Here are some thoughts on a part of the history of intellectual collaboration, presented with some fully-populated COinS (generated with the COinS Generator), and with some applications to the present day. Grab a COinS resolver bookmarklet to see the OpenURL buttons; bookmarklets for about 900 institutions are available there, and if yours isn’t available you can easily modify one. Or just view the source of this page and search for “Z3988” to see them.

I picked up Elizabeth Ann Danto’s new book Freud’s Free Clinics [COinS] from the new book table at the public library the other day. It describes the efforts of the early psychoanalytic movement to extend their services to the poor in the 1920s and 1930s. The Nazis forced most of the German school into exile and eventually extinguished the free clinics, but the members of the psychoanalytic diaspora kept their intellectual collaboration active by means of circular letters or Rundbriefe:

Over three thousand pages were exchanged, mostly typed on thin white paper, double-spaced, carbon copies or mimeographs, each page hand corrected. Some of the longer letters are really loosely bound packages of information containing facsimiles of letters between analysts outside the Rundbriefe circle, newspaper and journal clippings, programs, some with fragments of earlier circular letters attached. Generally, the letters are long and laboriously detailed, averaging twenty-three pages and ranging from ten pages to eighty pages, carefully numbered and serialized, and written in an inelegant executive style. (p.266)

Most of the letters originated with Otto Fenichel in Oslo. Between 1934 and 1945, 119 letters were circulated, some to an inner circle and some to a wider group. They made their way around the circle, accumulating annotations, until they returned to Fenichel.

To today’s readers, the Rundbriefe may be a history of psychoanalysis, politics, and new publications. But to those who wrote them, day after day, the letters stood as tingling reminders of late-night arguments in smoky rooms of their old café world. (p.284)

For many years only a part of the Rundbriefe were known to historians, and those were difficult to access. In the early 1990s, however, an account was published of Fenichel’s complete original set, preserved in the library of the Austin Riggs Center (Harris and Brock, 1991 ( [COinS]; I found the reference here). They were deposited there by Fenichel’s colleague and translater David Rapaport. “As of this writing they are fragile sheets of old typing paper attached by rusting paperclips.” (Danto, p.9). Historians are lucky that they were preserved.

Parallels in the modern blogosphere aren’t far to seek; but as I started to draft a posting, I ran into a comparative study of the letter-writing habits of Darwin and Einstein over at Pharyngula (Oliveira and Barabási, 2005 [COinS]). During the last 30 years of their lives, Einstein wrote on average a letter a day, Darwin a little over half that. They both answered less than a third of the letters they received; when they answered, they generally did so within 10 days. The authors refer to an earlier study of email activity, showing a similar pattern covering a higher volume of correspondence and quicker response times, as you’d expect. Darwin and Einstein preserved their correspondence, or had people to do it for them. Where is my old email?

Today, the analogue to the Rundbrief is the blog: a posting to a research-oriented blog is often a “loosely bound package of information”, with quotations from email correspondence and links to news items or conference programs or earlier postings. The comments from others in the field are often as valuable as the posting itself. The blog posting benefits from technological possibilities that have no analogue in the circular letter: it is embedded in a system of trackbacks, RSS feeds and search engines that keep it engaged with other conversations in a way that is easy to navigate.

All of this makes us capable of collaborating on projects large and small at a faster pace and in more detail than ever before. But how can a digital library do for blogs what the Austin Riggs Center is doing for the Rundbriefe? We need to capture the network of links and trackbacks and make them all navigable. I hope someone is figuring this out…