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"Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters from the Malay Archipelago" by van Wyhe and Rookmaaker
on 3 November 2013
I had been looking forward to reading John van Wyhe and Kees Rookmaaker's new book Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters from the Malay Archipelago as the adverts for it state that it contains "recently discovered letters". I was keen to see these and add them to our comprehensive online archive of all of Wallace's correspondence, Wallace Letters Online ([...] and was at the same time puzzled by how they had found letters which we had missed! Turning to the list of letters in Appendix 1 of their book which lists the repositories which own the originals of the letters plus other details about them, I saw that 5 letters did not have WCP numbers - the unique identifiers which our Wallace Correspondence Project gives to each letter that we catalogue. Great, I thought, these must be the ones we missed! I was to be disappointed, however, as every one of them was already present in our database, and clearly the authors had simply omitted the WCP numbers for them.
Searching through the book for reference to the Wallace Correspondence Project, I eventually found that the project had been briefly mentioned in the Acknowledgements - but strangely, nowhere in the book is our online archive, Wallace Letters Online, mentioned or its url given. Good scholarship should dictate that it was cited in the book's reference list at least (for no other reason than the fact that our project's "WCP" numbers are given, yet readers will not know what their significance is), but it was not. This 'oversight' is rather ironic given van Wyhe's frequent complaints that scholars do not cite his "Darwin Online" resource in their publications! I also spotted the following misleading statement in the Acknowledgements "..we provided early transcriptions of the letters in this volume to the WCP project." This seems to imply that the transcripts of these letters in Wallace Letters Online, are perhaps based on the transcripts sent to the project by van Wyhe, but this is far from the case. He sent these transcripts to us a long time ago, and they were full of errors and lacked formatting. They were sent in order that he could check that we had no letters that he had missed - not so we could use the transcripts! In fact all of the letters in our online archive were transcribed directly from scans of the originals by our many volunteers - so no thanks are due to van Wyhe and Rookmaaker in this regard! Ironically, the publisher (OUP) even cautioned us against using the transcripts published in the book - despite the fact that the Wallace Literary Estate, which I am a co-executor of, owns the copyright of all of Wallace's unpublished writings. They wrote "Van Wyhe and Rookmaaker's particular interpretation of the letters should not be used by anyone else without applying for permission to OUP." and "The editors' copyright is quite separate...it covers any editorial input, including their interpretations of defaced or illegible words, as well as interpolations, arrangement, and all scholarly apparatus."
Finally, the Wallace Literary Estate, permitted van Wyhe and OUP to publish copyrighted letters written by Wallace for no charge. Normally the Estate would charge a fee for commercial publication of such texts (note that no permission is required for non-commercial publication). Although copyright of these letters is stated in tiny print on the second page of the book, no thanks are given in the Acknowledgements to the Wallace Literary Estate for generously waiving our fees... We weren't even sent a free copy of the book!
These gripes aside, I do think that it is nice to have the letters in 'hard copy' so I would recommend this book. Do bear in mind though, that every letter in it is also present in Wallace Letters Online, and that WLO also contains images of the actual letters, plus other information about them, which this book lacks. To see and read all of Wallace's letters from the Malay Archipelago in Wallace Letters Online go to: [...]