For the third time since I started the project “Berlin intellectuals 1800-1830”, great luck has come to me from descendants’ families. Unexpectedly, material turns out to be recoverable. Letters – answers to other letters we have edited in Letters and Texts – happen not to be lost after all. They are in a box, the box in a cabinet, the cabinet in the home of an elderly lady. And they have been there at least since the first edition (a censored edition, of course) was realised in the 1930s.
The moment when you get a phone call at your office with someone presenting themselves with the last name of an author you edit is a moment of blessing, for many reasons. One of these reasons is that they call you because they found your research online, which means: open science is not a vain word, and the effort of making one’s research easily accessible online makes a difference – for them and for you. With that phone call, new worlds open for your research, like in this case finding the answers to decades of correspondence. We will date better, understand allusions, see how the relationship evolves, grasp contexts. We will put the puzzle pieces back together, something we can do virtually without displacing documents but for the few hours needed to digitize them.
And here’s the problem, really. Of course, when I encounter this kind of situation, I should encourage the families to deposit their family papers in local or national archives (especially when they are that significant). But I understand the affective importance of the box in the closet. For me too, there is an old house with old papers I wouldn’t want to lose, and they are by far not as enlightening as these ones. And what is more, it is almost distressing to see how good preserved these family papers usually are, and with which provenience coherence they are thus preserved. After getting lost in public archives with Nachlässe split into several collections, or even in isolated autographs, and laboriously complemented by later acquisitions, it is a sheer dream to open a box containing all of something coherent. With the possibility of scanning private archives for research purposes, we don’t really need to bring these papers physically to the archives. Or do we? Fine, you can argue that once they are in the archives, we won’t lose them again and they can be preserved in optimal conditions. But we all know that archives are, for most of them, full; that they are subject to displacement or even systematic destruction efforts for instance in war times; that even in archives, you can lose track of documents. So there is a risk, somehow.
Now that the childish thrill of getting so see something what I have been dreaming of for a very long time is dissipating progressively, I wanted to reflect on this situation and how we could apprehend it in the future. It has to do with how we construct the digital and the material world around us.
In my ideal world (and I have big hopes to come as close as possible to this ideal), I would scan these manuscripts and archive the images in a trusted repository such as ortolang. I would associate rich metadata with the data. I would tag the protagonists’ name with authority files. I would edit the manuscripts in my digital edition, and via the GND/VIAF number, they would come into the wider research community, at least through the Wikipedia BEACON my edition is taking part in (whoever had the idea to set up this beacon has a sit of honour in my personal Olymp). Other researchers would be able to consult the digital surrogates and use them for research purposes.
There would be a few details to sort before we get there, though. Apart from the fact that it is difficult to guarantee traceability of documents that are in private hands, the pictures would have to be published with a license that allows reuse. If the family has no objection and sees the interest of depositing the scans in a public, trusted repository for the long-term archiving of the documents, it might even be possible to use a CC-license. Because if they don’t opt for a CC-license and every single person interested in the document has to ask the family, and if the traceability is not guaranteed, it is going to become more complicated to actually insert the documents in the research and preservation life cycle. With the images in the focus, we can easily get more obstacles than actual input.
In fact, instead of focussing on the images, it might be worth starting from the metadata there. Because if the metadata are rich enough and are in a format that allows them to be inserted in a national or supranational network of archival catalogues, this gives a different status to the documents. They then exist as an archival entity. Better cooperations between research and cultural heritage institutions should really open to this kind of new archival entities. I know it is problematic for a cultural heritage institution to catalogue something they don’t physically possess. But it might be time to think about new forms of surrogates. This, too, is what citizen science is about: telling the families that we don’t hate them, even if they don’t deposit all their family papers in a public archive.
Talking on the phone with someone carrying the author’s last name also has the consequence that the author, this historical figure you think you know so well, and still call by his last name out of oh-so huge respect, starts being identified with his first name rather than his last. This is how conversations with the descendants go. Suddenly, your life is full of Augusts, Karls, and Louis that are like very old great-grand-fathers, suddenly smelling cold tobacco, wearing weird ties and funny glasses, while they used to be – texts.