Speaking in Absence

Letters in the Digital Age

Conference, Tuesday 21st June 2016
Weston Library and Wolfson College, Oxford

More than kisses, letters mingle souls, For thus, friends absent speak.’
John Donne

The conference registration is now open!

Please click here to view the programme and registration instructions



Panel discussions centred around editing, publishing and writing letters

A practical demonstration of a letter’s progress from material object to digitised resource

A visual tour of correspondence in Bodleian collections, selected by curators


An exhibition of letters featuring responses from Oxford undergraduates and graduates

Poster presentations of interdisciplinary research on correspondence by DPhil students

Conference dinner at Wolfson College

How warmly we respond whenever we receive letters from friends or scholars written in their own hands! We feel as if we were listening to them or seeing them face to face.’


The conference is the result of this year’s Postgraduate Conference Competition run by The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities (TORCH) and the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW). This year, postgraduate students at the University of Oxford were invited to apply to run a conference on a theme related to ‘life-writing in the digital age’.

We (Helen Brown and Olivia Thompson) met at an earlier digital humanities conference held in Cambridge from 7th-9th January 2016, ‘Digital Editing Now‘, where Helen also presented her research. There it was observed that while collaboration is increasing between editors in different fields within arts and humanities, there is a severe need for better communication between academics and other interested professions, whose roles must be clarified. (You can read Olivia’s full report on the conference here.) We both work on correspondence, and both have an experience of one of the professions concerned (publishing and libraries, respectively), and so we decided (with two days until the competition deadline!) to apply together in order to continue the conversation in Oxford.

Click the text below for the Conference Rationale. The original press release can be found here; since it was posted, TORCH and OCLW have been joined by the Bodleian Libraries and Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute. For more about us please visit the Contact page. For more about our sponsors click here.

A link to register for the conference will appear on this page when booking is open. For now, please subscribe to our mailing list via the form at the bottom of the page. If you are a postgraduate student or early career researcher and would like to display your work at the conference reception, please consult our Call for Posters (deadline Friday 13th May) here.

Conference Rationale

The immediate availability of digital technologies for communication has rendered written correspondence virtually obsolete. How then do we make sense of source material in this form which enriches, informs or even forms the content of several disciplines? Publication of letters in print has generally concentrated on establishment of text to be used as historical source. How much is lost in this process, and can a digital presentation aid its recovery or does it only increase the conceptual distance from original habitudes?

Enthusiasm for the personal lives of authors of published works is increasing, resulting both in biopics and print editions deploying archival material, but consultation of original material is largely left to specialists. The aim of this conference is to explore the potential of the digital medium to increase interest, and thereby generate progress, in the study of correspondence from antiquity to the present day. This includes both photographic reproduction of the original materials in the state in which scholars consult them, and the application of digital collation tools and other methods to assist users in making sense of a large correspondence, which may be difficult to conceptualise in an age of automatic filing. This may allow users to make connexions obscured by the size of a corpus. Editors preparing editions digitally for print already make use of computer functionality to assist with labour-intensive editorial tasks such as indexing; we would investigate how the process of coding metadata for search tools highlights, illuminates and alters the interpretative element of such tasks.

An important consideration going beyond the evident issues of presentation is how the digital impacts on the roles of editors and publishers. Traditionally, scholarly editing as a research output has not garnered the same reverence as literary criticism, even though it requires as much, if not greater, knowledge of the material and other, more ‘technical’ abilities, the under-appreciation of which is a wider problem in academia. On the other hand, the digital, which seeks to make an original author’s environment more perceptible and so makes points of contention, where the editor has made a decision, more visible, forces us to question what the art of editing obscures as much as what it clarifies. Implicated in this is the question of user engagement with any digital interface, particularly a matter of concern for publishers, who are frequently left out of discussions, identified (as it were) with the silent print medium they furnish. Publishers convey credibility, and must be fully incorporated into conversation on what it is they are to endorse, in order to justify expense.

We feel that correspondence, a source by nature not intended for publication at all (an aspect frequently exploited by those who do publish their letters) and one of the ‘literary’ forms that feels most ‘personal’ to readers, is an ideal vehicle for furthering discussion of these questions. The significant discrepancy between the correspondence corpora on which we work personally – in terms of date, transmission history, and employment by scholars – aids us in our approach to determining a rationale for digital editing (of correspondence, and in generally) in itself that can traverse disciplines. Indeed, we have deliberately avoided organising our conference around genres, time periods or disciplines (history of science, art, politics) but seek common principles that will both aid practitioners in the digital humanities and illuminate what makes letters by important figures in any discipline letters, and what connects us to their writers – in short, how the digital can illuminate, perhaps even define by contrast, what makes us human.

Since crippling anxiety not only deprived me of sleep but would not even allow me to lay awake without extreme anguish, I decided to write you this ramble with no real subject, almost as if I might speak with you. It is the only thing that keeps me calm.’
Cicero to Atticus

Aims and objectives


To establish the place of written correspondence in an age when this mode of communication has become increasingly obsolete.


To explore the potential of the digital medium for correspondence research, and its potential for highlighting materiality and connection.


To consider the implications for data and metadata curation and analysis.


To outline the various formats by which letters can be made available digitally: catalogues, archives, online research resources, editions.


To investigate the insight that digitized correspondence can provide to the cultural milieu in which it was produced.


The daytime part of the conference (8:30-17:00) will take place in the Lecture Theatre at the Weston Library (Broad St, OX1 3BG), giving us an unprecedented opportunity to centre our discussion of digital simulation of materiality around the materials in question. As well as panels, activities will include a practical demonstration of digitising a letter, and a visual tour, led by curators, of correspondence in the Bodleian Libraries’ collections.

The conference fee will cover breakfast pastries, refreshments and lunch provided by award-winning caterers Benugo, the team behind the immensely popular Bodleian Café. While the talks are restricted to those attending the entire conference, the letters discussed will be displayed on the heritage window in Blackwell Hall alongside a temporary exhibition of selected items which can be viewed by the general public. We hope that portions of the conference will be filmed for later viewing by a wider audience.

The Weston Library has welcomed thousands of academic and non-academic visitors alike since opening in 2015. Designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and completed in 1940 as the New Bodleian Library, after extensive refurbishment It now boasts a large marbled atrium (Blackwell Hall), gift shop, two exhibition galleries, new reading rooms, conservation studios, the Centre for Digital Scholarship, and Centre for the Study of the Book – and provides a brand new home for the Libraries’ extensive Special Collections (rare books, manuscripts archives, maps, music, ephemera) and their curators.

The library is a popular venue for cultural activities including printing workshops and celebrations such as Oxford’s annual Alice Day and the FT Literary Festival. As well as the conference exhibition, participants will be able to see some of the library’s most distinguished items in the Treasury as part of the exhibition Bodleian Treasures: 24 Pairs, and in the ST Lee Gallery the Shakespeare’s Dead exhibition, opening 22nd April as part of the Shakespeare Oxford 2016 festival.

Ascot Park Gateway, Blackwell Hall, Weston Library

The evening part of the conference (17:30-21:30), including poster presentations from DPhil students, and conference dinner, will take place at Wolfson College (Linton Rd, OX2 6UD).

The college was founded as Iffley College in 1965 as a refuge for staff who held no college fellowship. Support from the Wolfson Foundation and Ford Foundation meant the newly renamed Wolfson College could also admit graduate students. The college today offers an impressive array of generous graduate scholarships, and also supports diverse research projects, not least the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. It hosts several annual lectures, in memory of the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, the first president, and Roman historian Sir Ronald Syme, one of the first scholars it saved from leaving Oxford. As well as large gardens and its own punt harbour, Wolfson has an auditorium with a capacity of 150 people, which will enable some participants to attend only the evening portion of the conference.

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