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 (see the publications page of this blog). 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.
Most existing digital letter collections consist of unannotated versions of original manuscripts. The digitalisation process has made the letters more accessible to academics and the general public, and has also increased their searchability, at least to a certain extent. 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 immigration studies they have rarely joined forces, or engaged with stakeholder groups from other disciplines. Moreover, relatively few projects have moved beyond the digitisation stage to exploit text content and enhance usability and searchability through the use of corpus techniques and tools (although the University of Helsinki and their work on the Corpus of Early English Correspondence (CEEC) have made considerable advancements in this area - see the Project Partners page of this blog). 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 has been 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 is 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. Central to this will be the development of a system of correspondence annotation and markup to represent the linguistic, structural, discoursal, contextual and physical properties of the letters, thus offering different layers of meaning and 'ways in' to the texts. This will allow for more sophisticated searches, and also the presentation of outputs through meaningful visualisations which will encourage the interest of novice students, the general public and the creative industries.
Our research network aims 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.
A key output from the project will be a set of best practice guidelines for the digitisation and annotation of emigrant correspondence collections.