Library digitizes key British correspondence

The Lewis Walpole Library recently finished digitizing Horace Walpole’s letters.
The Lewis Walpole Library recently finished digitizing Horace Walpole’s letters. Photo by Sterling Memorial Library .

The Lewis Walpole Library has finished digitizing the complete correspondence of Horace Walpole, a British Parliamentarian, novelist, architect and art collector.

Uploading the 48-volume collection containing letters spanning roughly seventy years has been on the library’s to-do list for five or six years, W. S. Lewis Librarian and Executive Director Margaret Powell said, and has been in the works for about a year — it was finally finished earlier this month. She added that the digitization was prompted in part by the multiple scholars who had contacted the library to request that these materials, which are out of print, be put online.

Walpole, an aristocrat who lived from 1717 to 1797, was involved in all aspects of 18th century British society. His letters are his most important written legacy and provide a broad window into the time period, scholars said.

“He was up to the minute with politics, art, and literature,” Powell said. “He also had a very wicked sense of humor and liked gossip, so you get a combination of very human revelations and expressions with the careful reporting of somebody who was in on much of what was going on.”

The library, located an hour from New Haven in Farmington, CT, is Yale’s center for research on 18th century Britain. Its buildings and a large part of its collections were gifts to the University from Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis ’18, who began collecting and editing Walpole’s works in the 1920s and donated his trove of 18th century manuscripts and artifacts — chief among them Walpole’s correspondence — to Yale at the time of his death in 1979.

Powell said the digital versions of the letters have two important advantages: they enable scholars to search the enormous collection by keyword, and they make it possible to access the letters from any computer.

The correspondence’s digitization has also given professors more flexibility as they design their syllabi, said history professor Steven Pincus, who specializes in 17th and 18th century British history.

“Previously, I could only assign a letter or two and make copies,” Pincus said. “Now, I can tell my students to write short essays based on the correspondence and use a variety of topics.”

History professor Stuart Semmel, who specializes in modern British history and Britain’s empire, said he has already used the search function to focus his research and sift through the 48 volumes as efficiently as possible. He was curious about the theme of slavery in Walpole’s lifetime, and searched for “sugar” to find references to the sugar and slave trades.

Students who read Walpole as part of their research will also find the search function useful. Christian Burset LAW ’13, who spent a summer studying at the library on a fellowship, said he would have appreciated such a tool when he approached Walpole’s letters.

“The physical act of browsing and going through the index of the 48-volume set can be really overwhelming,” he said.

Once researchers get beyond the sheer size of the collection, Semmel said Walpole’s letters are not only an important resource but also a “pleasure to read.”

“His correspondence is so well-written that it puts all of our texts and tweets to shame,” he said with a laugh.

The digitization benefits those outside the Yale community as well: anyone with Internet can now access the correspondence free of charge. Previously, the letters were only available in their entirety at scholarly libraries.

English and art history major Zoe Mercer-Golden ’13 said she is glad Yale’s libraries are part of the movement towards digitization, which makes it increasingly easy to share important materials.

“I think at Yale, we live in this beautiful ivory tower where we exclusively have access to so many resources,” she said. “But now, if you’re interested in Walpole and you live in Arkansas, you can also access it.”

The digitization project is ongoing. Library staff said they hope to eventually add 18th century illustrations and an index sidebar to the online correspondence.

Comments

  • seth_denbo

    It’s great to see that this finally available. I’ve been waiting for digital access to this amazing collection of letters for years. It’s often my first stop when an idea for a new project in eighteenth-century English history begins to form, because Walpole was so interested in and engaged with such a broad range of the culture and society of the time. It will be great to be able to do keyword searches on the collection. I’ve played around a little with it and I have to say that the interface is rather clunky, and awkward to use. There are so many good examples of how to do a search interface for this kind of primary source collection that it’s a shame that the LWL didn’t find a more user friendly solution. It would also be useful to be able to get ahold of the underlying data if a scholar is interested in doing more sophisticated analyses on it.

    Since the article doesn’t provide the URL for the collection here the [Lewis Walpole Library's homepage][1] which has a few other digital collections as well.

    [1]: http://www.library.yale.edu/walpole/