Mark Twain Project

My friends at the University of California Press and the California Digital Library project last week launched a beta version of the Mark Twain Project, an astonishing archive bringing together more than 2300 of Twain’s letters, painstakingly edited and catalogued, all searchable, with a robust citation-saving feature. The project will in the future include editions of Twain’s published writing as well.

From the press release:

Mark Twain Project Online (MTPO) applies innovative technology to more than four decades of archival research by expert editors at the Mark Twain Project. It offers unfettered, intuitive access to reliable texts, accurate and exhaustive notes, and the most recently discovered letters and documents.

MTPO is a joint undertaking of the Mark Twain Papers and Project, the California Digital Library, and University of California Press. It is funded in part by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to the Mark Twain Project, and is supported by a number of institutions and individuals. The Mark Twain Foundation, a perpetual charitable trust that possesses the publication rights to all of Mark Twain’s writings, has given UC Press and Mark Twain Project Online exclusive rights to publish copyright-protected writings by Mark Twain, both in print and electronically.

At beta launch, the site will include more than twenty-three hundred letters written between 1853 and 1880, including nearly 100 facsimiles of originals. Users will also be able to search for information about Mark Twain’s complete correspondence across his entire life, including letters to him and his family. In future years, the site will release more of the nearly ten thousand known letters, including many never-before published; electronic editions of many of Mark Twain’s most famous literary works; the most complete catalog of Mark Twain’s writings currently available; and, in 2010, Mark Twain’s Autobiography, never before published in its complete form…

The customizable interface provides a powerful reading and research experience. The site offers users unprecedented access to authoritative transcriptions of Mark Twain’s writings and to compare those transcriptions side by side with facsimiles when available. Researchers can gather and store digital citations and links to selected documents, images, and other resources. These features are supported, in large part, by the California Digital Library’s eXtensible Text Framework (XTF) and the ongoing work of The Textual Encoding Initiative (TEI).

This project is of a kind that seems to me ideally suited for digital publishing; the costs of producing this kind of reference material in print couldn’t be justified by many presses, resulting in a multi-volume library-oriented set that would be much too expensive for most individual readers. Beyond that, however, the material itself becomes much more useful when it’s manipulable by the researcher (see, for instance, Scott Eric Kaufman’s early experience of the archive), and when the archive itself can grow as such research continues. I’ll be looking forward to seeing how the project develops from here.

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