Cracking the Code: Overcoming the Challenges of Encoding Correspondence

Authors: Grigoriou, Dimitra

Date: Wednesday, 6 September 2023, 2:15pm to 3:45pm

Location: Main Campus, L 2.202 <campus:measure>


W. H. Auden (1907-1973), a prominent figure in the English-language literary landscape of the twentieth century. Despite extensive scholarly exploration of Auden’s English and American periods, his life and artistic contributions in Austria remain comparatively under-explored. It was not until the early 2000s that this aspect of the poet’s life began to garner scholarly attention, as evidenced by the works of Mendelson (2004) and Smith (2004). A new project at the Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities provides an open-access scholarly digital edition (SDE) that renders accessible the hitherto unattainable “working correspondence” between Auden and Stella Musulin, a writer of Welsh-Austrian origin, dating from 1959-1973 exchanged.

The decision to employ TEI for encoding the materials was predicated on its provision of conventions that facilitate the description of a text’s physical and semantic structure (Burnard, 2014; Pierazzo, 2015b). Within the TEI language, the <correspDesc> tag affords comprehensive guidelines for encoding correspondence by specifying various types of correspondence actions (i.e., sent, received, forwarded, redirected). We aimed at making these communicative activities explicit in formal representations of the information extracted from the materials; nonetheless, in some of the documents making clear distinctions between the categories proved challenging. While our objective was to classify our data within these four categories, we released the need to supplement the existing list of <correspAction> types with a new type, “composed”. Our analysis has revealed that the location and date of letter composition may differ from the location and date of its dispatch, which cannot be accommodated by the current encoding standards. Bibliographic resources (such as Stadler, Illetschko and Seifert 2016,12) acknowledge this peculiarity but fail, at least to our knowledge, to highlight and include this necessary information in the metadata. The solution we propose not only addresses the specific requirements of our project but also satisfies the broader academic imperative of encoding correspondence, particularly in relation to letters from earlier historical periods which may include additional postal specificities such as postal service, stamps, etc.


Burnard, Lou. 2014. What is the Text Encoding Initiative? OpenEdition Press.

Mendelson, Edward. 2005. ‘The European Auden’. In: Smith, S. (ed), The Cambridge Companion to W. H. Auden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 55-67,

Pierazzo, Elena. 2015. ‘Textual Scholarship and Text Encoding’. In: A New Companion to Digital Humanities (pp. 307–321). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Smith, Stan. 2005. ‘Introduction’. In: Smith, S. (ed), The Cambridge Companion to W. H. Auden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-14,

Stadler Peter, Illetschko, Marcel and Seifert, Sabine. 2016, ‘Towards a Model for Encoding Correspondence in the TEI: Developing and Implementing <correspDesc>’. In: Journal of the Text Encoding Initiative [Online], Issue 9 | September 2016 - December 2017, Online since 24 September 2016, connection on 19 April 2019. URL:; DOI: 10.4000/jtei.1433.

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