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What's in a Letter? Reflections of a Transcription Editor

Several years ago I wrote this article with the intention of publishing it in a journal. For various reasons, however, other projects took precedence and it never got completed. Given the subject matter and its potential utility for others, I think that this piece is better served as a long read academic blog, which is why I am posting it here. I've been a transcription editor for nearly twenty years and these reflections are represent some of the thoughts I have had over the years. Full disclosure, because this was written several years ago, and I've not updated it, aspects are a little outmoded.



Over the past few decades there has been a growth in correspondence projects and digital collections that contain correspondences. Some of the more notable examples within the history of nineteenth-century British science include the John Tyndall Correspondence Project, the Charles Darwin Correspondence Project, the Alfred Russel Wallace Correspondence Project, and the Huxley File. Some of these collections are available in book form, and others are increasingly made available through open-access websites.[1] With more material available than ever before, historians have the difficult task of making sense of this data. Moreover, with the digitisation of large epistolary collections, such as the Tyndall and Darwin correspondences, scholars are faced with new sets of problems; ranging from practical issues, such as the systematic transcription of letters according to a set of guidelines that ensures their accuracy and quality, to the development of searchable databases that maximise the number of results brought up from keyword searches.

As a member of the John Tyndall Correspondence Project since its inception in 2006, I have had an opportunity to examine hundreds of letters while transcribing and editing them. What has become clear is that there is no standard disciplinary method for collecting, transcribing, analysing, and cataloguing nineteenth-century scientific correspondences. As with any form of communication, letters were used to develop and reform ideas and theories, debate key issues, and present findings to different individuals or groups. Thus, letters played a key role in making knowledge, and just as historians have worked towards transforming our understanding of nineteenth-century book and periodical history, so too should we expand our understanding of nineteenth-century correspondence history. For those who are new to correspondence history it is especially important to bring certain key issues to the fore. For instance, studying correspondence history not only includes the textual examination of letters, but also the analysis of letter writing practices, communication networks, and the different participants working within these networks. Thus, it is as important to consider the correspondents who were exchanging the letters, as it is to consider the role of the postal workers in transporting them. It is a massive task providing a comprehensive analysis of what is a largely unexplored area of historical research within this account. Instead, this paper aims to begin the task of developing a methodology for working with letters that both outlines a more rigorous method for transcribing, analysing and cataloguing correspondences, as well as examine some of the difficulties projects such as the John Tyndall Correspondence Project faces as it transcribes and digitalises their letters.[2]


If we are to take seriously the importance of materiality when working with letters, it is essential to develop a systematic process for transcribing correspondences. Such a method will help to minimise what is lost when reformatting letters for printed collections and online databases. Whenever a document is transcribed and digitised we transform the physical layout and content of a letter. It is only by developing explanatory footnotes and annotations that we can preserve some of the letters’ original physical structure. Historians of print culture have been quick to point out the significance of materiality when investigating publishing history, and digitalising periodical collections for online databases. For instance, Jonathan Topham argued in his essay “Scientific Publishing and the Reading of Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain” (2000), that the physical layout of a periodical gives us some indication about the reading experiences of nineteenth-century audiences. This in turn helps us understand what he calls the “rhetorical strategies of periodicals”, which sought to construct the way audiences interpreted information.[3]

With the digitisation of primary materials there are further problems. In particular, every time a document is transferred from one medium to another its physical conformation is redefined. In James Mussell’s essay, Ownership, Institution and Methodology (2008), he argued that it is important to think about the ways in which digital collections are produced, thinking more critically about the process of transferring materials from hard copy to the screen.[4] These questions are equally important when looking at the history of correspondence. Historians can learn a lot about nineteenth-century letter writing and correspondence networks by being more critically reflexive about the process of transcribing and digitising letters for printed collections and online databases. By doing this they can identify what is preserved in the transcription and what is lost. Using my experience as a transcriber for the John Tyndall Correspondence Project, I will discuss the project's detailed process of transcribing letters to emphasise the steps that are taken to simulate the original materiality and layout of the letters in the notes.

In the summer of 2006, a small group of graduate students, one postdoctoral fellow, and Bernie Lightman met at York University in Toronto to discuss a new project that aimed to transcribe the correspondence of the Victorian physicist and science populariser John Tyndall. When completed, these transcriptions were to be reworked into a sixteen volume edited collection to be published Pickering and Chatto. These plans changed after Pickering and Chatto dissolved and the published volumes are now released through the University of Pittsburgh Press. The initial work was funded by a large grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. At the time, the project was still in the process of collecting letters from the Royal Institution in London, and scanning them for use. However, some of Tyndall’s letters are located in other places, and tracking them all down remains a major challenge for the project. Our primary objective was to transcribe roughly 6,000 letters written to and from Tyndall, and annotating them with explanatory footnotes. From the onset we recognised two problems. The first was capturing the original physical layout of the letters. The second was ensuring that the content of the letters were correctly transcribed. After several weeks of trial and error, the transcription team developed a convention system that aimed to systematically transcribe and annotate the letters according to a set of guidelines.[5] This would help to standardise the transcription process and ensure that all new transcribers joining the project in future years would follow the same necessary steps for making a letter.

In 2009 Michael Reidy from Montana State University received a large grant from the National Science Foundation, and this transformed the size and scale of the project. With more money available, Montana State University became the headquarters of an international network of transcribers. Because of the influx in money, the project was able to organise other off-site transcription teams at different universities around the world. Some of these off-site teams were located at the University of Leeds, Aberystwyth University, Arizona State University and the University of Auckland in New Zealand. The hope was that by establishing new teams it would help speed up the transcription process.[6] It was overly costly and impractical to train the new transcribers by sending a senior member of the original transcription team to each of the off-site locations. That meant that the convention guidelines were critically important. Only if each team carefully followed the transcription instructions would the project be able to maintain the accuracy and quality of the digitised letters. All of the teams had to conform to the conventions outlined in the guidelines. By standardising the transcription process, the aim was to minimise the amount of information that would be lost by transferring the handwritten text to a computerised typescript.

There are two main components to transcribing Tyndall’s letters and both are part of a four-step process. The first component is transcribing the main bodies of the letters. For those scholars who are unfamiliar with the editorial practices of correspondence projects, it is important to transcribe the letters as the authors intended them to be read. That means that all of the original editorial corrections by the writers are shifted to the footnotes.The second component of this four-step process is the application of a set of explanatory footnotes that are designed to simulate the physical structure of the original letters. Transcribers have added footnotes detailing all of the editorial changes Tyndall made to his letters. This may seem like an unnecessary amount of work. However, there is much to be gained by looking at editorial changes. Taken together, these two components for transcribing letters aim to capture the materiality of the epistles, and ensure the quality and accuracy of their transcriptions.

The details of this four-step system are significant, and I want examine the process of transcribing the content of the letters and inserting the explanatory footnotes. My aim is to add more transparency to the process by which Tyndall’s correspondences are transcribed. This in turn will help to promote the importance of taking seriously the way scholars transcribe, analyse, and catalogue nineteenth-century letters. In principle, the conventions used by transcribers on the John Tyndall Correspondence Project can form the basis of future transcription schemes. A key point to draw from this discussion is that certain aspects of the letters are lost in the transcription process, and understanding how letters are transferred from their original form, to the screen, and eventually into a book, helps us better understand the process of digitising primary materials for historical research. With these concerns in mind, we are better placed to see how transcription teams mediate printed collections of edited correspondences, and online databases.[7]

The first step for transcribing a letter is to build a digital document that contains a scan of the original handwritten letter. In some cases the original letters are lost and what remains is a typescript written by Tyndall’s wife Louisa from the early part of the twentieth century. There are conventions to indicate instances where a transcription is based on Louisa’s typescript and not on an original handwritten letter. This adds some transparency to the transcription process because it informs researchers who are using the letters that Louisa has potentially compromised the accuracy of transcription. The transcription team can only guarantee the exactitude of Louisa’s transcriptions when there is a copy of the original letter to compare it with and this is not always possible. Louisa had a tendency to censor some of Tyndall's letters, especially when he discussed certain aspects of his personal relationships prior to their marriage. The main purpose of building digital documents - with the scanned copies of the letters - is so that transcribers can easily cross-compare their transcriptions with the original letters on their computer screens. By creating a second word document on their desktop, and typing their transcription in it, the transcriber can view the original letter and their typescript at the same time. This makes it easier to crosscheck the transcriptions for typographical errors.

There is a basic structure to every transcription file. At the top of each document there is a heading containing an order number, identifying the letter’s place within the larger sequence of Tyndall’s correspondence. The team members who build the initial digitised documents create these order numbers. Once a letter has gone through each of the transcription stages, it is re-catalogued and the order number is removed. The headings also identify the authors and recipients of the letters. For instance it will state, “John Tyndall to Thomas Hirst” or “Henry Bence Jones to John Tyndall”.[8] In certain cases, the transcription team is unable to identify the full name of a correspondent. Moreover, there are also instances where a correspondent is listed as “anonymous” because their identity is unknown. This is a major problem, and whenever possible the transcription team tries to locate this missing information in other primary materials such as Tyndall’s personal notebooks. The heading also contains the date of when the letter was written, the author’s location, and the number of pages in the original document. All of this information is useful when cataloguing the correspondence. Finally, there is an administrative note indicating the number of stages the letter has gone through. This allows the transcription team to keep track of the number of checks a letters receives before it is completed. In total, three sets of eyes look over every letter to ensure that it has followed the correct convention system. Not every transcription project requires that many levels of checks, and much will be determined by the amount of funds and time you have available to do the transcription work. Below the heading is the scanned version of the original letter from the nineteenth century.

The second step in this process is the first transcription of the letter’s content. As stated earlier, the primary aim is to transcribe the letters as the authors intended them to be read. For this, the transcriber needs to cross-compare their typescript against the scanned copy of the original letter. There are various problems when transcribing letters, and most have to do with the quality of the scan and the legibility of the handwriting. The majority of the handwritten letters from the Royal Institution came from microfilm, and the clarity of these images is blurred when digitised for computer screens. In addition, the images from the microfilm are photographs taken of the original letters from the nineteenth century. That means that by the time a transcriber is reading the scanned version of the letter, it has already gone through three kinds of reimaging.

Another problem is that many of the Victorian writers’ handwriting can be difficult to decipher. Therefore, it is important that several sets of eyes read the handwriting to ensure the correct transcription of the content. In instances where a word is illegible there is a convention for the transcriber to use, signifying that they are unsure of what word was written in the original letter. For example, the transcriber writes “[1 word illeg]”. However, there are some instances where a word may be difficult to read but a conjecture is possible. Moreover, it may be the only word that makes sense given the syntax and structure on the sentence.[9] For this, the transcriber places the conjectured reading of the word in italicised brackets. For example, the transcriber would write “…why not go forward and prove [utter] independence…”.[10] The purpose of these conventions is to ensure that the letters are correctly transcribed, and in instances where there is some ambiguity about the wording, a convention is used to identify for the reader that the transcription is verisimilar projection. Another problem when transcribing the letters is that words are sometimes destroyed by mould, ink stains, or water damage. In these instances the transcriber either includes a “<x>” indicating that they cannot decipher the word, or “<some words>”, indicating a conjectured reading of the destroyed words.[11] This convention helps to simulate the materiality of the letters, because it demonstrates to researchers the visual aesthetics of the original document.

For step three, a new and more experienced transcriber looks over the stage two transcription and double checks to see if the typescript is correct. In instances where the second transcriber can identify the correct wording of either an illegible word, or a conjectured reading of a word, they can change it. The transcriber does this by either removing the italicised brackets, in cases where there is a conjectured reading, or by including a word in italicised brackets, in cases where the words are illegible. Next, the second transcriber includes explanatory footnotes that indicate the editorial changes Tyndall made to a letter before posting it off to his correspondent. There are no explanatory footnotes in letters written to Tyndall. Because of time restraints, and funding deadlines, the transcription team was unable to footnote all the letters in Tyndall’s correspondence. Instead, a decision was made to only footnote Tyndall’s letters because – after all – it is a project based around his correspondence. This decision, however, is significant because it means that any of the editorial changes made by one of Tyndall’s correspondents is lost in the transcription. This is an important point to bring to the fore when analysing the content of digitised letters. As an example, if a word was deleted because the writer felt his sentence was too strongly worded, the researcher using the transcribed version will not be aware of the original wording because it is not included in the transcription’s annotations.

There are several kinds of explanatory footnotes used by the Tyndall transcription team, and each is designed to simulate the physical layout of the original handwritten letters. It would be far too encompassing to go through all of the footnote conventions in this short account. Instead, I have selected three of the more common types to give a sense of how the letters are transcribed and annotated.[12] This will help to illustrate the steps that are taken to ensure the quality and accuracy of the transcriptions. Moreover, it also brings to the fore some of the important issues to consider when analysing transcribed materials. It is worth thinking about some of the reasons for why Tyndall made editorial changes to his letters. For example, there are multiple cases where Tyndall crosses out words. The reasons for these deletions vary and they depend upon the context of the discussions within each of the letters. Sometimes Tyndall deletes a word because it was a typographical error such as, “The fist first lecture fell far below my own ideal…” (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Example of a 'del btwn' footnote convention[13]

In other cases, he is rewording a sentence because he felt the language was too strong. As stated earlier, the primary aim is to transcribe the letter as Tyndall intended it to be read, with the editorial changes moved to the footnotes. Therefore, in the example above, the transcription should read “The 1 first lecture fell far below my own ideal...” The footnote number directly before the word “first” indicates that Tyndall made a deletion within the sentence, and the explanatory footnote is written as followed: “‘1.3: ‘fist’ del btwn ‘in London. The’ and ‘first lecture fell’”.[14] The two numbers at the beginning of the explanatory footnote identify the paragraph and line where the deletion was made in the original handwritten letter. This information is designed to help the researcher visualise the original layout of the letter. If the researcher chooses to look at the original correction from the handwritten letter they know exactly where the editorial change was made in the body of the document. Another common editorial change that Tyndall makes in his letters is insertions (See Figure 2). Most often these insertions provide further clarity in a sentence. For example, “And as I listen to the wind the thought of the numbers which must die of disease and exposure is very terrible.”[15]

Figure 2: Example of an interl btwn footnote convention[16]

Tyndall inserted the wording “disease and” between “die of” and “exposure is” for further elaboration. It is a subtle difference but one that adds important additional information to his sentence.

In the fourth step of the transcription process, a third and even more experienced transcriber looks over the content of the letters, and double-checks the footnotes. If the third transcriber can identify any of the illegible words that remain in the body of the letter they can change them. In addition, if they can confirm the conjectured reading of a word in italicised brackets they are authorised to do so as well. The transcriber at stage four also looks over the explanatory footnotes and makes sure that the correct conventions are used. It is essential that there are no mistakes in the explanatory footnotes, because any misused convention can mislead a future researcher. For instance, if a word is deleted from a sentence, such as the word “fist” in the example above, the correct footnote convention is to state that a deletion was made. However, in some instances Tyndall will cross out a word and write a different one in its place. The new word is interlined over the original deleted word (See Figure 3). In these instances there is a separate convention known as “interl over”.[17]

Figure 3: Example of an interl over footnote convention[18]

It is important to differentiate between these two types of deletions in the footnotes because each affects the way the original nineteenth-century letter is simulated.Moreover, the meaning of the sentence is transformed based on the kind of editorial changes made by the writer. In this case, Tyndall changed the date from “the 1st of July” to “the 1st of August”. Although it is only a single word being changed, the meaning of the sentence is significantly altered. Once the third transcriber makes their changes to the digitised letter they change the name of the file so that it can be re-catalogued for the edited volumes. The Tyndall transcription team created a now defunct digitised cataloguing system (known as “Super Ginty”) for organising the correspondence, but an examination of this computer software is far too encompassing for a discussion in this account. Super Ginty came to an acrimonious end when users realised that the software functioned much like a computer worm.

As we can see, transcribing correspondences for publication or for online databases is a labour-intensive process that aims to both correctly record the content of letters and provide readers with explanatory footnotes that simulate the physical layout of a letter. In this case we examined three of the most common footnotes, regular deletions, interlined insertions, and deletions that included interlined insertions. By discussing the way in which letters are transcribed and annotated, my aim is to show the steps that are taken to preserve as much of the original letter as possible. Whenever a document is digitised some aspect of its materiality is lost. When a document is transferred from its original hard copy state to the screen, it is reorganised into a new form. This process of reorganising a document is further complicated if the material is then published as a book or made available through open-access websites. [19] By adding explanatory footnotes that outline the editorial changes Tyndall made to his letters, we preserve some of the information that is removed from the body of the original texts during the transcription process. This in turn has an affect on the way we analyse the content of epistles.

Now that I have outlined a method for transcribing letters for printed collections (or online databases) using the Tyndall convention system, I want to shift attention to a method for reading the content of individual letters. As with any type of medium, it is important to think about the textual strategies of authors and how they attempted to shape the meaning of their letters. At the same time, it is equally important to consider the reading experiences of the correspondents who received them. This exchange between sender and receiver is further complicated because every digitised letter has been altered to a certain degree by the transcription process.


As is well known, letters are an important part of historical research. They provide scholars with a glimpse into the daily lives of historical actors and their innermost private thoughts. However, how often do we stop and think critically about the methods used for analysing the content of them. As with any text, it is important to think about the way writers structured their letters, as well as the reading experiences of their correspondents. Taking Topham’s notion of the rhetorical strategies of authors as its starting point, I want to take seriously the importance of a letter’s physical layout and content, in shaping nineteenth-century understandings of epistolary communication. Even the most subtle and taken-for-granted detail can help a researcher develop new questions that they may not have considered, had they overlooked something as small as the letterhead at the top of an epistle. Moreover, nineteenth-century correspondences played a key role in defining both private and public conceptions of science.[20] Letters can contain discussions about new theories, or they can show some of the anxieties a writer was suffering from as they were developing their research.[21] Letters can also give us a glimpse into the daily routines of nineteenth-century people, and show us the sorts of topics people gossiped about, their weekly social activities, and the places they were vacationing. It would be far too comprehensive to examine every component of a letter in this account. Instead, I will focus on how the relationship between correspondents shapes the content of a letter, and I will consider the significance of letterheads and location.

Before reading the content of a letter the first thing a researcher should do is look at who wrote it and who received it. This seems self-evident, but for those inexperienced scholars who are new to analysing letters, it is an important component of any examination of correspondence history. As is the case when studying nineteenth-century periodicals, and looking at authors and their audiences, it is equally important to consider the nationality, class, political, and religion of epistolary writers and their correspondents.[22] Likewise, it is significant to consider the relationship between the two correspondents. This can give some indication as to the kinds of issues they may be discussing, as well as their opinions on important social topics such as economics, morality, civil unrest, warfare, et cetera.

Take for instance a letter Tyndall wrote to his mother in 1840. During this period Tyndall was twenty-years-old and working as a surveyor for the Ordnance Survey of Ireland.[23] It was his first extended period away from home. He had left his small village of Leighlinbridge near Dublin for Youghal, which is located in the south of Ireland near the city of Cork. He was with a small group of friends and they were living on a tight budget. The kind of letter one would expect to see between a son (who was just beginning to establish himself within the world) and his mother is one that describes his current financial state and his social wellbeing. For instance, Tyndall wrote to his mother stating, “I am very comfortably situated here. Evans and I and a lad from Cork named Tidmarsh… live together, we pay 5 shillings a week for two very comfortable rooms”. Moreover, because of his limited funds, he also asks his mother to pay off a small debt that he had accrued for some books he purchased before leaving for Youghal. He wrote, “You will give John Mooney five shillings in payment for some books which I got from him at my departure.”[24] These sorts of discussions seem perfectly typical for a twenty-year-old and his mother to discuss, especially given that Tyndall was just starting off in life.

The relationship between the correspondents affects the tone of the letter. For instance, in the same message to his mother, Tyndall opens with a warm greeting stating, “It is with inexpressible delight that I am now enabled to write to you, I am fully convinced that this will be received by you with as much pleasure as I feel in writing it…”[25] To a certain extent, this greeting represents the sort of respect a nineteenth-century son would show his mother, especially when considering the typical power dynamics of a family during this period. However, given that Tyndall goes on to ask his mother to pay his debt, perhaps he was trying to sweeten her up before he requested some money. Thus, it is important to consider the rhetorical strategies of the writer in shaping the way they intended their letter to be received by their correspondent. In this case, Tyndall was asking his mother for a favour, so there was no shortage of niceties. The tone of Tyndall’s letters vary considerably when he is writing to his younger sister Emma. There is a different social dynamic between a brother and his younger sister. For example, in a letter that he wrote in March of 1841, rather than simply updating Emma on his current state, Tyndall shares some light-hearted gossip with her. He writes about his large appetite and says that his friends, “Evans and Tidmarsh swear that I must pay two thirds of the mess, as I am able to eat twice as much as either of them. However one comfort is that I am able to beat them both, so that if ever they become headstrong I’ll thrash them into obedience.”[26] Tyndall’s humorous remark about thrashing his friends into obedience is not something he would likely include in a letter to his mother.

There is much to be gained by reading the information at the top of most nineteenth-century letters. Many letters have a header at the top stating the date it was written, and where the writer was located. This information is useful for several reasons. For instance, it provides researchers with some evidence that allows them to track the movement of historical actors. Moreover, it can lead these researchers to consider questions that they may have overlooked had they ignored this information. If a researcher is looking for specific references to social events or scientific theories they may not look at the location of an historical actor when they wrote the letter. Instead, they may only focus on the main body. By being more attention to the entire content of a letter, however, there are many new questions that a researcher can consider. The smallest detail can lead to interesting lines of inquiry and much richer contextual understandings of historical figures.

For instance, in October of 1877, Tyndall wrote a letter to his friend and colleague William Spottiswoode. At the top of the letter, Tyndall recorded the date, and below that is a stamped-letterhead stating “Heathfield Park, Hawkhurst” (See Figure 4).

Figure 4: Letterhead from a letter from Tyndall to Spottiswoode in 1877[27]

This information is useful because it tells us that on 11 October 1877, Tyndall was vacationing in East Sussex. This opens up a series of possible questions that a researcher may not have considered had they ignored the letterhead. For instance, why was Tyndall in the English countryside? Was he overworked and escaping the city for some rest and fresh air? Was he visiting a friend? Or was he taking advantage of a change in weather? By reading further down the letter, we see that England was experiencing some pleasant temperatures for early October. For example, Tyndall mentions how lovely the recent weather had been. He also informs Spottiswoode that he was planning on returning to London in a few days.[28] By taking note of Tyndall’s location, and by looking at the letterhead at the top of the epistle, one is led to a series of questions regarding the reasons for Tyndall being in East Sussex. These questions can be answered by following the sequence of correspondence surrounding the date of the letter.

For instance, in an earlier letter dated 26 September 1877 Tyndall wrote to Spottiswoode mentioning that his holiday had been “quite spoiled” because he had never been “out of school”. In other words, Tyndall was implying that he had been working during his break. Tyndall goes on to mention that he and his wife Louisa were searching for a new home, and that this “had caused a good deal of worry.” Reading further down the letter, we see that they had now settled on a place, and they had “tested its sweetness as a home”.[29] By following the sequence of letters between Tyndall and Spottiswoode we can explain some of the reasons for why he was in East Sussex; he was house hunting with his wife. Furthermore, by continuing to follow this series of exchanges between Tyndall and Spottiswoode we can see that by early November in 1877, he was back at the Royal Institution in London and preparing lectures.[30] By looking at Tyndall’s location in each of these three letters we can track his movement between late September and early November. We can also explain why he was in these places. This method for analysing nineteenth-century epistles can lead to all sorts of interesting research projects because you can map out the movement of a figure over the course of their life.

The importance of location is a major theme in Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. In her discussion she argued that Darwin’s location in Kent redefined his scientific practice.[31] His location shaped his daily activities in two ways. First, by not being in London, Darwin was reliant on his correspondents for news on the scientific, religious, and social debates occurring in the British capital. In addition, he corresponded with well-connected figures, such as Huxley and Tyndall, and asked them for favours.[32] For example, in a letter from Darwin to Tyndall, dated 7 September 1870, he wrote, “I have asked Spottiswoode and Co. to send you the proof of a lecture which I purpose giving in Liverpool on the 16th… Would you be good enough to send the proof to me with your remarks, if any, to the Royal Institution some time this week?”[33]

Second, Darwin substantiated much of his theories with data collected by informants living throughout the world. Thus, he was reliant on a large network of communication for his research.[34] Letter writing, therefore, was an important part of his daily routine. Browne writes, “His study inside Down House became an intellectual factory of administration and calculation, in which he churned out requests for information and processed answers, kept himself at the leading edge of contemporary science, and ultimately orchestrated a transformation of Victorian thought.”[35] The cost of building and maintaining a correspondence network during the middle of the nineteenth century was high, and Darwin’s fiscal output demonstrates a significant monetary investment. For example, in 1851 Darwin spent £20 on stamps and stationary, which is equivalent to around £1000 today. By 1877, his yearly output for materials relating to his correspondence was over £53 per annum.[36] This is a massive expenditure and signifies the importance of correspondence networks for his work. Given the amount of money Darwin spent on his letter writing, it is clear that correspondences played a key role in his scientific practice and daily life. This cost increased even more because of his location outside of the British metropole. Thus, it is important to pay attention to the location that a figure wrote their letters from because it influenced the sorts of discussions in their messages. In Darwin’s case, he was requesting information because of his social isolation. Tyndall differs because of his influential position at the Royal Institution. Many of the letters he received were requests for various favours. In many instances his correspondents wanted tickets to his lectures. For examples, in March of 1873 Charles Lyell ends his letter to Tyndall by asking, “Could you send me three tickets for your lecture on Niagara[?]”[37]


In sum, it is important to consider all aspects of a letter when analysing its content. Even the smallest detail can lead to new and interesting lines of inquiry. By tracing the location of a figure such as Tyndall – using a small series of three letters from 1877 – we traced his movement between late September and early November. By extending this examination to a longer series of exchanges we could follow Tyndall’s movements across an entire year. Such an analysis has the potential to develop all sorts of interesting research projects because we can map out a figure’s movement over the course of their lifetime. In addition, postal ink stamps are equally central to correspondence history. They have the potential to show how quickly a message was sent from one location and received at another. To do this, the researcher would have to compare the dates on the ink stamps with postal reports in nineteenth-century periodicals. Nevertheless, as important as it is to examine the details of individual letters within a body of correspondence, it is also essential to step back and look at the larger calendar of correspondence. This allows researchers to trace networks of communication between different historical figures.


Calendars of correspondences are important tools for tracing networks of communication. Individual letters show us how private conceptions of social issues – including science – were communicated and negotiated between at least two figures. However, by looking at the larger correspondence of historical actors such as Tyndall or Darwin, we can begin to see how letters shaped broader understandings of science and culture. In addition, by looking at the types of people a figure wrote to, and the number of exchanges between them, we can see the role different actors played in these communication networks. For instance, certain figures may have acted as confidants, helping a figure work through their problems. Others may have been rivals, challenging a figure to improve upon their research techniques. Looking at the social and research activities of an historical actor can provide further insights into understanding both the content of their letters and their network of correspondents. For instance, if an historical actor is interested in alpine weather conditions, they may send numerous letters to correspondents living in places such as Switzerland. If they are interested in scientific debates at the Royal Society they may be sending multiple letters to figures residing in London.[38]

For those scholars with minimal experience working with letters, when looking at correspondence statistics, it is important to consider both the relationship between the various correspondents, and the types of discussions in their exchanges. Just because a figure wrote 100 letters to a particular correspondent does not mean they were significant in shaping an important theory or idea. Perhaps the correspondent was a low-level administrator and the content of the letters are largely small memorandums about office matters. Conversely, it can be misleading to assume that the content of letters between eminent scientific figures contain important information about their research. For instance, between 16 March 1887 and 4 April 1891, the philosopher of science Herbert Spencer sent 20 letters to Tyndall. Of those letters there is no detailed discussion about either of their research activities. The bulk of the letters focus on Spencer and Tyndall’s health problems.[39] This information is useful if the researcher is interested in discussions on nineteenth-century health matters, but yields little value to researchers interested in physics. Moreover, sometimes a single exchange between correspondents can redefine a research programme. As Montgomery argued in his analysis of Darwin’s correspondence, it is important “to relate major shifts in letter-writing activity with important milestones in [a figure’s] career.”[40] Thus, it is essential to combine a thorough analysis of the content of individual letters with an analysis of the calendar of correspondence. By following this method, researchers can gain a richer understanding nineteenth-century correspondence networks and their role in shaping knowledge circuits.

When the Darwin Correspondence Project began publishing edited volumes in the 1980s, historians such as William Montgomery and James Moore were already identifying some of the challenges using these large correspondence collections posed. Most notably, there is a wealth of untapped material available in the correspondences, and it is easy to get lost in the details.[41] However, by cataloguing the letters and creating calendars of correspondence, historians can trace much more clearly the networks of communication between well-known figures such as Tyndall or Darwin, and their many correspondents. When writing a calendar of correspondence it is important to carefully consider the kinds of information you list. The more descriptive detail you include in the calendar, the more valuable it will be for researchers.

In the case of the Darwin Correspondence Project, Moore wrote that the transcription team identified “the sender and the recipient, the date and the place of writing, the status of the text-as autograph, draft, copy, or translation-its provenance and published source, and any additional matter such as annotations, enclosures, and an envelope.”[42] All of this information is useful for locating specific letters within the larger correspondence. It also provides researchers with basic descriptions of the physical content of letters. Finding specific information in printed volumes is different to finding it online. For one thing you need to physically look over each page to find the material you are looking for. This is a laborious practice. Digital databases speed this process up. However, if the correspondence is digitised and made available through online searchable databases, it is essential that certain words are included in the catalogue so that the kinds of results brought up through keyword searches are maximised. If you do not include a word in the search box you may not pull up all the relevant letters in your results.

In the late 1980s Montgomery had already recognised the potential impact digitising archival material had on research practices. For instance, he wrote, “… the possibility of counting documents has not received much attention. Modern computer-equipped projects can easily tabulate quantitative information of many kinds, and based on the work of the Darwin project, I would like to argue that counting documents can offer useful insights to the historian.”[43] At the time Montgomery only had a limited amount of digital material to work with, because the Darwin Correspondence Project was still in its infancy. In the mid-90s Michael Ruse revisited this issue. He argued that with new advances in computerised technologies it was essential to digitise correspondences. He discussed how a small firm from San Francisco (called Lightbinders) had produced a CD ROM with some Darwin material on it that included a selection of letters. Ruse argued that with the latest operating system available – which was Windows 95 – correspondence history could be revolutionised. The key to maximising digitised resources was in the searching mechanism of the programme.[44] The more refined the system is at pulling up relevant material, the more a researcher is able to utilise untapped evidence in their studies. Clearly, a lot has changed in computer technology since the late 1980s and mid 1990s. The software technologies available for developing searchable databases have come a long way.Moreover, with open-access websites on the Internet, scholars can now read through thousands of letters from the comfort of their own home. This cuts down on research costs because the scholar no longer needs to travel to specific libraries to gain access to material. It also means more people can do research on historical figures because their correspondences and works are readily available. And yet despite these significant transformations in technology, so much of what Montgomery and Ruse highlighted all those years ago still remains largely overlooked and underdeveloped. There is major work to be done in the digital studies of history of science, especially with regards to correspondence.

The John Tyndall Correspondence Project is still in the process of making an updated calendar of correspondence and it will be included in the final volume of the collection. Originally, the publisher Pickering and Chatto had promised to make the calendar and the letters available online in due course for a fee. So far as I understand, the University of Pittsburgh Press will do the same. Thus, with this in mind, it is important to consider the type of information the transcription team includes in their catalogue. This information has a direct impact on the kinds of material researchers locate in the larger correspondence. For the basic description of each letter it is important to identify the sender and receiver, the date it was written, and their location when writing it. Any graphs, envelopes and enclosures should be listed. Moreover, each file should include some keywords that outline the main discussions in the body of the letter. This will be useful for both the researchers using the printed volumes of the correspondence, and, when the correspondence is made available online, it will greatly improve the search potential of the database.

To sum up, with new technologies available, correspondence projects have the potential to greatly transform research practices. The more thought that is put into developing calendars of correspondence, the more accurate search engines can be at locating relevant material. These changes go hand-in-hand with the methods researchers use for analysing correspondence networks. For instance, short synopses of the individual letters within calendars of correspondence can provide researchers with a general overview of the sorts of private information correspondents were exchanging. Statistical studies can provide further insights that numerically illustrate letter-writing trends. By stepping back and linking these personal exchanges to an historical actor’s larger web of communication, we can see the role various correspondents played in the production of knowledge.


My purpose in this account has been to argue for a more rigorous method of working with correspondences. With careful consideration of how transcription teams, digitise, annotate and catalogue their letters, correspondence history can be transformed. This goes hand-in-hand with new technologies such as software for making searchable databases, and open-access websites. By reflexively considering the way in which nineteenth-century epistles are reorganised during the digitisation process, transcription teams can attempt to preserve as much of the original materiality as possible. Whenever a letter is transferred from one medium to another, certain aspects of it are lost. However, by carefully identifying the editorial changes that a writer made to their letter, and by outlining the physical structure of it, transcribers can limit the amount of information that is lost through the transcription process. As important as it is to produce a detailed method for transcribing and digitising letters for printed volumes and online databases, it is equally significant to develop a more specialised technique for analysing the content. Even the subtlest detail, such as the letterhead at the top of an epistle can open up a series of questions that can lead to interesting research projects.

References [1] There has been some work done on correspondence history by cultural historians. However, they predominantly focussed on correspondence networks, with limited consideration of the digitigialisation of letters and its impact on historical analysis. For example see: John Willis “Introduction” in John Willis (ed.), More than words: Reading in transport, communication and the history of postal communication, (Gatineau, 2007), 3-19; and Christopher Woodal (trans.) and Roger Chartier et al., Correspondence, (Princeton, 1997). There is a large body of scholarship on documentary editing for book collections. Two notable examples are: Mary-Jo Kline, A guide to documentary editing, (Baltimore, 1987); Mary Giunta, “The NHPRC: Its influence on documentary editing, 1964-1984”, American archivist, 49 (1986), 134-41. [2] For examples of printed collections of nineteenth-century correspondences see: Frederick Burkhardt et al. (eds.), The correspondence of Charles Darwin, (18 vols, Cambridge, 1985-); Bernard Lightman et al. (eds.), The correspondence of John Tyndall, (16 vols, London, forthcoming); and Leonard Huxley (ed.), Life and letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, (2 vols, London, 1900). There are several digitalized projects that contain large collections of nineteenth-century correspondences and other primary materials. See: John Tyndall Correspondence Project:; The Charles Darwin Correspondence Project:; The Alfred Rusell Wallace Correspondence Project:; Francis Galton.Org Project: and the Huxley File Online:

[3] Jonathan Topham, “Scientific publishing and the reading of science in nineteenth-century Britain: A historiographical survey and guide to the sources’, Studies in the history and philosophy of science, 31 (2000), 559-612; and James Secord, “Knowledge in transit’, Isis, 95 (2004), 654-72.

[4] James Mussell, “Ownership, institutions, and methodology”, Journal of Victorian culture, 13 (2008), 94-100, p. 98. For more digital humanities and transformations in research methodologies see: David Berry (ed.), Understanding digital humanities, (New York, 2012). [5] James Elwick wrote an unpublished convention guide for the John Tyndall Correspondence Project. See: James Elwick Tyndall correspondence transcription conventions and Tyndallisms, (Toronto, 2011).

[6] There were other off-site transcription teams involved in the Tyndall project including Brock University, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Cambridge, the University of Exeter, The University of Leicester, New York University, and Trinity Dublin College.

[7] For more on the digitisation of primary materials see: James Mussell, The nineteenth-century press in the digital age, (New York, 2012).

[8] For example see: Letter from John Tyndall to Thomas Hirst, 28 May 1853, Order no. 0000505; and Letter from Henry Bence Jones to John Tyndall, 21 March 1853 Order no. 0000491.

[9] Elwick, Tyndall correspondence transcription conventions, 3. [10] Letter from John Tyndall to Thomas Hirst, 17 May 1851, Order no. 0000375. [11] Elwick, Tyndall correspondence transcription conventions, 3.

[12] Montgomery also discussed the importance of annotation in his analysis of the Darwin Correspondence Project. See: Montgomery also discusses the importance of letter writing in Darwin’s research in: Montgomery, “Editing the Darwin correspondence”, (ref. 4), 15. [13] Letter from John Tyndall to Thomas Hirst, (ref. 11), Order no. 0000505. [14] Letter from John Tyndall to Thomas Hirst, (ref. 11), Order no. 0000505. See also: Elwick, Tyndall correspondence transcription conventions, 4-5. [15] Letter from John Tyndall to R. Clausius, 12 October 1870, Order no. 0000369. See also: Elwick, Tyndall Correspondence Transcription Conventions, 5.

[16] Letter from John Tyndall to R. Clausius, Order no. 0000369.

[17] Elwick, Tyndall correspondence transcription conventions, 5. [18] Letter from John Tyndall to Thomas Hirst, 16 June 1853, Order no. 0000506.

[19] For more on the process of transferring nineteenth century text to screen see: Mussell, The nineteenth-century press in the digital age, 1-19. See also: John Bryant, The fluid text: A theory of revision and editing for book and screen, (Ann Arbor, 1992); Gerry Beegan, The mass image: A social history of photomechanical reproduction in Victorian London, (London, 2008).

[20] Topham, “Scientific publishing and the reading of science”, 559-612; and Secord, “Knowledge in transit”, 561. James Mussell also discusses the importance of materiality when working with periodicals. For more see chapter one from: Mussell, The nineteenth-century press in the digital age, 28-68. [21] Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The power of place, (Princeton, 2002), 10-11.

[22] For more on the importance of identifying the socio-political and religious orientation of readers see: Topham, “Scientific publishing and the reading of science”, 569; and Robert Darnton, The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in cultural history, (New York, 1990), 157

[23] For more on Tyndall and his work on the ordnance survey see: D. Thompson, “John Tyndall: A study in vocational enterprise”, The vocational aspects of education, 9 (1957), 38-48. For more on Tyndall’s career see: A.S. Eve and C.H. Creasy, The life and work of John Tyndall, (London, 1945); and Ursula DeYoung, A vision of modern science: John Tyndall and the role of the scientist in Victorian culture, (New York, 2011). [24] Letter from John Tyndall to Sarah Macassey Tyndall, 8 June 1840, Order no. 00005.

[25] Letter from John Tyndall to Sarah Macassey Tyndall, Order no. 00005. [26] Letter from John Tyndall to Emma Tyndall, 16 March 1841, Order no. 000026.

[27] Letter from John Tyndall to William Spottiswoode, 11 October 1877, Order no. 0001521. [28] Letter from John Tyndall to William Spottiswoode, Order no. 0001521.

[29] Letter from John Tyndall to William Spottiswoode, 26 October 1877, Order no. 0001520. [30] Letter from John Tyndall to William Spottiswoode, 11 November 1877, Order no. 0001523.

[31] Browne, Charles Darwin, 10-11. [32] For more on the significance of London in Darwin’s research see: Martin Rudwick, “Charles Darwin in London: the integration of public and private science”, Isis, 73 (1982), 186-206; and William Montgomery, “Editing the Darwin correspondence: A quantitative perspective”, British journal for the history of science, 20 (1987), 20-22. See also: Michael Ruse, ‘The Darwin industry: A guide”, Victorian studies, 39 (1996), 217-235; and Tyler Veak, “Exploring Darwin’s correspondence: Some important but lesser known correspondents and projects”, Archives of natural history, 30 (2003), 118-38. [33] Letter from Charles Darwin to John Tyndall, 7 September 1870, Order no. 0001448. [34] Montgomery also discusses the importance of letter writing in Darwin’s research in: Montgomery, “Editing the Darwin correspondence”, 13-27. [35] Browne, Charles Darwin, 11. [36] Browne, Charles Darwin, (ref. 5), 11-12. [37] Letter from Charles Lyell to John Tyndall, 21 March 1873, Order no. 0001971. [38] Montgomery, “Editing the Darwin correspondence”, 15-16. [39] There is much to be gained by looking at Spencer’s discussions on health matters in his letters to Tyndall between 1887-1891. For more see: Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 16 March 1887, Order no.: 0001770; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 17 May 1887, Order no. 0001771; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 20 May 1887, Order no. 0001772; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 29 September 1887, Order no. 0001773; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 28 October 1887, Order no. 0001774; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 16 November 1887, Order no. 0001775; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 30 November 1888, Order no. 0001776; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 12 June 1889, (Order: Number 0001777); Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 22 November 1889, Order no. 0001778; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 9 December 1889, Order no. 0001779; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 12 December 1889, Order no. 0001780; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 8 February 1890, Order no. 0001781; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 5 June 1890), Order no. 0001782; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 22 August 1890, Order no. 0001783; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 24 November, 1890, Order no. 0001784; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 3 February 1891, Order no. 0001785; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 24 February 1891, Order no. 0001786; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 1 April 1891, Order no. 0001787; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 2 April 1891, Order no. 0001788; Letter from Herbert Spencer to John Tyndall, 4 April 1891, Order no. 0001789. [40] Montgomery, “Editing the Darwin correspondence”, 18. Moore also discusses ways of analysing correspondents statistic in: Moore, “Darwin’s genesis and revelations”, 574-76.

[41] [1] James Moore, “Darwin’s genesis and revelations. Essay review of A calendar of the correspondence of Charles Darwin, 1821-1882 by Frederick Burkhardt; Sydney Smith; David Kohn; William Montgomery; The correspondence of Charles Darwin.Volume I: 1821-1836 by Frederick Burkhardt et al.”, Isis76(1985), 570–580; and Montgomery, “Editing the Darwin correspondence”, 13-27. See also: Ruse, “The Darwin industry”, 118-38.

[42] Moore, “Darwin’s genesis and revelations”, (ref. 4): 574. [43] Montgomery, “Editing the Darwin correspondence”, (ref. 4), 15. [44] Ruse, ‘The Darwin industry”, (ref. 4), 219-20.

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