Digital Research in the Humanities

November 24, 2010

Cultures of Knowledge screenshot

The CEMS series of works in progress on Digital Research in the Humanities moved on 18 November to the Oxford e-Research Centre, with presentations by James Brown (Cultures of Knowledge), Robert McNamee (Electronic Enlightenment) and Abigail Williams and Jennifer Batt (Digital Miscellanies Index). The first two projects share common ground in a focus on learned correspondence. CoK will offer a union catalogue of seventeenth-century intellectual correspondence and hard copy editions of the letters of particular scholars in Britain and Europe. It is also refining interpretative frameworks and consolidating a scholarly community at seminars, workshops, and conferences, in a spirit emulating the earlier republic of letters. Ee provides online texts of letters from critical editions of key figures – the ‘Enlightenment’ title can be misleading since the letters go back to the earlier seventeenth century and forward to the nineteenth century – along with such refinements as maps and the first online coffee-house. This project too furthers its own research agenda through an annual series of colloquia on the sociology of the letter. Both projects will greatly enhance our understanding of the complex networks underpinning the great landmarks of intellectual history.

Digital Miscellanies Index screenshot

Abigail Williams discussed how a database could emerge from a specific set of questions – in her case, whether the Whig poetry she had studied for her book Poetry and the Creation of a Whig Literary Culture 1681-1714 continued to be read through the eighteenth century – and could generate a host of new and unanticipated research questions. The database will make it possible to chart the popular circulation of poetry through the first indexing of some thousand miscellanies, and will also highlight the musical settings through the website and public concerts. Discussion touched both on technical details of particular projects and on ways in which such projects could interact productively. David Robey, Arts and Humanities Consultant at the Oxford e-research Centre, emphasized how many such projects were currently based in Oxford and were now registered at the Digital Humanities website; he invited all researchers who had not done so to register their projects for maximum visibility.

Another striking aspect of all these projects was the way they drew on resources in Oxford that in some case required imagination to foresee a digital potential. At the core of the Cultures of Knowledge project is a card index of Bodleian correspondence, which for many years was widely known only to a small number of scholars; many such resources remain to be explored. The Digital Miscellanies Index draws on a huge collection of songbooks which were donated to the Bodleian by the ragtime pianist Walter Harding in an act of spontaneous generosity. Electronic Enlightenment draws on the world-leading critical texts established by Oxford University Press and offers new ways of searching and synthesizing materials. These successful projects will surely inspire many more.

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