Review of EE in Oxford Today, Michaelmas 2007

Electronic Enlightenment

If email had been invented in the eighteenth century, Voltaire might have been tempted to spend all day bouncing ideas off his friends and never got round to writing any plays or poetry or philosophy. As it was, he had nearly 2,000 ‘snail mail’ correspondents.

The current revolution in culture and communications contains echoes of the explosion in debate and letter writing that was such a feature of the Enlightenment. So it seems fitting that Oxford University is using the most advanced technology to recreate the international web of communications that existed between the great thinkers and writers of that period of extraordinary, rapid chance in science, politics, literature and philosophy.

The Electronic Enlightenment e-publishing project, launched this autumn, enables subscribers to access 50,000-plus letters from more than 6,000 correspondents, including Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Locke, Rousseau, Swift and, of course, Voltaire. These come from respected critical editions published by EE collaborators OUP and other leading scholarly and university presses.

The Director of EE, Dr Robert McNamee, explains that their ambitions extended far beyond simply transferring printed works into an electronic format. They have spent ten years working out how best to make the letters truly accessible, rather than merely available. "You have to tear each text apart into all its tiny components and then reassemble it on the page so that it looks to the user like something familiar. We’ve built in all kinds of technology to combine textual scholarship with technical scholarship", he says.

Someone trained in traditional research methods will be reassured to find the apparatus of notes and citations to hand. They will also discover the excitement of moving rapidly from letter to letter, tracing the genesis of great ideas; of doing thematic searches on music or science; of gaining an overview of correspondence from a particular day or place; or browsing in Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia of 1728 or the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Although EE is being built around a core of printed editions, it offers a flexibility that traditional publishing cannot. The nature of letters is that they turns up in dribs and drabs. Thus it was inevitable that shortly after OUP published a definitive edition of Adam Smith's correspondence, further examples were found. Having been published in various journals, these have all been gathered together in EE. Increasingly, EE will grow through ‘born digital’ publication, both of individual extra letters and large and significant collections. In other words, the first and perhaps only publication will be in electronic format.

Through its ingenious design, EE re-enacts the buzz of passionate discussions in the coffee houses of the eighteenth century: users can almost hear different voices engaging with the great issues of the day. In the next phase of its development EE will be transformed into a virtual scholarly community, whose members will be encouraged to contribute their own ideas through ‘coffee-house’ moderated discussion groups. Someone who rediscovers a lost reply to a letter, or can shed light on a reference, will be able to add them to the resource.

It goes without saying that the actual content of EE is fascinating. The beauty of the letters, so personal in tone whatever lofty subjects they are discussing, is obvious in such gems as David Hume's letter analysing American affairs while bemoaning his indifferent health.

Several Oxford figures are represented in EE, including astronomer Edmond Halley, scientist Robert Boyle and philosopher Adam Smith. This is from a letter Smith write to his guardian William Smith in 1740 while he was an undergraduate at Balliol: "it will be his own fault if anyone should endanger his health at Oxford by excessive Study, our only business here being to go to prayers twice a day, and to lecture twice a week."

"In future," McNamee says, "Electronic Enlightenment will go way beyond the eighteenth century — but it's a great place to start."

— Jenny Lunnon
© 2009 University of Oxford

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