The documentation and preservation of such letters is a particularly pressing need.
Many digital letter collections consist of unannotated versions of original manuscripts. The digitisation process has made the letters more accessible to academics and the general public, and has also increased their searchability. Unfortunately, however, emigrant correspondence projects have often evolved independently of one another, and although project teams have been successful in tackling important research questions relating to social history and migration studies they have rarely joined forces, or engaged with stakeholder groups from other disciplines. While some correspondence projects - the University of Helsinki and their work on the Corpus of Early English Correspondence (CEEC), for instance - have made considerable advancements in the markup and analysis of correspondence collections, relatively few emigrant letter projects have moved beyond the digitisation stage to exploit text content and enhance usability and searchability through the use of corpus techniques and tools. Different letter collections cannot easily interconnect if they are simply digitised without annotation and markup, and some search pathways through the material will remain unavailable if software tools are not employed to process this encoding.
The solution and approach
With funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, a research network was established consisting of historians, linguists, archivists and digital humanities experts from a range of institutions across Europe and the US, all of whom are currently working with (emigrant) letters in various ways and are making significant headway in tackling many of the issues described above. The purpose of the research network was to discuss some of the challenges surrounding digitisation, build capacity relating to correspondence annotation and the use of corpus tools, and initiate the process of interconnecting resources to encourage cross-disciplinary research.
The aims of our research network were to:
- improve interconnectivity between existing digital collections of migrant correspondence, and develop a blueprint for greater connectivity across a wider range of digital correspondence archives;
- provide a forum to address the complex issues surrounding the accessibility, intellectual property rights and privacy of all those contributing to the creation of digital correspondence collections;
- encourage and investigate new ways of organizing, interpreting, and using the various types of information embedded within digitalised migrant correspondence;
- improve access to digital resources of interest to academics, the general public, and a broad range of cultural and creative industries;
- promote international collaboration within the digital humanities.