Mapping the Republic of Letters and the Electronic Enlightenment

Posted in resources by Editor on January 6, 2010

As described by Cynthia Haven in her article for the Stanford Report (17 December 2009), a project at Stanford maps thousands of letters exchanged in the eighteenth century:

The road back to Paris was paved with letters. Lots of them. The author of Candide wrote about 15,000 during his 83-year life, many from his base in Ferney, near the Swiss border. Voltaire’s life was superbly successful – but it was a life with sorrows, too. Voltaire’s famously acerbic tongue caused his banishment on more than one occasion. “His whole life, in a way, was an effort to get back to Paris,” said Dan Edelstein, assistant professor of French. The French Enlightenment’s leading philosophe eventually achieved a pyrrhic victory, returning to Paris a few months before his death in 1778.

So what does this correspondence have to do with the colorful images, lines and maps on the computer screen of the “collaboration room” in the Humanities Center? Edelstein, principal investigator for “Mapping the Republic of Letters” with history Professor Paula Findlen, has mapped thousands of letters that were exchanged during the period of the Enlightenment to uncover hidden truths about the “Republic of Letters.” The latter is “a shorthand that scholars use to refer to writers and philosophers and clergymen and other early modern intellectuals who corresponded across Europe and even across the world,” said Edelstein. On the computer screen, a map of Voltaire’s correspondence shows a complex geometry of red lines to major European cities – but the heavy yellow line, showing the most frequent correspondence – connects directly to the heart: Paris. . . .

According to Edelstein, “We tend to think of networks as a modern invention, something that only emerged in the Age of Information. In fact, going all the way back to the Renaissance, scholars have established themselves into networks in order to receive the latest news, find out the latest discoveries and circulate the ideas of others. We’ve known about these correspondences for a long time – some of them have been published – but no one has been able to piece together how these individual networks fit into a complete whole, something we call the Republic of Letters.” . . .

For the full article, click here»

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The Stanford project includes a sophisticated imaging dimension. As noted on the website for The Visualization of Republic of Letters,

the new challenges posed by an exponentially growing corpus of online historical data also present an opportunity for collaborations with computer scientists interested in data visualization, interpretation, and human-computer interaction. Computer scientists are deeply interested in how users interact with visualization tools to explore, explain, and engage with data to create meaning. We engaged in an iterative, collaborative effort that brought together historians, computer scientists, and an academic technology specialist to design data visualizations to represent the intellectual network of the Republic of Letters.

A brief video with Edelstein provides a useful demonstration:

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Information for the Stanford project is drawn from the Electronic Enlightenment, an online subscription database available from Oxford University Press. According to a PDF available here, it

allows users to search and discover the digitised correspondence between the greatest thinkers and writers of the long 18th century (1688 to 1834) and their families and friends, bankers and booksellers, patrons and publishers through rich interlinking and crosssearching. The database includes over 53,000 letters in a variety of languages by over 6,000 different individuals. Content currently in the database is drawn from published documentary editions, and so includes almost 230,000 scholarly annotations explaining the context and significance of the material. The resource provides value to users not just through enabling them to search and locate digitised correspondence – something which is unique today, but which could be replicated through mass digitization initiatives eventually – but also through giving users the ability to move among and between letters related to one another in a wide variety of ways.

The Electronic Enlightenment was the brainchild of Robert NcNamee (the EE Director) and Robert Darnton (Director of the Harvard University Library and the author most recently of The Case for Books). In February 2009, Rachel Lee noted the resource on The Cynic Sang. It would be nice to see a thorough review of the EE by a similar outside party, especially one that addresses its potential for art historians. Any takers?

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