|Constellations of Correspondence: Relational Study of Large and Small Networks of Epistolary Exchange in the Grand Duchy of Finland (CoCo)|
Constellations of Correspondence (CoCo) is a four year consortium research project starting in autumn 2021.
The aim of bringing together this consortium of humanists and researchers in digital humanities (DH) and computer science (CS), is to interrogate an unused treasure in the major Finnish cultural heritage institutions, namely the registered metadata of all letters, public and private, kept in the collections of archives, libraries, and museums, relating to the period of the Grand Duchy of Finland (1809–1917). This is the first project to explore this correspondence catalogue data in a systematic and comprehensive way and to enrich and analyse it to answer ambitious humanistic and computational research questions. The main end-results will be an open semantic portal for different user needs, with humanities-driven data analysis tools, and scholarly analyses of the data.
Letters – words written on paper, enclosed in an envelope and transported to the recipient – were everywhere in the 19th-century world. This ancient means of communication had become a more efficient form of interpersonal and inter-institutional contact, as transportation speeded up, and it permeated all layers of the society as literacy spread and societies on the path to modernization created both new needs and means for written communication. This permeability means that letters are among the most important research materials, when scholars study canonical persons and major historical events. However, enquiries based on quantitative analysis are absent both from the studies that use letters as sources and from the enquiries to epistolary cultures or letter-writing as a social practice. Instead of close-reading select published or unpublished letters our research questions cast a wider net: What kind of patterns of epistolary communication can we recognise in our integrated dataset with a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods? Who could write a letter to whom in the 19th-century estate society?
The project is greatly indebted to the experiences accumulated and methods developed in the COST Action Reassembling the Republic of Letters 1500–1800 (2014–18) which charted and analysed both the metadata and the content of letters that knit together premodern Europe, and other related projects such as Mapping the Republic of Letters (Stanford), Cultures of Knowledge (Oxford), and ePistolarium (HUYGENS ING, Netherlands). However, a more appropriate translation for the epistolary exchange studied in these projects would be the ʻrepublic of the learned’, as it connected a prosperous, meritocratic, and transnational elite. The dataset of the proposed project is temporally and geographically more restricted but, due to these delimitations, much more comprehensive regarding different social layers of 19th-century epistolary culture.
The CoCo consortium project has two main objectives:
- To enhance the value and research potential of epistolary metadata provided by the key cultural heritage institutions. This is a rich material and, in many cases, already immediately available (names of senders and recipients, dates, often places). As an integrated and harmonised dataset this material can enable a whole series of new observations about the cultural, political, and economic networks in the long 19th century of Finnish history, counterbalancing the collection policies of individual cultural heritage (CH) institutions. The main outcome of the project will be a harmonised and openly published dataset of Finnish epistolary metadata, a web user portal for accessing the dataset (see research on LetterSampo portal), and humanities-driven open-source data analysis research tools for further study of the dataset. A further aim is to facilitate the collaboration between researchers and cultural heritage institutions on the topical issue of semi-automated and manual metadata production, including entity reconciliation (identities of persons, places, and letters).
- To create a new entry point for all Humanities researchers who make use of letters as their sources, and to study the social relations of the Grand Duchy with novel methods. The main premise of the proposed project is two-fold. Our point of departure is the assumption that the patterns of 19th-century correspondence can function as a proxy for a 19th-century social network. The letters do not reflect a “society” that hides behind them; rather, in their materiality, they are the society. In other words, we believe that although social connections cannot be reduced merely to letter-writing, the analysis of integrated epistolary metadata will highlight social structures as they unfold chronologically and geographically throughout the century.
Our research is funded by the Academy of Finland.
Contact Persons and Collaborators
- Dr. Ilona Pikkanen, the Finnish Literature Society (SKS). Project consortium leader and PI at the Finnish Literature Society.
- Dr. Jouni Tuominen, University of Helsinki and Aalto University. PI at the University of Helsinki.
- Dr. Mikko Koho, Aalto University. PI at Aalto University.