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Shane Snyder

Like Dan, I browsed theMapping the Republic of Letters project, which gathers together correspondence that predates familiar communications technologies. The site notes on its home page that:

Before email, faculty meetings, international colloquia, and professional associations, the world of scholarship relied on its own networks: networks of correspondence that stretched across countries and continents; the social networks created by scientific academies; and the physical networks brought about by travel.

For the most part, the project accomplishes this task and the results are stylish, sophisticated, and easy to navigate, but the method is basic. Its mission statement is to uncover what these networks of correspondence looked like at a time when media traveled at the speed of a horse.

The problem, as I see it (and maybe this is not really a problem at all), is that this raises more questions. Why is it important to visualize this correspondence? Maybe I can be forgiven for needing relevant perspective, but the project eschews all contemporary connections. Using GIS (among other things), the site runners visualize the rich networks between prominent intellectuals, and these networks appear to mirror contemporary, less geographically sequestered internet correspondence.

Even if that connection seems unimportant, consider the methodology: this project is predicated on the idea that the so-called “intellectual elites” of the time were the primary determinants of cultural production. This reeks of canonization, a concept that in the modern university is anathema to me, especially where public discourse is so ubiquitous and rich and interesting.

On a more ambivalent note, the site’s style sheet is a simple but beautiful red banner, a plain “M” printed in a candle wax logo, with an all-grey background. The projects themselves have formatting issues. A wealth of beautiful visualizations pepper each correspondent’s page. Some of these visualizations are actually slideshows. The browser cannot pause these slideshows of differently-sized photographs that take up different surface areas, so the images will shift involuntarily from one to the next, pulling the page along with it.

The less aesthetically concerned (and maybe more practical) London Lives, a project that digitizes criminal reports from 1690 to 1800, does not bring a research question to the table. The Republic of Letters, by compare, is more interested in granting perspective to a process underlying past correspondence, but this one does not make connections, so much as it is a simple, navigable, user-friendly research tool for the digital humanist.

The line delineating a tool and a digital project thus blurs and complicates a field that already raises its fair share of questions. The lonely, bored, chronically overworked spectator at home in her swivel chair can curiously browse one or the other of these sites, find the requisite resources that enable the production of other projects like them, and put them out there for public consumption. The answer to the question of what qualifies something as a tool versus a digital humanities project seems more and more distant by the minute.