The Carlyle Letters Online

The Carlyle Letters Online

Guest Post: Brent E. Kinser (Western Carolina University), Coordinating Editor, The Carlyle Letters Online 

First, I appreciate the opportunity to post this introduction to The Carlyle Letters Online (http://carlyleletters.org) for Wiley-Blackwell’s Literature Compass Blog.

Without spending too much time reiterating the history of the project, which is readily available at http://carlyleletters.dukejournals.org/misc/onlineproject.dtl, I will briefly introduce the CLO and then write a few words about my experience as the coordinating editor.

The CLO as it exists now is comprised of the first 32 volumes of The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, which has been published by Duke University Press since 1970. Conceptualized before WWII and begun in earnest in the 1950s, the project has laid many editors to rest. I myself have been working on the print and the electronic editions since 2001. Both projects continue to be rewarding in different ways, and they both continue to demand a significant portion of my scholarly life.

From the beginning, when the project was still known as “eCarlyle,” the issues we had to deal with were not that different from those that textual editors have always confronted. To the age-old questions of consistency, accuracy, transmission, and archive were added the issue of functionality. The learning curve on this new problem was fairly steep. I came out of the meeting at which I committed myself to take responsibility for getting the volumes ready for electronic publication thinking that XML was some kind of fuel additive. I had similar experiences with XMetaL and then Oxygen, the programs that I used to edit the encoded volumes. Then there were the countless meetings featuring the continually evolving jargon of the jargon-laden world of electronica. In graduate school I learned the joys of nineteenth-century prose and poetry; as coordinating editor of the CLO, I discovered the joys of disambiguation and stickiness.

What I found most challenging about developing the CLO was developing the guidelines and procedures for encoding. The guidelines established the consistency in tagging that created the unique features necessary for display and functionality. The procedures streamlined the processes associated with the encoding and the editing of the encoding that allowed us to apply the guidelines to a rather immense amount of data, thirty-two volumes’ worth. How should one encode the closings and the signatures of letters in order to maintain some kind of allegiance to both the printed text and the original manuscript? Should the period that follows an abbreviated month be part of the hyperlink or not? If this letter is moved to its appropriate chronological position, what will the user need to know, and where should that information be provided? The list of questions that needed to be answered was endless and, indeed, continues to grow, for I am at present in the process of preparing volumes 33–35 for encoding and publication in the context of everything we learned by encoding and publishing volumes 1–32 in the CLO.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of publishing the CLO came in the final year of preparation for launch. Working with teams at Duke University Press, HighWire Press, and Methodfuel, we negotiated the last set of problems associated with our ultimate goal of moving the encoded volumes into a newly-built, functional and elegant, digital home. The attention paid to the smallest element, from the punctuation of the copyright line to the manuscript background of the letter-page to the identity of the header and footer buttons led to a final product that hides an immense amount of thought, effort, and attention to detail. The level of cooperation and collegiality among these various editing, publishing, and programming entities was a remarkable thing to behold. We all remain very proud of the end result. Yet the result does not represent the end, for there is much more work to be done and more improvements possible as technologies develop.

We are approaching the point at which we must all admit to ourselves and to our colleagues that electronic scholarly editions are not fads. I am looking forward to teaching a great American and British writers course this fall without a printed text. The class will use some of the remarkable archives and editions already available online, including The Blake Archive, The Whitman Archive, The Rossetti Archive, and others, in addition to The Carlyle Letters Online.

The ascendance of digital editions continues to resist linear development. And as a scholar of Carlyle, I simply cannot help but hope, for the world is a place of hope (and not Whiggish, linear progress), that digital texts continue to take shape in a series of fits and starts. Google Books and other attempts to digitize the analogue versions of texts, for example, are nice and very useful, but they are spotty, both in terms of their accuracy (it is frustrating to need a quote on a page that happens to be the only blurrily scanned page in the edition). The project generally shows too much loyalty to the demon-god quantity and not enough to time-consuming quality, not to mention the fact that PDF versions of books are not exactly the easiest thing to use in the world when they are not fully searchable.

Thus we find ourselves in a unique transition period, where allegiance to print editions has been slow to succumb to its much-reported death. Even technologically advanced alternatives such as Amazon’s new “Kindle” device suffer from the problem of analog allegiance. None of us, it would seem, can face the prospect of severing the remaining ties with analog books as the next generation of reading devices and electronic editions and archives are created, though created they will be, and when created they will cause our grandchildren to wonder what the big deal was, if they wonder about it even now.

The truly egalitarian and global potential of the electronic age of text is reliant upon just this sort of severance. Those of us blessed with ready access to ancient volumes, do not wish them to go away, but the many more of us who have no access to books of any kind hope for access to texts that are not only more or less accurately scanned but that are fully functional and take advantage of the searching and organizational qualities necessary to make digital books a new paradigm for making knowledge. And, if we are to allow electronic texts to reach their full potential, as well as to keep up with the ever-changing technological opportunities for rethinking possibilities, then these ties to texts will continue to become strained until the functionality, the comprehensiveness, and the ease of use inherent to native digital editions win the day.

I hope you will take a moment to explore The Carlyle Letters Online. We have envisioned it as a digital resource that takes a step towards the functionalities and conveniences that will someday be considered a common expectation for research tools. I urge you to sign up and to log on so you can create the “My Carlyle Folders” that will allow you to organize your research at the same time you create your own edition by sorting the Carlyle letters in any fashion you desire. In doing so, I hope you will become enmeshed in the world of the Carlyles, for the interconnectivity of the site is intended not only as a convenient way to find quotes for papers and articles, it is also intended as a very “sticky” way to invite the exploration of these amazing people, their correspondents, and their world.

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One thought on “The Carlyle Letters Online

  1. Jeanne Moskal of UNC Chapel Hill put me onto the CLO database when I mentioned I was about to start work on a chapter for my PhD on the Carlyles. What an astonishing resource it is! Wondering about Carlyle’s attachment to ideas of silence, I was able in seconds to search – and found over 900 references in his letters to ‘silence’ or ‘silent’ and could track the development of his ideas with great precision. I’m glad to have the physical volumes to consult too – you don’t want to curl up in an armchair with a good database. So thank you very much. This resource will revolutionise Carlyle scholarship.

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