During the past two years, the Library has been engaged in an innovative project to rescue and preserve the email archive of Manchester-based Carcanet Press, one of the UK’s leading poetry publishers.
Carcanet publishes poetry in English from across the world, poetry in translation, and new editions of work by earlier poets, as well as a range of fiction, lives and letters, and literary criticism. Carcanet count among their writers both national and Nobel Laureates – and even one former Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Carcanet Press Archive is one of the Library’s most outstanding modern collections. Filling around 1,300 boxes, it contains manuscripts, proofs and letters of poets, editors, critics, translators and many others from across the globe, dating from 1969 to the present.
Since the turn of the century, the Carcanet correspondence files making their way to the Library have diminished in size – reflecting the gradual shift to digital communication. In more recent years, only a tiny proportion of email was being printed off for posterity, with the rest languishing on hard drives and local networks at the Carcanet office – safe for the time being, but potentially at risk with the passing of time and changing technology.
In 2012, we made our first acquisition of email from the Press, augmenting this with another batch last year. This extends to around 225,000 email messages (with their attachments), covering a twelve-year period. Literary correspondence has always been a goldmine for biographers and critics, and email is perhaps even more valuable as it captures those elusive exchanges which formerly took place by phone or face-to-face. It also provides a fertile resource for other types of researcher, including linguists and sociologists.
The preservation challenges for custodians of ‘born-digital’ archive material like this are complex, but now we have resolved the basic preservation issues, we are beginning to think about how access to large digital archives like this might be managed in the future. Currently, the archive is closed for data protection and copyright reasons. However, we have begun exploring ways in which certain types of access might be possible without compromising privacy or IPR.
One of these is data visualisation. At a basic level, we can depict the volume of email exchanged over a specific time period. The simple graphs reproduced here are based on exchanges between Michael Schmidt (Carcanet’s Managing and Editorial Director) and three different correspondents, the bars above the line representing his outgoing messages and those below the number of messages received from each individual.
These provide a useful visual summary and reveal obvious peaks and troughs which may immediately be meaningful to a researcher working on a specific writer or publication. They also reveal degrees of mutuality in correspondence which, as illustrated by the larger example below, can sometimes be rather lacking.
Network graphs are more complex, and altogether more beautiful. We have only begun to scratch the surface of these as yet.
In the examples shown here, the nodes are individual correspondents, with the lines representing both direct and indirect relationships between them.
When interrogated closely, these graphs reveal many simple one-to-one relationships, but there are also lots of small groupings where two or three individuals participate in the same ongoing thread of correspondence. Larger groupings represent distribution lists, and in some cases a single individual links two otherwise distinct groups.
Networks could be based around a single writer represented in the archive, or around a series of keywords; they could be mapped over time – perhaps to plot the progress of a specific publication, and as Carcanet Press is the hub of a global literary network, this kind of mapping can be particularly illuminating. My favourite graph, shown below, also rather aptly illustrates the email ‘explosion’ of recent years.