Mapping the Republic of Letters
Arlene R. Lutenegger


What is the Republic of Letters?


The Latin term respublica litteraria refers to the writing and exchange of letters among an intellectual network of scholars, in the early Modern Period, from approximately 1500-1800 AD. This community emerged as a result of the invention of the printing press, and organized itself around cultural institutions such as museums, libraries, and academies (Mapping the Republic of Letters, 2011). By most accounts, this movement began in England, then spread to France and all of western Europe, until eventually expanding to Russia, Asia, Africa, and the Americas by the eighteenth century. The letters were originally written in Latin, French, and finally English as scholars moved across the Atlantic. Prominent members of this community included John Locke, Athanasius Kircher, Antonio Vallisneri, Benjamin Franklin, and Laura Bassi. Its influence waned with the establishment of modern disciplines, scholarly journals, and traditional universities.

The Republic of Letters imagined itself to be Europe’s first egalitarian society, which judged people not on their social status, birthright, or gender, but rather on their abilities and achievements. Its common ground was the critical appraisal of knowledge, and research projects that collected, sorted, and dispersed that knowledge. Many of its members were learned in a number of different areas, such as religion and science; philosophy and literature; and the lines between these disciplines were blurred. The Republic of Letters has also been called a “lost continent”, a country without borders, as it advocated the free and continuous exchange of knowledge among its members, without regard to nationalities, theoretical orientations, and faiths. This stance was certainly extraordinary during this era of history, and a strong departure from the political and religious strife occurring in much of the world at the time.
In a sense, I think of the Republic as the establishment and growth of a large public domain, free of the restrictions of copyright laws, and political or religious will, in which scholars from all over the world can add new information, and create derivative works from existing knowledge.

The Project


Through the correspondence among its members, the Republic established itself as a dynamic platform from which a variety of intellectual studies and theories were proposed, discussed and implemented. At the time, these letters were the primary means by which knowledge traveled (Digging into the Enlightenment).
The stated purpose of the mapping project was to “demonstrate how visual analysis tools can help…generate new knowledge through methods rooted in humanities scholarship using annotation capabilities and the ability for scholars to insert new data and resolve existing data” (Digging into the Englightenment, p. 1). This will be accomplished through the use of geographic data, the study of historical events, personal relationships and social data, to determine how the spread of ideas globally relates to the dynamic processes occurring locally.
The seeds of the project began in 2007, at a conference at which Stanford faculty realized how many of them were working on various aspects of the Republic of Letters. They determined that by collaborating among themselves and creating a network of scholars outside the university as well, they could increase their knowledge base. In essence, and perhaps unknowingly, they were creating their own Republic of Letters, although they never named it as such. In 2008, Stanford faculty in Classics, English, and History received a 3-year Presidential Grant for Innovation in the Humanities to apply interactive research tools to map components of the Republic of Letters, inspired by yet another collaboration – this time with Richard White’s Spatial History Project at Stanford.
Several other important collaborations also occurred in 2008. A French and Italian assistant professor from Stanford, Dan Edelstein, met Dr. Robert McNamee of the Electronic Enlightenment Project (EE), at the University of Oxford. They agreed that Stanford would develop the visualization tool based on the metadata from some 55,000 letters and documents exchanged between 6,400 correspondents supplied by the EE. The Academic Technology Specialist for the Stanford Humanities Center was also added to the team. Finally, Mapping the Republic of Letters came together with another Presidential grant recipient, “Tooling Up for Digital Histories”, which forged a link between the Spatial History Project and the Computer Graphics Lab at Stanford. And the rest is, as they say, history. In January, 2009, an interactive visualization of the Electronic Enlightenment metadata was developed by students in a Data Visualization class at Stanford, for which they won the North American Cartographic Information Society 2009 Student Webmapping Competition in the interactive map category.
A word about the metadata—it grew out of travel records, library catalogs, the circulation of scientific instruments, as well as the letters, contributed by all members of the project. It included a letter’s date, author, recipient, point of origin, and point of reception “to create spatial analysis of intellectual correspondence networks” (Tooling up for Digital Humanities, 2011a, p. 1). This data and case studies have led to the creation of a humanities lab at Stanford where students, faculty, humanists and technical experts share the results of their work and discuss problems associated with visualizing humanistic information.
One more connection proved to be very valuable for Mapping the Republic of Letters. Tooling up for Digital Humanities introduced them to Chris Weaver and his Center for Spatial Analysis at the University of Oklahoma. Weaver’s Improvise visualization framework was applying annotations to historical data about human interaction in time and space. He explained that by using annotation features with the Republic data, scholars would have “new points of entry into the correspondence collection”.

The Technology


Mapping the Republic of Letters project used Geographic Information Systems. According to the Tooling Up website, GIS creates “multiple layers of information that can be aligned on the same map or spatial field. This allows users to combine and overlay various forms of information to understand how they relate to one another” (2011b), p. 1). For the Republic project, this revealed a new and broader view of the enlightenment network of philosophers, writers, booksellers, their patrons and friends.
A researcher on the Tooling Up team gave an honest appraisal of ArcGIS. S/he wrote that it is expensive and can be complicated to use. Creating spatial history requires intense collaboration with scholars and technicians, often outside humanities departments, who add their own “distinct skills and experience” to the process. The writer goes on to say that this level of intense collaboration may be “daunting… for humanities scholars who are used to working alone” (Tooling Up, 2011b). (!)
This author also describes the drawbacks of GIS. It is a great tool, s/he writes, to show the “given-ness” of the world, rather than human constructions of space over time. However, on the plus side, tools such as GIS, with their emphasis on space, offer new patterns for humanities scholars who are used to thinking critically about time or language. And this new way of seeing “is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked; it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed; and it undermines or substantiates stories upon which we build our own versions of the past” (White, 2010). And, in fact, Dr. Edelstein, of Stanford, reports that Mapping the Republic of Letters has already made a surprising revelation. Contrary to popular belief that the Enlightenment started in England and spread to the rest of Europe, the correspondence maps have shown a relative “paucity” of exchanges between Paris and London (Cohen, 2010). Clearly, more research will be needed to verify this new information.
The Stanford students who developed the interactive map used in the Republic of Letters project stated that they grappled with how to make the large sets of data from the Electronic Enlightenment database understandable to humanities scholars “who were trained in close reading of individual documents” (Chang, 2009, p. 1) . Their solution was to devise a metadata table with spatial, temporal, and nominal attributes to create multiple views of the correspondence. From there, they built in a zoomable vector map and a user-adjusted time slider, so that scholars could zoom in at different times and at different places as they conducted their research. The students concluded that this collaboration was valuable for both the computer scientists and the humanist scholars. Those in the former group learned how humanists go about doing research; and the humanist scholars realized that “data visualization could be a productive element of their research process and not just a final illustration of their results” (Chang, p. 2).

A Humanities Scholar’s Disclaimer


Dr. Edelstein, the principal investigator for Mapping the Republic of Letters, makes some interesting observations regarding “digital humanism”; that is, the application of computing tools to humanistic studies and methodology. He states that although the project uses “software and computing techniques that were designed for scientific and statistical methods, [the team members] are striving to develop computing tools to enhance humanistic methods, so that humanist scholars can explore the qualitative aspects of the Republic of Letters (Mapping the Republic of Letters). Dr. Edelstein explains that the nature of the collection of correspondence and travel records from this early period of history is incomplete, and only a fraction of the information has been digitized and is available for study. Therefore, he concludes: “making connections and resolving ambiguities in the data is something that can only be done with the help of computing, but cannot be done by computing alone [my emphasis].
Dr. Edelstein points out that the data under study will remain incomplete, as it is often the nature of correspondence to survive in part and to have gaps and omissions of key information. This requires interpretation of data, which is “at the heart of humanistic work, not certainty. Therefore, he believes that the collaboration with computer science has provided “expressive graphic representations” of the data that can help the humanist scholars see patterns and make sense of it all, but without hiding or obscuring the uncertainty and ambiguity.

Summary


Mapping the Republic of Letters project has been an exciting opportunity for an international team of professionals from a variety of fields to come together in the pursuit of knowledge. Each offered his/her specific expertise to the project, and in turn, were enriched by the special skills of all others. In a sense, they created their own Republic of Letters in which an open dialogue allowed members to present their points of view, critique the ideas of others, and to build on the collective wisdom of the group. As Dr. Edelstein stated, the sum became much greater than the parts could ever have been alone.
However, that being said, the humanities scholars are quick to point out that the computer technology and interactive maps are tools that can be applied to the study of data that is inherently flawed and uncertain. They reject the temptation to allow the precise nature of the technology to “speak for” the data. They are careful not to allow these tools to take on a life of their own, but rather for the data, such as it is, to speak for itself, even as it presents itself in unique images made available by the new software. By so doing, the correspondence informs the tools, not the other way around.
One final challenge is worth noting regarding any digital humanities project. Making judgments about how to structure data so that the computer technology can read it, “imparts meaning to the data that can lead to distortions and misrepresentations” down the road. This requires uniformity in how information is handled, and careful annotations that explain how and why these decisions were made.


References

Chang, C., Ge, Y., Song, S., Coleman, N., Christensen, J., & Heer, J. (2009).Visualizing the Republic of Letters. Retrieved from https://republicofletters.stanford.edu/papers/Vis_RofL_2009
Cohen, P. (2010, 16 Nov). (Humanities 2.0). Digital keys for unlocking the humanities’ riches. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/17/arts/17digital.html?pagewanted.
Digging into the Englightenment. Retrieved from http://enlightenment.humanitiesnetwork.org.
Grafton, A. (2009, 1 May). A sketch map of a lost continent: the republic of letters. Republic of Letters: a Journal for the Study of Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts 1(1). Retrieved from http://arcade.stanford.edu/journals/rofl/articles/sketch-map-lost-continent-republic-letters-by-anthony-grafton.
Mapping the Republic of Letters: exploring correspondence and intellectual community in the early modern period (1500-1800). Retrieved from https://republicofletters.stanford.edu/
Tooling up for digital humanities. (2011a). Retrieved from http://toolingup.stanford.edu/?page_id=209.
Tooling up for digital humanities. (2011b). Retrieved from http://toolingup.stanford.edu/?page_id=1167.
White, R. (2010). What is spatial history? Retrieved from the Stanford Spatial History Lab Website: http://www.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=29.

Also of interest:
Cohen, P. (2010, 16 Nov). (Arts Beat: The Culture at Large). Digitally mapping the republic of letters. NY Times. Retrieved from http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/16/digitally-mapping-the-republic-of-letters/?ref=arts.
Electronic Enlightenment. Retrieved from http://www.e-enlightenment.com/.
Haven, C. (2009, 17 Dec). Stanford technology helps scholars get ‘big picture’ of the Enlightenment. Stanford Report. Retrieved from http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/december14/republic-of-letters-121809.html.

The Latin term respublica litteraria refers to the writing and exchange of letters among an intellectual network of scholars, in the early Modern Period, from approximately 1500-1800 AD. This community emerged as a result of the invention of the printing press, and organized itself around cultural institutions such as museums, libraries, and academies (Mapping the Republic of Letters, 2011). By most accounts, this movement began in England, then spread to France and all of western Europe, until eventually expanding to Russia, Asia, Africa, and the Americas by the eighteenth century. The letters were originally written in Latin, French, and finally English as scholars moved across the Atlantic. Prominent members of this community included John Locke, Athanasius Kircher, Antonio Vallisneri, Benjamin Franklin, and Laura Bassi. Its influence waned with the establishment of modern disciplines, scholarly journals, and traditional universities.
The Republic of Letters imagined itself to be Europe’s first egalitarian society, which judged people not on their social status, birthright, or gender, but rather on their abilities and achievements. Its common ground was the critical appraisal of knowledge, and research projects that collected, sorted, and dispersed that knowledge. Many of its members were learned in a number of different areas, such as religion and science; philosophy and literature; and the lines between these disciplines were blurred. The Republic of Letters has also been called a “lost continent”, a country without borders, as it advocated the free and continuous exchange of knowledge among its members, without regard to nationalities, theoretical orientations, and faiths. This stance was certainly extraordinary during this era of history, and a strong departure from the political and religious strife occurring in much of the world at the time.
In a sense, I think of the Republic as the establishment and growth of a large public domain, free of the restrictions of copyright laws, and political or religious will, in which scholars from all over the world can add new information, and create derivative works from existing knowledge.

The Project
Through the correspondence among its members, the Republic established itself as a dynamic platform from which a variety of intellectual studies and theories were proposed, discussed and implemented. At the time, these letters were the primary means by which knowledge traveled (Digging into the Enlightenment).
The stated purpose of the mapping project was to “demonstrate how visual analysis tools can help…generate new knowledge through methods rooted in humanities scholarship using annotation capabilities and the ability for scholars to insert new data and resolve existing data” (Digging into the Englightenment, p. 1). This will be accomplished through the use of geographic data, the study of historical events, personal relationships and social data, to determine how the spread of ideas globally relates to the dynamic processes occurring locally.
The seeds of the project began in 2007, at a conference at which Stanford faculty realized how many of them were working on various aspects of the Republic of Letters. They determined that by collaborating among themselves and creating a network of scholars outside the university as well, they could increase their knowledge base. In essence, and perhaps unknowingly, they were creating their own Republic of Letters, although they never named it as such. In 2008, Stanford faculty in Classics, English, and History received a 3-year Presidential Grant for Innovation in the Humanities to apply interactive research tools to map components of the Republic of Letters, inspired by yet another collaboration – this time with Richard White’s Spatial History Project at Stanford.
Several other important collaborations also occurred in 2008. A French and Italian assistant professor from Stanford, Dan Edelstein, met Dr. Robert McNamee of the Electronic Enlightenment Project (EE), at the University of Oxford. They agreed that Stanford would develop the visualization tool based on the metadata from some 55,000 letters and documents exchanged between 6,400 correspondents supplied by the EE. The Academic Technology Specialist for the Stanford Humanities Center was also added to the team. Finally, Mapping the Republic of Letters came together with another Presidential grant recipient, “Tooling Up for Digital Histories”, which forged a link between the Spatial History Project and the Computer Graphics Lab at Stanford. And the rest is, as they say, history. In January, 2009, an interactive visualization of the Electronic Enlightenment metadata was developed by students in a Data Visualization class at Stanford, for which they won the North American Cartographic Information Society 2009 Student Webmapping Competition in the interactive map category.
A word about the metadata—it grew out of travel records, library catalogs, the circulation of scientific instruments, as well as the letters, contributed by all members of the project. It included a letter’s date, author, recipient, point of origin, and point of reception “to create spatial analysis of intellectual correspondence networks” (Tooling up for Digital Humanities, 2011a, p. 1). This data and case studies have led to the creation of a humanities lab at Stanford where students, faculty, humanists and technical experts share the results of their work and discuss problems associated with visualizing humanistic information.
One more connection proved to be very valuable for Mapping the Republic of Letters. Tooling up for Digital Humanities introduced them to Chris Weaver and his Center for Spatial Analysis at the University of Oklahoma. Weaver’s Improvise visualization framework was applying annotations to historical data about human interaction in time and space. He explained that by using annotation features with the Republic data, scholars would have “new points of entry into the correspondence collection”.

The Technology
Mapping the Republic of Letters project used Geographic Information Systems. According to the Tooling Up website, GIS creates “multiple layers of information that can be aligned on the same map or spatial field. This allows users to combine and overlay various forms of information to understand how they relate to one another” (2011b), p. 1). For the Republic project, this revealed a new and broader view of the enlightenment network of philosophers, writers, booksellers, their patrons and friends.
A researcher on the Tooling Up team gave an honest appraisal of ArcGIS. S/he wrote that it is expensive and can be complicated to use. Creating spatial history requires intense collaboration with scholars and technicians, often outside humanities departments, who add their own “distinct skills and experience” to the process. The writer goes on to say that this level of intense collaboration may be “daunting… for humanities scholars who are used to working alone” (Tooling Up, 2011b). (!)
This author also describes the drawbacks of GIS. It is a great tool, s/he writes, to show the “given-ness” of the world, rather than human constructions of space over time. However, on the plus side, tools such as GIS, with their emphasis on space, offer new patterns for humanities scholars who are used to thinking critically about time or language. And this new way of seeing “is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked; it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed; and it undermines or substantiates stories upon which we build our own versions of the past” (White, 2010). And, in fact, Dr. Edelstein, of Stanford, reports that Mapping the Republic of Letters has already made a surprising revelation. Contrary to popular belief that the Enlightenment started in England and spread to the rest of Europe, the correspondence maps have shown a relative “paucity” of exchanges between Paris and London (Cohen, 2010). Clearly, more research will be needed to verify this new information.
The Stanford students who developed the interactive map used in the Republic of Letters project stated that they grappled with how to make the large sets of data from the Electronic Enlightenment database understandable to humanities scholars “who were trained in close reading of individual documents” (Chang, 2009, p. 1) . Their solution was to devise a metadata table with spatial, temporal, and nominal attributes to create multiple views of the correspondence. From there, they built in a zoomable vector map and a user-adjusted time slider, so that scholars could zoom in at different times and at different places as they conducted their research. The students concluded that this collaboration was valuable for both the computer scientists and the humanist scholars. Those in the former group learned how humanists go about doing research; and the humanist scholars realized that “data visualization could be a productive element of their research process and not just a final illustration of their results” (Chang, p. 2).

A Humanities Scholar’s Disclaimer
Dr. Edelstein, the principal investigator for Mapping the Republic of Letters, makes some interesting observations regarding “digital humanism”; that is, the application of computing tools to humanistic studies and methodology. He states that although the project uses “software and computing techniques that were designed for scientific and statistical methods, [the team members] are striving to develop computing tools to enhance humanistic methods, so that humanist scholars can explore the qualitative aspects of the Republic of Letters (Mapping the Republic of Letters). Dr. Edelstein explains that the nature of the collection of correspondence and travel records from this early period of history is incomplete, and only a fraction of the information has been digitized and is available for study. Therefore, he concludes: “making connections and resolving ambiguities in the data is something that can only be done with the help of computing, but cannot be done by computing alone [my emphasis].
Dr. Edelstein points out that the data under study will remain incomplete, as it is often the nature of correspondence to survive in part and to have gaps and omissions of key information. This requires interpretation of data, which is “at the heart of humanistic work, not certainty. Therefore, he believes that the collaboration with computer science has provided “expressive graphic representations” of the data that can help the humanist scholars see patterns and make sense of it all, but without hiding or obscuring the uncertainty and ambiguity.

Summary
Mapping the Republic of Letters project has been an exciting opportunity for an international team of professionals from a variety of fields to come together in the pursuit of knowledge. Each offered his/her specific expertise to the project, and in turn, were enriched by the special skills of all others. In a sense, they created their own Republic of Letters in which an open dialogue allowed members to present their points of view, critique the ideas of others, and to build on the collective wisdom of the group. As Dr. Edelstein stated, the sum became much greater than the parts could ever have been alone.
However, that being said, the humanities scholars are quick to point out that the computer technology and interactive maps are tools that can be applied to the study of data that is inherently flawed and uncertain. They reject the temptation to allow the precise nature of the technology to “speak for” the data. They are careful not to allow these tools to take on a life of their own, but rather for the data, such as it is, to speak for itself, even as it presents itself in unique images made available by the new software. By so doing, the correspondence informs the tools, not the other way around.
One final challenge is worth noting regarding any digital humanities project. Making judgments about how to structure data so that the computer technology can read it, “imparts meaning to the data that can lead to distortions and misrepresentations” down the road. This requires uniformity in how information is handled, and careful annotations that explain how and why these decisions were made.



References

Chang, C., Ge, Y., Song, S., Coleman, N., Christensen, J., & Heer, J. (2009).Visualizing the Republic of Letters. Retrieved from https://republicofletters.stanford.edu/papers/Vis_RofL_2009
Cohen, P. (2010, 16 Nov). (Humanities 2.0). Digital keys for unlocking the humanities’ riches. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/17/arts/17digital.html?pagewanted.
Digging into the Englightenment. Retrieved from http://enlightenment.humanitiesnetwork.org.
Grafton, A. (2009, 1 May). A sketch map of a lost continent: the republic of letters. Republic of Letters: a Journal for the Study of Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts 1(1). Retrieved from http://arcade.stanford.edu/journals/rofl/articles/sketch-map-lost-continent-republic-letters-by-anthony-grafton.
Mapping the Republic of Letters: exploring correspondence and intellectual community in the early modern period (1500-1800). Retrieved from https://republicofletters.stanford.edu/
Tooling up for digital humanities. (2011a). Retrieved from http://toolingup.stanford.edu/?page_id=209.
Tooling up for digital humanities. (2011b). Retrieved from http://toolingup.stanford.edu/?page_id=1167.
White, R. (2010). What is spatial history? Retrieved from the Stanford Spatial History Lab Website: http://www.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=29.

Also of interest:
Cohen, P. (2010, 16 Nov). (Arts Beat: The Culture at Large). Digitally mapping the republic of letters. NY Times. Retrieved from http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/16/digitally-mapping-the-republic-of-letters/?ref=arts.
Electronic Enlightenment. Retrieved from http://www.e-enlightenment.com/.
Haven, C. (2009, 17 Dec). Stanford technology helps scholars get ‘big picture’ of the Enlightenment. Stanford Report. Retrieved from http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/december14/republic-of-letters-121809.html.