Many contemporary DH visualizations of historical networks are built on the data amassed in traditional nineteenth-century collections. One obvious ideological trait shared by existing data sets and the first wave of positivist research is their concentration on the “great man,” a vestige of the nineteenth century efforts at building a literary canon around certain writers. In German, a great deal of information is centered around Goethe which makes him seem more important than he already was at the time. We can easily access minute details about the social life of Frankfurt during the time that he grew up there, however similar information about daily life in Stuttgart or Hamburg is less readily available. Stanford’s Republic of Letters case study of Voltaire states that its visual map shows that only about 10% of Voltaire’s correspondence, because many of the 19,000 letters collected do not have precise location references.
The expectation then is that the network shown is representative of the overall grid. However, European collection building has always been a tenuous process, often disfigured by war and politics. To what extent can DH projects incorporate the history of data collection into its own presentations?
When existing visualizations of the Republic of letters are centered around canonical individuals, they do not consider the wider European network except as it intersected with Voltaire. More importantly the history of archiving is not represented in the map of Voltaire’s correspondences. The visualization does not show the gaps in the archive the same way that a temporal organization does. For example, if there are no letters between certain time periods, this is does not appear in the visualization. If there are letters missing—something which a close reading would perhaps more clearly show by the fact that the collected letters would refer to lost letters, the visualization, as it now stands, does not. The visualization does not represent the ideologies of collecting, the influence of celebrity, personal whim, war, funding, etc. on the accumulation of the archive. Goethe, not so famously, burned most his correspondence and diaries related to his father. We can interpret this destruction, but how do we show it on a map?
What we need is an historical understanding of meta-data’s compilation. How and why were the letters of Voltaire and Goethe organized into national archives? How can we visualize that which was lost, forgotten, destroyed? How does digital humanities examine absence?