COST is an intergovernmental framework for European Cooperation in Science and Technology. It exists to coordinate on a European level ongoing research that is funded nationally. Rather than funding research itself, resource creation, or IT systems development, COST Actions provide the networking support needed to ensure that nationally funded initiatives add up to something greater than the sum of their individual parts.
COST Action IS1310 Reassembling the Republic of Letters, 1500–1800 is therefore essentially a networking programme. It emerged in response to the expectation that that the ongoing revolution in digital communications technology can solve the scholarly problem created by the evolution of postal communication in the early modern period: the problem, namely, of piecing back together corpora of manuscript correspondence deliberately scattered across and beyond entire continents. In essence, a new scholarly network is needed in order to study the older scholarly network of the early modern period. To sustain this new network, we need a new breed of digital networking tools; and the purpose of this Action is to assemble the network needed to design these tools: a network to devise a networking platform to support a network studying past networks.
The objectives of this Action are, therefore, essentially two-fold: technical and historiographical. The technical objective is to plan a state-of-the-art digital system within which to collect a pan-European pool of highly granular data on the Republic of Letters. This involves designing tools for collecting, standardizing, navigating, analysing, and visualizing unprecedented quantities of epistolary data, and for facilitating new forms of international and interdisciplinary scholarly collaboration, thereby consolidating a new virtual Republic of Letters. Neither technical innovation nor resource creation, however, are undertaken as ends in themselves: rather, they are devoted to serving the second, historiographical agenda, which both generates the fresh research questions needed to design the infrastructure and uses the emerging technology to devise new methods, pose new questions, and answer old ones.
The scope of an Action capable of pursuing these objectives is therefore necessarily both pan-European and highly interdisciplinary. As of August 2015, 31 of the 35 COST member countries are formal partners to this Action. This community is likewise highly interdisciplinary: as well as scholars from numerous humanistic disciplines, it relies on the combined expertise of archivists, librarians, and specialists in a wide range of digital technologies as well as visualization, communication, and intellectual property law.
The work of the Action is conducted primarily in six Working Groups and a series of annual Conferences. Dividing the technical agenda between them, the Working Groups seek collectively to address the main technical issues involved in devising transnational digital infrastructure to serve this field, as well as the legal agreements and scholarly conventions which that infrastructure requires. Agreeing this agenda and distributing the work in involved in pursuing it was the agenda of the Action’s first Conference, which met in Oxford in March 2015. The parallel historiographical agenda will be the focus of the second Conference, taking place in Warsaw, 11-15 June 2016. These two agendas must proceed in parallel, since the relationship between them is reciprocal: just as the infrastructure must be designed to address scholarly research questions, possibilities opened up by the new infrastructure must shape the historiographical agenda in turn.
The activities funded by COST also include Workshops held at irregular intervals depending on need, Training Schools designed to induct younger scholars into the techniques and methods being pioneered by the group, and Short Term Scientific Missions (STSMs), which fund international exchange visits within the network likewise targeted at colleagues in early career. Invitations to apply for Training Schools and STSM will be posted on the News section of the website and circulated to all those on the Action’s email list.
Participation in the Action can take a number of different forms. The Action is coordinated by a Chair and Vice-Chair and administered by a Grant Manager. Responsibility for the Working Groups is devolved to six WG Leaders, who also make up the Action’s Steering Group, together with the Chair, Vice-Chair, STSM Coordinator, Webmaster, and the Coordinator of the forthcoming conference.
Ultimate decision-making authority rests with a Management Committee, composed of up to two members from each participating country, each of whom can nominate one substitute to represent them when they are unable to attend. Every Management Committee Member is also a member of a Working Group, which also include a small number of additional Working Group Members specially recruited to add necessary expertise. Affiliates to the Action can also participate in discussions via the Members Only portion of this website. Scholars in early career can also participate via Training Schools and STSMs. The Contacts page allows interested parties to join the Action’s email list and receive a regular newsletter and other bulletins.