Bodleian Student Editions is a nascent collaboration among research centres at Oxford to teach scholarly editing and related expertise to students across faculties, using the unparalleled manuscript collections of the Bodleian Libraries. It begins by focusing on letters of the early modern period.
Letters are one of the most personal, challenging and essential sources for history and literary criticism — but hardly anyone writes them anymore. Epistolary scholars do not usually collaborate extensively, but in fact the cognitive challenge posed by the epistolary form is a problem faced by students across all disciplines. More than any other type of literature, the printed and bound version of an author’s letters is the farthest removed from its genesis.
Digital technology can illuminate connexions in correspondence that the sheer pages in print volumes obscure, and presents the opportunity to fashion less artificial (or rather, more openly artificial) ways of reconstructing the crucial feature of personal letters that cannot be recovered: acquaintance with the recipient.
The flip-side to this is an opportunity to explore the ways in which the digital helps bring us closer to the material aspect of letters. Working with material collections is an eerie and special experience, just as vital as content and dissemination, and has equal claim to preservation. What’s more, it enriches understanding of written sources immensely. How can we understand how a letter ought to be read if we do not understand how it was received?
The advent of digital editing tools is an opportunity for students to work with libraries and faculties to shape training in the humanities. The choice of correspondence as a vehicle to start this exploration reflects its fascination and immediacy as the original social network and keeps the human aspect of digital scholarship at the forefront.
Our conference will act as a launch for a series of scholarly editing masterclasses to be held at the Weston Library next year. The pilot version of this course is a collaboration between the Bodleian’s Department of Special Collections and Centre for Digital Scholarship, and Early Modern Letters Online (a constituent part of Cultures of Knowledge, based in Oxford University’s History Faculty). These workshops will provide introductory training in:
- handling special collections
- textual markup and encoding
- metadata analysis
- scholarly editing for print and digital media
- archival curation and exhibition
- correspondence research and life-writing
They will produce a defined output entitled Bodleian Student Editions, which we aim to expand to encompass all areas of the Bodleian’s diverse collections.
This collaboration is the first of its kind to be administrated within a Special Collections library, to be structured according to student training requirements (with input from student facilitators and participants), and to combine curation, digital technology, and scholarly editing at the same time.
In preparation for discussion at the conference, we invited Oxford undergraduates and postgraduates across all disciplines to work with curators at the Weston Library to view a selection of handwritten letters from across the ages, all held in Bodleian collections.
We felt that for undergraduates, this was a rare chance to explore special collections, otherwise not consulted until final year (and only on certain courses), to combine practical skills and expert learning, and to see the history of various disciplines in physical forms which can transform the experience of studying them. Students across years and courses received an introduction to a selection of letters from curators before consulting the physical object and a digitized image, and responded to survey questions about the relationship between printed edition with standardized text, material object, and digital reproduction (image), as well as questions about the potential role of special collections, and their curators, in teaching across faculties.
The future of this experiment is to enable an exchange of ideas for collaboration in and beyond the humanities through the use of digital technology to enhance understanding of, and engagement with, material collections. We are excited that our hopes were reflected in our findings from these preliminary workshops, which will be published on the Bodleian’s Special Collections blog, The Conveyor, named appropriately after the machine once used to transport books across Broad Street from the then ‘New Bodleian Library’ to the Old Bodleian Library, and the images used will be incorporated into the digital.bodleian library.
Digital humanities is a rapidly growing field which is still developing practices. The revitalization of the traditional ‘laboratory for the humanities’ gives students the opportunity to ensure that student training is a vital part of it, and the unparalleled collections in the Bodleian Libraries provide an ideal centre for a new generation of scholarly editors. Our activities have already sparked conversations about extending the collaborations we have already fostered, and we are looking forward to working with the unique scholarly community across Oxford.
For more information please contact Olivia Thompson (liv [at] e-pistolary [dot] net, or via Nexus).
The images on this page are provided by the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford. Their digitisation was enabled by the generous financial support of Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute.