Putting the dialog back together : Re-creating structure in letter publishing

  1. 1. Øyvind Eide

    Unit for Digital Documentation - University of Oslo

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.


In this paper, I will describe a publication system where selected material from letter collections are presented as dialogs between two persons.

In the last 10 years, large digital collection of cultural heritage material have been created. There are now significant repositories of literature available on the web. In the years 1992-1997, the national Norwegian Documentation Project digitized approximately 100.000 pages of literature. These digital texts are letter-by-letter identical with the paper-based editions on which they are based, with line-breaks preserved. Only structural SGML tagging is added.

This material is now being published on the web. [1] It is important for us to show the close connection with the paper-based versions in our on-line versions; to a large extent we model our collections after the page layout of the printed editions, and keep the volumes together.

At the same time, we are examining ways to build different access systems to be used in addition to the print-based systems mentioned. By structuring the material in different ways, we try to display important features of the texts which have been hidden in the material as it has been presented.

Earlier, we have created hypertext links based on explicit references in historical material [2] and we have experimented with different ways to publish letters, including ways to present the dialogic aspects of letter exchanges. [3] In this paper I will discuss a framework for the publishing of balanced letter exchanges based on different sources. Ways to publish more letter exchanges, including use of external resources, will also be examined.

The history of letter publishing

The publishing of letters have a long history, from the letters of The New Testament and Cicero's letters up to modern editions of contemporary writers. In this paper, I will discuss actual letters written for one or several receivers, and not fictive letters such as those we find in letter novels or generally letters in fiction. The editions I discuss are collected and published by editors other than the author.

In most traditional editions of letters, one person has been singled out as the centre of the text. The letters preserved and edited by Cicero's secretary Tiro is both from and to Cicero, but the other writers have a secondary position: They are included because they wrote to Cicero. Only the names of Cicero and the editors and translators are typically presented on the title page. [4]

Few letter editions exist where the letters are presented as a balanced dialog between two equally important parts. Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson is one of the Norwegian authors from the period of the Modern Breakthrough who wrote most letters. While more than 2500 of his letters have been published on paper, his letter exchanges with only two persons have been published as balanced dialogs. One of these is with the author Amalie Skram and will be included in our system together with the dialogs we re-create.

The paper will discuss reasons why so few balanced letter exchanges have been published.

Our material: The letters of 'The Modern Breakthrough'.

The period known as 'The Modern Breakthrough', approximately from 1870 to 1910, is probably the period in which Norwegian writers had the greatest influence on the literature outside Scandinavia. This is also an age where letter writing is of special importance. There are several reasons for this, from the more prosaic of living abroad and the development of the modern post system to the literary program of naturalism: "[...] letters had a particular significance for a generation of writers for whom the documentary aspect of literature was, in the light of literary naturalism, of great importance." [5]

In our digital collections, we have letter editions of the following three Norwegian authors from the period:

Author born debut (approx.) dead Number of letters in our collections
Henrik Ibsen 1828 1850 1906 2400
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson 1832 1858 1910 2590
Alexander L. Kielland 1849 1879 1906 1269
In addition, Amalie Skram's 50 letters to Bjørnson are included from the edition of their exchange. [6]

For each of these authors, the following number of letters written to the other two are in the material:

TO: Ibsen Bjørnson Kielland
Ibsen -- 35 0
Bjørnson 11 -- 112
Kielland 1 114 --
In this table, we see indications on which of the exchanges are suited for publication, the ones between Bjørnson and Ibsen and Bjørnson and Kielland, while the material contains few traces of contact between Kielland and Ibsen. In our system, these two exchanges, together with Bjørnsons exchange with Amalie Skram, where the digital version is based directly on the printed version, is included. The system will be demonstrated, and the background for which letter exchanges are suitable for such publication will be discussed, together with problems we had to solve in the process of selection and publication.

Beyond our collections

The system being demonstrated in the presentation is a running service, but the scale is quite small. There are two ways to expand the service further:

Create new contents ourselves
Connect our system to editions made by other contents providers
We have not been able to locate any external resources with web-published letters relevant to our collections. But I hope we will be able to co-operate with external contents providers in the future, as more material are published by others and as we publish more letters from our collections.

All publishing of letters in the future, both based on the original letters (who in a few years time might be born digital) and on earlier printed versions, will be performed in a world where the letters of other authors are available on the web, in many cases with answers to letters in the collection being published. I hope as many as possible of such letter collections being published will be made available in a form suitable for integration with other collections, and that the publishers have such possibilities in mind when they make digital editions of letter collections.

Traditionally, the editors of letter collections have emphasized the letters as parts of the collected works of an author. While this perspective will never cease to be important, I hope the dialogic aspect of letters will be more visible in the future. Both dimensions are important to understand our cultural history.


[1] http://www.dokpro.uio.no/

[2] Ore, Christian-Emil: "Making Multidiciplinary Resources" in: The Digital Demotic: A Selection of Papers from DRH97 (Digital Resources for the Humanities) / Edited by Lou Burnard, Marilyn Deegan and Harold Short. London, 1998, pp. 65-74.

[3] Eide, Øyvind: "The Ibsen Letters - and Beyond" / Øyvind Eide (paper at the ALLC/ACH conference in Virginia in June 1999), the text is available at http://www.uio.no/~oeide/artikler/

[4] See e.g.: Cicero, Marcus Tullius: Cicero : in twenty-eight volumes. D, Letters. Cambridge, Mass., [1912- .]. Vol. 22-28.

[5] Robinson, Michael: "'The Great Epistolick Art' : An introduction" in: Nordic Letters 1870-1910 / Edited by Michael Robinson and Janet Garton. Norwich, 1999, p. 12.

[6] "Og nu vil jeg tale ut", "Men nu vil jeg også tale ud" : brevvekslingen mellom Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson og Amalie Skram 1878-1904 Oslo. 1982. XVI, 236 pp.

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.

Conference Info

In review


Hosted at New York University

New York, NY, United States

July 13, 2001 - July 16, 2001

94 works by 167 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (21), ALLC/EADH (28), ACH/ALLC (13)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC