Over the past couple of years, my attention has been caught by new projects that digitize the letters of Victorian women writers. I’d like to share two of them here, The Olive Schreiner Letters Project and the Letters of Charlotte Mary Yonge. To me, these projects fulfill the best promises of the digital humanities, to make texts by marginalized writers freely and widely available.
The Olive Schreiner Letters project makes almost 5000 letters of the feminist and socialist writer, best known for the novel, The Story of an African Farm, freely available online. The letters, held in 16 archives across three continents, have been transcribed, double-checked, and marked up in TEI. The editors describe their impressive workflow here. (For more on the technical aspects of editing a digital edition of letters, see Miriam Posner’s helpful blog post, How Did they Make That?). Similarly, Charlotte Mitchell, Ellen Jordan, and Helen Schinske have collaborated to offer for the first time the unpublished letters of Charlotte Mary Yonge, carefully transcribed and double-checked, as an antidote to the partial information we have had about this popular mid-Victorian woman writer. I wish this archive had been available a few years ago while I was writing a chapter on Yonge, and can only say that it has already proven helpful to me in contextualizing women’s writing in the mid-nineteenth century marketplace.
I would love someday to digitize the letters of the Victorian woman writer who has caught my imagination, Dinah Mulock Craik. However, as these projects make clear, to digitize her correspondence would be a massive undertaking, perhaps best taken on by a collaborative group of senior academics. This kind of project aims for a completeness and a totality that can be intimidating. For a long time I thought it had to be all or nothing: either digitize every known letter or throw in the towel. Then, another project on a nineteenth-century woman, Documenting Teresa Carreño, by Anna Kijas, came to my attention. This project, which is currently in process, brings together fascinating objects like theater bills and tour maps, as well as the letters of the Venezuelan singer and composer.
Seeing this project made me wonder about another, more provisional possibility. Why does it have to be all or nothing? Why not put together an archive excerpting some but not all letters and perhaps also including objects ranging from a YouTube performance of one of Craik’s poems to a cabinet card photograph. This could be a repository of interesting items that I’ve found but have not yet fit into a more traditional scholarly format.
I’d be interested to learn if others have run into a similar dilemma with their research. Have you ever had an “all or nothing” moment with a project? What artifacts have you run across in your research that don’t fit into a traditional scholarly format, but could perhaps be shared in another form? What is the value of doing something more provisional with research, or of sharing research online before it is complete?