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Bringing Correspondence Collections into Conversation

The George Engelmann Papers at the Missouri Botanical Garden contain a great deal of personal letters recieved by Engelmann throughout his life from his many correspondents. The collection does not contain many outgoing letters at all. The few letters that Engelmann wrote himself may be unmailed drafts or they were perhaps returned to him in some fashion, such as those from Berlin that may have been brought back by his son George Julius. Engelmann's outgoing correspondence is scattered in archives around the world, and this is not uncommon. Many archives contain large correspondence collections similarly built around a first-person perspective, and efforts to digitize them more often than not promote a similar perspective.

In an effort to identify the much larger decentralized network that Engelmann lived in, we have been seeking to identify collections at other institutions that contain letters from Engelmann. Foremost on our mind are the John Torrey Papers at the New York Botanical Garden and the Asa Gray Papers at Harvard's Gray Herbarium. Gray, Torrey, and Engelmann spearheaded much of the botanical exploration of the American West in the 1840s that formed the focus of the Digitizing Engelmann's Legacy project. Harvard biologist Elizabeth Shaw called them the "triumvirate" of 19th century American botany.1 The network visualization shown below identifies some of the correspondents shared by the three men. This visualization is based on three lists of correspondents pulled from the collections of Gray (top), Engelmann (bottom left), and Torrey (bottom right). The names in the center are common to all three collections and the names on the sides to just two. It is highly likely that there are more shared correspondents than seen here, because the lists have not yet been vetted against controlled authorities. It is possible that the same person can be in all three collections under three different names and represented here as three isolated correspondents.

A good example of the problem of authorities arose from a similar visualization made of the correspondents of the Darwin Correspondence Project (bottom) and the Alfred Russel Wallace Correspondence Project (top), shown below.2 In these two much larger lists pulled together not from isolated collections but from extensive searches of many archives, there were similar issues. One contained Darwin, Charles and the other Darwin, Charles Robert. These two different people in the computer were in fact the same person in history.

As the Engelmann Correspondence Project has crawled letter by letter through Engelmann's papers, many names have been fixed and better data has been curated. While we admit to some possible error in the compiling of names, the method remains true. Putting the two visualizations above into one, we can see a fantastically complicated image of 19th century natural history emerging from the data.

1. Elizabeth A. Shaw, "Changing Botany in North America: 1835-1860 The Role of George Engelmann" Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 73 (3) 1986, p 508-519. View in BotanicusView in Biodiversity Heritage Library

2. The compiling of these lists would not have been possible without the generous assistance of Dr. George Beccaloni of the Alfred Russel Wallace Correspondence Project.
 
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