Materiality in editions of 20th-century paperbound correspondence

Authors: Bohl, Benjamin W. / Ried, Dennis / Dziurla, Patrick / Kehrer, Philipp / Bleier, Katharina / Franz, Jannik / Kollatz, Thomas

Date: Wednesday, 6 September 2023, 9:15am to 10:45am

Location: Main Campus, L 1 <campus:stage>



Around the mid of the 19th century, new technologies emerged that revolutionised the writing and dispatching of postal documents – the invention of the telegraph or the prevalence of typewriters and copying machines, to name just a few. This shifting media landscape is characterised by a diversity that peaks in the 20th century. Consequently, letter editions are confronted with manifold appearances and manifestations: postcards, letter cards, telegrams, aerogrammes, handwritten letters with pre-printed passages, typescript letters, and many more – all of which might contain handwritten corrections or additions.

The diversity of carrier and writing media, technologies and techniques is a massive challenge for critical editions, not only regarding the contents – the actual message – but also the document itself – the carrier medium. But what is the state of the art when dealing with such material? Does the medium influence the content? How do we adequately handle its materiality? What challenges arise in the process?

The current TEI model for encoding correspondence implements a solid, prototypical content model for a letter body (<opener>, <content>, <closer>). However, the diverging forms of 20th-century correspondence push this model towards its limits, especially when they neglect parts of this prototype (<opener> or <closer>) or add to it (address blocks, other content such as poems, drawings or written music in extensive postscripts) or are entirely free-form compositions. It is nevertheless desirable to semantically differentiate between formal aspects and the actual content of a letter. While thinking of opener and closer as the disposable parts of a letter might be perfectly true for, e.g., a corpus analysis, informally addressing a friend with his nickname or leading with an austere subject line also transport appreciation, emotion or professional distance.

Moreover, business letterheads, postcards and telegrams introduce new formal (pre-printed) structures, i.e., defined areas for specific information. For example, telegraph forms do not only contain fields for origin, destination and the actual message but also for the documentation of dispatch, transmission and reception of the telegraph message. On the one hand, these constitute an additional layer that might cause structural conflicts with existing TEI models. On the other hand, they constrain the authors when writing their message, thus provoking creativity when available space gets scarce: not only by maximising the density of a message within a limited number of characters (even resulting in a specific ‘telegram style’ of language) but also by exceeding across the spatial boundaries of a postcard, where text on the illustrated side or on the margins are no rarities.

But what should be considered the primary structure of a corresponding encoding: the logical text sequence or the spatial distribution and the description of the carrier, i.e., the materiality of the document? Is it not the interference of textual layers – the pre-printed text parts, handwritten additions, patched elements (e.g., glued in), stamps etc. – that needs to be addressed and calls for concepts of transcription or even edition of the carrier medium instead of banning its particularities to abstract descriptions?

How the panel will be structured

This panel brings together editors of correspondence from different disciplines. The following projects have stated their active participation:

After a short general introduction to the discussed field, the intention is to motivate discussion by the panellists and the audience as soon as possible. In order to guide the discussion, the panellists will give short impulse presentations on aspects of the topics described above that will be interleaved by time for general discussion.

We plan to document the event and present the outcomes to facilitate further discussion, e.g., within the SIG Correspondence or the wider TEI community.

About the authors

Benjamin W. Bohl – Goethe University Frankfurt

Dennis Ried – University of Paderborn

Patrick Dziurla – Goethe University Frankfurt

Philipp Kehrer – Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien

Katharina Bleier – Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien

Jannik Franz – Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien

Thomas Kollatz – Akademie der Wissenschaften und Literatur | Mainz

Contribution Type