Open Correspondence

The following guest post is from Iain Emsley, who is a member of the Open Knowledge Foundation Working Group on Open Resources in the Humanities, and a contributor to the Open Shakespeare and Open Milton projects.

Using the social graph, one can find the connections between seemingly disparate groups of people on different services. Most of the projects in the area are focussed on social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and so on. There is, however, a layer of social information that was created before this. Letters were, and still are, used as a method of communication. To some extent it is the Internet before the technology became available. There is a host of data that is shared in each missive. For example, the author and their correspondent. That is only the tip of the metadata though:

  • What are they writing about?
  • Whom are they writing about?
  • When was the letter written?
  • Where was it written?

The Open Letters project, grew out of some musings when working on the timeline for the Open Milton website. I could see the links between the texts and some of the events but I was curious about how things linked together. Neither texts nor authors exist in a vacuum. Authors write to other people – agents, authors, casual acquaintances, friends and family – and they write about books. Sometimes they write about books that they have read, sometimes about what they are writing.

From these we can infer what books, authors, or authors who influenced the author or were being influenced at the time. From this, we can see the growth of the social graph into the cultural graph. Essentially it is the same notion as the social graph but the cultural graph links items like books, poems and events together. In itself it means nothing but linked to the social graph, it allows the user to discover who is being written to whilst a book was being written. Is the author talking to other authors or only to his agent about it?

Charles Dickens was a prolific letter writer which is why he was chosen as the first author for the project. From his own letters, we can see him writing to authors, such as George Eliot or Wilkie Collins, and scientists like Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine or his agent about his works in progress. His letters shed some light into the nineteenth century literary world but also contextualises it within the wider world. His wide range of writing gave me a chance to cast widest net possible and set up as many nodes on the graph.

A brief peak at the correspondents to whom Dickens was writing about the Pickwick Papers, Dickens’s first novel, suggests that it more than just a book but an item of conversation which is revealed through his letters about the book. He managed to offend Mr David Dickson, a reader, with a passage in the novel, though invited W C Macready to a dinner to celebrate its publication. Later in his life, he wrote to Wilkie Collins, the author, complaining that “I have never seen anything about myself in print which has much correctness in it–any biographical account of myself I mean”. The set of letters sheds a little light into the public and private worlds of Dickens, from his mortification at offending a reader to complaining about his own portrayal. He comes alive as a person rather than just an author as does his social graph and the relationships with his correspondents is illuminated by the way that he addresses them with varying degrees of formality.

Now that the site is set up, the next step is to complete the set of Dickens letters which his daughters edited and published from the Project Gutenberg texts. The next major step is to try and collect the letters of his correspondents and from them the new correspondent nodes. As well as HTML representations of the letters, the project uses RDF, reusing Dublin Core and Friend of a Friend (FOAF) with its own extensions for the collection of letters called letter. Rufus Pollock has already created a graph that visualises the relationships between authors, time of begin written to and the number of times to which they were written and timelines for the letters are being developed.

There are, of course, more things that I would like to do but the major one task is building the collections of letters under open licenses. The project can be contacted through the open-literature mailing list if you would like to find out more or to contribute.

Open Correspondence

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