Howard Hotson, Faculty of History, University of Oxford, gives a talk for the DHOXSS 2015.
Between 1500 and 1800, the development of increasingly affordable, reliable, and accessible postal systems allowed scholars to scatter correspondence across and beyond Europe. This epistolary exchange knit together the self-styled 'republic of letters', an international, knowledge-based civil society central to that era's intellectual breakthroughs and formative for many of modern Europe's values and institutions. Despite its importance, the republic of letters remains poorly integrated into early modern European intellectual history, and this primarily for one simple reason: its core practice of creating communities by dispersing archives of manuscripts has posed insuperable difficulties to subsequent generations of historians attempting to reconstruct the very documents which established this community. The ongoing revolution in digital communication provides, for the first time, an adequate medium for reassembling the material dispersed by the earlier revolution in postal communication; but before this potential can be realized we need, not merely to adapt the technology to the task, but also to adapt our working methods and scholarly cultures to the technology. More specifically, we need (1) to create an interdisciplinary network of archivists, librarians, IT systems developers, experts in communication and design, educationalists, and scholars from many different fields (2) to design the networking infrastructure and scholarly practices needed (3) to support an international scholarly community devoted (4) to piecing back together the scattered documentation of the international republic of letters. In other words, we need a network to design a network to support a network reconstructing networks: Networking⁴.