Speaking in Absence

Letters in the Digital Age

The Cultures of Knowledge project, based at the University of Oxford with the generous support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, was established in 2009. Between 1550 and 1750, regular exchanges of letters between classical scholars, philologists, antiquaries, patristic scholars, orientalists, theologians, astronomers, botanists, experimental natural philosophers, intelligencers and ‘free-thinkers’ made up the Republic of Letters; the Cultures of Knowledge project uses a variety of research methods to reassemble and understand these correspondence networks, and the professional, social, intellectual, and cultural lives they sustained. Initial activities focused on traditional critical editions and the development of a proof of concept beta for a union catalogue of correspondence from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, called Early Modern Letters Online. The project is currently focused on the metadata aggregation, systems development, and community-building necessary to turn EMLO into a major resource in the field.

Cultures of Knowledge website | @cofktweets
Early Modern Letters Online
Reassembling the Republic of Letters

The Darwin Correspondence Project is a print and digital edition of all letters written by, and to, Charles Darwin (1809-82), the most celebrated naturalist of the nineteenth century, transcribed and published in chronological order. When the project began in 1974, the inclusion of letters written to the subject was an unusual step, now widely followed.  The Project was founded by Fred Burkhardt, an American scholar and academic administrator; it remains Anglo-American, although the research staff are all now based at Cambridge University Library, which houses the largest single collection of Darwin’s manuscripts, including around 9000 letters. More than 15,000 in total have been located in private collections and libraries around the world. New letters continue to be discovered, and the Project is now hunting for others in time for the completion of the print edition in 2022.

Website of the Darwin Project | @MyDearDarwin
Darwin publications at Cambridge University Press

Electronic Enlightenment is a network of interconnected documents, drawn from critical editions and representing a cross-section of early modern society at all levels. It currently incorporates 69,415 letters and documents and 8,438, making it, as of winter 2015/6, the most wide-ranging online collection of edited correspondence of the early modern period. Subscription allows access to the full text of letters written not only by philosophers but by traditionally ignored figures such as housewives and shopkeepers, whose place in their society is thus brought to light in a wealth of detail. Features include a keyword search, extensive biographical notes, and hundreds of thousands of internal links and cross-references. The project is based at the Bodleian Libraries and distributed by Oxford University Press.

Electronic Enlightenment website

Oxford Scholarly Editions Online provides full-text access to over 840 scholarly editions of material written between 1485 and 1901, plus Classical Latin poetry, history, and drama, including all of Shakespeare’s plays, the complete works of Jane Austen, Ovid, and Virgil, the poetry of John Donne, and works by Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham. The collection is set to grow into a massive virtual library, ultimately including the entirety of Oxford’s distinguished list of authoritative scholarly editions, a cornerstone of humanities scholarship across the world, unparalleled in breadth and quality. OSEO’s functionality showcases Oxford editions’ authoritative editorial notes directly alongside the text and enables advanced search within and between editions.

Oxford Scholarly Editions Online
Oxford University Press – Global Academic Division | @OUPAcademic

CatCor is a pilot project for a digital database of the letters of Catherine the Great. Funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Grant and the John Fell OUP Research Fund, the project presents a searchable database that could unite in one place her large correspondence and provide the tools to analyse it. This pilot project aims to demonstrate the possibility and the utility of creating a single searchable database of Catherine’s entire corpus of several thousand letters. Although a large majority of her letters are available in disparate print editions, many of which can be accessed in online scans of varying qualities, there is no single print edition or digital repository available. CatCor promises to gather Catherine’s correspondence and to make possible cross-searching, statistical analysis, and new scholarship unthinkable given the current dispersed state of Catherine’s letters. Translations and fresh annotations make this valuable historical and literary corpus more accessible to scholars and non-specialists alike. The texts are encoded in TEI XML to adhere to the current standards for digital textual editing. With the help of a generous second grant from the John Fell Fund, we are currently continuing to add letters to our database. We are also working on a list of all Catherine’s known letters, which we would one day hope to include in our database. Longer term, our aim is to secure funding and to digitize, mark up and annotate all of Catherine’s available letters.

Letters From Baghdad is a feature-length documentary exploring the question of how the past and present overlap through the extraordinary and thought-provoking story of Gertrude Bell, a pioneering adventurer, diplomat, archaeologist and spy. One of the first women to gain a First in History at Oxford, and more influential in her day than colleague Lawrence of Arabia, Bell helped create the nation of Iraq and install its first king, and established the Iraq Museum, infamously ransacked during the American invasion in 2003. Through stunning archival footage, the film follows Bell’s unprecedented rise within the all-male ranks of Military Intelligence to the inner sanctum of power, and her personal struggle to find her place in the world while she straddled two cultures. The film explores Bell’s extraordinary journey into both the uncharted Arabian desert and the inner sanctum of British Colonial power, using primary source material from public and private archives all over the world, particularly the letters and diaries of individuals in Bell’s life, played by actors, and Bell herself, voiced by Tilda Swinton.

Letters from Baghdad is currently on tour of festivals. For news on its release in the UK please subscribe at the links below.

Letters from Baghdad website | @LettFromBaghdad
National Museum of Iraq website | Queen of the Desert by Georgina Howell

The Letters of 1916 project is the first public humanities project in Ireland. It is creating a crowd-sourced digital collection of letters written around the time of the Easter Rising (1 November 1915 – 31 October 1916). Begun in September 2013, this digital collection includes letters held at institutions in Ireland and abroad alongside those in private collections. There are hundreds of letters connecting thousands of lives commenting a myriad of topics including the Easter Rising, literature and art, the Great War, politics, business, and ordinary life. Letters of 1916 adds a new perspective to the events of the period, a confidential and intimate glimpse into early 20th Century life in Ireland, as well as how Ireland was viewed abroad. The discovery database, launched on 2 March 2016, provides unrivaled access to the hopes and dreams, frustrations and joys, of those living a century ago. The collection can be explored by date, place, correspondent and topic, all with full text transcriptions and images of each letter. The project has over 1300 transcribers.

Letters of 1916 website | @Letters1916

Speakers and Chairs

Dr Kathryn Eccles is Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute and Digital Humanities Champion, University of Oxford.  She completed her DPhil in Modern History at Oxford in 2007 and joined the OII in 2008 to work on the Digitised Resources: A Usage and Impact Study, a JISC-funded project that led to the creation of a free web resource, the Toolkit for the Impact of Digitised Scholarly Resources. Her current research activities fall into four main areas: the impact of new technologies on public interactions with arts and cultural heritage; the potential and impact of new technologies to support behaviour change, social capital and enhanced wellbeing; understanding the scope, potential and impact of crowdsourcing; and the impact of new technologies on scholarly activity and behaviour. On Twitter @KathrynEccles

Georgina Ferry is a science writer and biographer. After graduating in Experimental Psychology from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford she worked briefly as a science publisher before joining New Scientist magazine as a section editor, and presenting science programmes on BBC Radio 4. She is particularly interested in the careers of women in science. Her book Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life, the first biography of Britain’s only prizewinning female scientist, was published in 1998. She dramatized Dorothy Hodgkin’s letters (of which one can be viewed in the Bodleian’s Treasury gallery), along with those of Ada Lovelace, for BBC Radio 4. On Twitter @ferrygeo

Dr Christopher Fletcher is Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Libraries, responsible for the acquisition, maintenance and accessibility of the Libraries’ vast collections of rare books, manuscripts, archives, music and ephemera, now based at the Weston Library. He teaches postgraduate courses in book history and manuscript culture in Oxford’s English Faculty. Prior to moving to the Bodleian in 2006 as Head of Western Manuscripts he was Curator of Literary Manuscripts at the British Library. His academic interests lie in the interaction of aesthetic movements in British poetry and art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the potential of manuscripts and archives for teaching and research. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and of Exeter College, Oxford.

Professor Howard Hotson is Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and Director of the collaborative research project Cultures of Knowledge. He works in the field of early modern intellectual history, with particular attention to central Europe and the international Reformed world c.1550-1660. He is especially interested in the gradually expanding reform movements of the post-Reformation period. His most recent book is Commonplace Learning: Ramism and its German Ramifications, 1543-1630. He is currently working on traditions of religious non-conformity in the Holy Roman Empire in the post-Reformation period, pedagogical innovations linking Ramus to Comenius and Leibniz, and on the intellectual diaspora of the Thirty Years War.

Professor Andrew Kahn is Fellow and Tutor in Russian at St Edmund Hall, and Lecturer at the Queen’s College, Oxford. His research work falls into three areas: the Russian enlightenment in its comparative European context, the work of Alexander Pushkin, and the traditions of Russian poetry. His many publications have all sought to transform our understanding of the modernization and secularization of Russian culture during the reign of Catherine the Great. He edited the Cambridge Companion to Pushkin and has published many articles on other Russian poets of the twentieth century. He is the director of the network Enlightenment Correspondences, part of the TORCH Enlightenment Programme/Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment.

Sabine Krayenbühl is Co-Director and Editor of Letters from Baghdad. She has won awards for her work as a film editor, which includes over twenty theatrical documentaries and narrative features, many of which have premiered at prestigious international festivals and garnered multiple awards and nominations. She edited My Architect which received nominations for an Oscar, Independent Spirit Award and American Cinema Editors (ACE) Eddie Award. She has a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and is a long-term member of New York Women in Film and Television.

Miranda Lewis is Digital Editor at Early Modern Letters Online. She has extensive experience of work as an editor and copy-writer for publishers, museums, libraries, and online resources.  A graduate of the Courtauld Institute, where she focussed on sixteenth-century portrait drawings, she edits the metadata within EMLO and works with the catalogue’s widely distributed community of contributors.

Rupert Mann joined Oxford University Press in 1996 to work on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, first as Data Manager and then as Electronic Publication Manager. Since its publication in print and online in 2004, he has worked on a number of academic online products at OUP, and above all Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, for which he led the digital editorial team from the initial definitions of site architecture and functionality, through the site build to launch in September 2012, and the publication of the first Latin content in 2015.

Dr Robert McNamee is Director of the Electronic Enlightenment Project. Robert read Astrophysics as an undergraduate before proceeding to an MA in English and Italian, and a DPhil in the sociology of texts. He was part of several early digital humanities projects, and his interest in the relationship between texts and computers produced the Electronic Enlightenment.

Jacqueline Norton is Senior Commissioning Editor in Literature, in the Academic Division of Oxford University Press, where she has worked since 2004. She commissions on British and European literature across a range of publishing genres including academic monographs, large-scale handbooks, scholarly editions, multi-volume histories, and books aimed at a wider readership. The Literature list publishes around 80 new books a year and runs a backlist of over 1,000 titles. Scholarly editions, including editions of correspondence, occupy much of her time and these appear now in both print and online editions (in Oxford Scholarly Editions Online). Many years ago she studied English at Oxford and took an MPhil in Victorian Literature before jumping ship into publishing via a publishing diploma at Oxford Brookes.

Zeva Oelbaum is is Co-Director and Producer of Letters from Baghdad. She graduated from Brandels University with a degree in anthropology. Her still photography has been published extensively in periodicals and in two monographs, and her photographs features in international public collections including the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, while her work as producer of feature documentaries has earned multiple awards. She is a member of the Producers’ Guild of America.

Dr Alison Pearn is Associate Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, responsible for the day-to-day management of all aspects, including its outreach and digitization programmes. She curated Cambridge University Library’s Darwin Bicentenary exhibition and edited its companion book, A Voyage Round the World: Charles Darwin and the Beagle Collections of the University of Cambridge (CUP 2009), and has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s In our Time, and Woman’s Hour. Most recently, she has published a short popular introduction Darwin: All that Matters (John Murray 2015). She studied History at Oxford and Cambridge and has a particular interest in Darwin’s correspondence with James Crichton-Browne, superintendent of the West Riding Lunatic Asylum, Wakefield, Yorkshire, and John Lubbock, champion of the weekend.

Christopher Ricks is the William M. and Sara B. Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University. He read English at Balliol College, Oxford, and was Oxford Professor of Poetry from 2004 to 2009. He is known for his work both as literary critic and editor. His books on poetry include Keats and Embarrassment (1974), The Force of Poetry (collected essays, 1984), Dylan’s Visions of Sin (2003), and True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound (2010). He edited Tennyson in 1969 (three vols., 1987), The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (1987), and The Oxford Book of English Verse (1999). At the request of Valerie Eliot, he edited T.S. Eliot’s unpublished poems, Inventions of the March Hare (1996), and subsequently the complete annotated Poems of T.S. Eliot (2015, co-edited with Jim McCue).

Neale Rooney is a researcher based with the Letters of 1916 project. Neale graduated with an MA in Digital Humanities from Maynooth University in 2015. His MA thesis, entitled Past(s) as Possession, analyzed the ways we commemorate centenaries through social media. His previous experience with Digital Humanities includes work done on the Contested Memories: Battle of Mount Street Bridge and The Woodman Diary projects. On Twitter @NealeRo

Dr Kelsey Rubin-Detlev is the Foote Junior Research Fellow in Russian at The Queen’s College, Oxford, where her work focuses on friendship in eighteenth-century Russia. She received her BA in Russian and French from Christ Church, Oxford, and her MA in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Columbia University in New York. As an Ertegun Scholar, she wrote a DPhil thesis entitled ‘The Letters of Catherine the Great and the Rhetoric of Enlightenment’, which she is now revising into a monograph. With her supervisor, Professor Andrew Kahn, she undertook the still ongoing pilot project for a Digital Correspondence of Catherine the Great online database, funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme and the John Fell Fund.

Judith Siefring is Head of Digital Research at the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Judith manages the Bodleian’s digital research project portfolio, working in partnership with librarians, academics, educators and students.

Alasdair Watson is Bahari Curator of Persian Collections at the Bodleian Libraries, and Wellcome Research Fellow for the History of Medicine at Oxford University Oriental Institute. He began his career as a linguist and translator before developing an interest in manuscripts following work in various Gulf states and research on Bodleian collections. He is a member of the Council of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq.

Mike Webb is Curator of Early Modern Archives and Manuscripts at the Bodleian Libraries. He curated the Bodleian’s centenary exhibition on the Great War and authored its accompanying book, From Downing Street to the Trenches: First-hand Accounts from the Great War, which is available from Bodleian Publishing. He teaches palaeography to historians at the University of Oxford.

Professor Abigail Williams is Lord White Tutorial Fellow at St Peter’s College, Oxford, where she teaches undergraduate courses in the period 1660-1830, and the Shakespeare paper, and courses on sociability and material culture. In 2013 she completed an edition of Jonathan Swift’s Journal to Stella for CUP, during work on which she became increasingly interested in Swift’s obliterations on his letters. She has also been working on a 3-year Leverhulme-funded research project, the Digital Miscellanies Index, which has created a database of the contents of 1400 or so poetic miscellanies published during the course of the eighteenth century. Her newest monograph The Social Lives of Books (to be published in 2017) draws on the questions raised by this miscellany material about eighteenth century ways of reading.

Student Poster Presenters

Nico Dogaer (Leuven): Letters as Networks: Detecting Patterns of Interaction in Ancient Papyrus Letters

Hannah Parker (Sheffield): the language of autobiographical letters sent by women in the Russian language to Soviet newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s.

Federico Piseri (Pavia): Letter-writing in princely education: the correspondence of the Sforza children (Milan, XV century)

Yuval Kramer (Oxford): the use of fictional letters in early modern England as a literary genre through the example of John Lyly’s 1578 romance, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit.


We are extremely grateful for the support that we have received from our speakers and sponsors without which the day could not have been brought together and run successfully as it was, and we are immensely proud for the opportunity we have had to be involved in such a collaborative project. As well as the advice of speakers who have shaped the event’s structure, we received financial assistance from TORCH, OCLW, and Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute, and invaluable guidance from staff there and at the Bodleian Libraries. The event went without a hitch thanks to the brilliant support staff at the Weston Library (Catering, Front of House, AV Support, Security) and at Wolfson College (Catering and Chefs, Housekeeping, IT, Lodge, Conference Office).

We thank some of the people who have facilitated the conference planning to various degrees below, but an event like this requires the infrastructural support of the University of Oxford of which we are very privileged to be members. We look forward to future work with institutions around Oxford and welcome any enquiries about the research, and in particular from postgraduates who are interested in directing their own research through the numerous channels of assistance that are available in Oxford.

Organisation, logistics and curation

Bruce Barker-Benfield (Curator of Mediaeval Manuscripts, Bodleian Libraries)

Elleke Boehmer (Director of TORCH and Oxford Centre for Life-Writing)

Christopher Fletcher (Keeper of Special Collections, Bodleian Libraries)

Alexandra Franklin (Co-ordinator, Bodleian Centre for the Study of the Book)

Sallyanne Gilchrist (Exhibitions Conservator, Bodleian Libraries)

Kate Kennedy (Research Fellow, Oxford Centre for Life-Writing)

Miranda Lewis (Digital Editor, Early Modern Letters Online)

Richard Ovenden (Bodley’s Librarian)

Seamus Perry (Chair of the Faculty of English, Oxford)

Judith Siefring (Head of Digital Research, Bodleian Libraries)

Madeline Slaven (Head of Exhibitions, Bodleian Libraries)

Susan Thomas (Head of Archives & Modern Manuscripts, Bodleian Libraries)

Jennifer Townshend (Web Content Editor, Bodleian Libraries)

Jennifer Varallo (Assistant Exhibitions & Preventative Conservator, Bodleian Libraries)

Alasdair Watson (Curator of Middle Eastern Manuscripts, Bodleian Libraries)

Mike Webb (Curator of Early Modern Archives & Manuscripts, Bodleian Libraries)

Sarah Wheale (Head of Rare Books, Bodleian Libraries)

Pip Willcox (Director, Bodleian Centre for Digital Scholarship)

Administration, publicity, and services

James Allan (Head of Imaging, Bodleian Facilities)

Ramtin Amin (Administrator, Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute)

Sarah Bebb (Projects Officer, TORCH)

Elaine Bible (PR & Communications Officer, Bodleian Libraries)

Carmen Bohne (Special Collections Administrator, Bodleian Libraries)

Juan Chamorro (Manager, Benugo @ Bodleian Café)

Louise Gordon (Events Officer, Wolfson College)

Aria Johnston (Project Officer, Balliol Development Office)

Rebecca MacAlister (Manager, Blackwell’s Oxford)

Elizabeth McCarthy (Web and Digital Media Manager, Bodleian Libraries)

Victoria McGuinness (Business Manager, TORCH)

Alex Messenger (Assistant Accountant, Wolfson College)

Laura Miller (Projects Officer, TORCH)

Hannah Penny (Communications & Events Officer, TORCH)

Charles Wilkinson (AV Support, Bodleian Facilities)

Charlotte Williams (Senior Administrator, Balliol College)

Student convenors

Helen Brown (Hertford College)

Michaela Crawley (Wolfson College)

Olivia Thompson (Balliol College)