“They would have tickled Shakespeare’s fancy”

[Translate to Englisch:] Prof. Dr. Stefan Schmunk

Prof. Dr. Stefan Schmunk recently called into life a project quite literally close to peoples’ hearts. As part of a research project to create a digital library of “hugs and kisses – the love-letters people send to one-another” he deals with all of the various ways people express love for one-another. An expert in computer science and digital archiving, the professor is focussed on helping interested parties by developing an app to facilitate their academic work on digitalised love-letters. The love-letter archive is based at Koblenz University. “Hugs and kisses” is a joint project between Darmstadt Technical University, Darmstadt University and State Library, Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences and Koblenz University.

An interview conducted by Nico Damm on 22.3.2021

impact: do you recall writing your own first love-letter?

Schmunk: not in great detail, I can’t quite recall who I wrote it to, nor precisely when this was. It must have been around the ‘Sturm and Drang period’ we all go through aged 13 to 14. In all probability I would have adorned it with a red rose.

impact: wow, a romantic soul!

Schmunk: what can I say, you focus and then do your best.

impact: how can love-letters be defined?

Schmunk: primarily it is a way to express deep affection for someone, but there are no set rules on how to do this. My colleague Andrea Rapp, Professor at the Institute for Language and Literary Studies at Darmstadt Technical University, refers fondly to ‘sweet little pillow notes’ that many partners lovingly place there for each-other. Unfamiliar with the term myself, I realised my wife and I have been communicating in this way for ages. Eva Wyss, a colleague who teaches at Koblenz University, and who initiated this project over 20 years ago by beginning to collect love-letters, tells of curious objects she’s recognised as likewise fitting the bill, such as graffiti, which has the added treat of also being a public declaration. The ubiquitous “I love you name!” flourishes that often adorn bridges, we class these as love-letters as well. Love-letters are similarly not limited to traditional forms of love – between married couples, for example – for they can also express affection between relatives or friends.

impact: why is it important for us to preserve, to conserve love-letters?

Schmunk: they are essential aspects of our cultural heritage, in particular as everyday, commonplace facets. The vast majority of love-letters we’ve managed to salvage to date were written by well-known people. What is seldom available are those written by perfectly normal people, supplying records of how they communicated with, and expressed their affection for, one-another. Love-letters exist across the world throughout the social fabric of every culture. Today, many are in the form of text messages. This creates such an inherently transitory state which I fear will make it difficult to comprehend expressions of 21st century everyday culture in the future.

impact: how many of the love-letters stored in the archive have you yourself read?

Schmunk: perhaps a few dozen of the roughly 22,000. There are some genuine tidbits that offer insights into specific eras, social classes and backgrounds which I find really fascinating.

impact: how would you rate the literary quality of those you have read?

Schmunk: I reckon we have enough material there for several feature films. There are soldiers’ love-letters sent from the frontlines during both World Wars, telling their loved ones at home how they are faring. Or letters sent during the 1950s between a gay couple – so at a time in history when their love was illicit, and which would therefore have presented a legal risk for many years to come. These letters express a lot of affection, along with the constant fear of being discovered. We’ve got letters written by people who are married – yet to someone else. They would have tickled Shakespeare’s fancy. Some of the letters in the archive are of a genuinely high literary quality. Yet what fascinates me the most as a cultural historian is the way they depict everyday life. The archive is a magnificent, lifetime achievement of Eva Wyss’s (editor’s note: Professor Eva L. Wyss from the Institute for German Studies at Koblenz-Landau University.).

impact: Eva Wyss also asserts that to this day love-letters remain a male preserve. Can you explain this?

Schmunk: this is a 19th century development that still holds sway. Originally a man would traditionally attempt to woo a woman using plenty of love-letters. Apparently, this rule that men court via love-letters is so robust it became anchored. Moreover, I feel we are still miles away from having authentic emancipated societies in either Germany or Europe in general.

impact: which types of people tended to write the majority of letters in the archive – can you see a pattern?

Schmunk: we’ve got letters written by people from a broad spectrum of social backgrounds and classes. Most of those written in the 19th century, for instance, stem from the middle and so-called educated class. Literacy in Germany increased so sharply in the second half of the 19th century that reading and writing became a matter of routine for the majority of the population. However, which letters actually survive is essentially arbitrary. This is partly due to the fact that we receive a huge number of contributions from relatives, plus the fact that we wish to utilize the research potential afforded by Citizen Science in order to attract even more donations.

impact: what exactly is Citizen Science?

Schmunk: the Citizen Science movement took off roughly 15 to 20 years ago. In essence it is an initiative to encourage normal people to actively participate in research projects, thus empowering them to develop, research and formulate their own ideas. One aspect of the “Hugs and Kisses” project aims to analyse how people react to the letters’ substance and contents. From a scientific perspective it is furthermore important for us to be able to identify different types of formulations within the letters. These include forms of address, pet names, ways of saying goodbye, as well as how love and affection are expressed – in relation to how language is constantly being modified between changing epochs and varying locations.

impact: in other words to access people’s fresh, contemporary insights, in addition to providing educational impulses?

Schmunk: as far as I’m concerned the educational aspect plays a rather secondary role. What we’re really after are vital, innovative insights. We hope to be able to attract and mobilise certain groups, to awaken in them a desire to engage with our topics and themes. I’d love us to find IT specialists, digital natives and others into computers who would be interested in working together with us. Perhaps we’ll stumble across someone with a truly bright idea of how the letters can be utilised, in ways that haven’t occurred to us yet.

impact: you’re planning to open a Blind Date Café with the enchanting name ‘Stelldichein’ that aims to encourage public participation. What will this café be exactly?

Schmunk: the Stelldichein Café will be a place where people are encouraged to exchange ideas. Where our project and the public can collaborate on ways to utilize the potential of all the material we’ve collected, in order to generate ideas – a sort of Think Tank for Citizen Science research, if you will. As we collated our initial aspirations in January 2020 we were presuming that soon we would be able to establish a Café either in Darmstadt or Koblenz city centre. This is currently not an option, so therefore we have our sights set hopefully on 2022. By way of an interim measure, our next step over the coming few weeks will be to establish a Stelldichein Café in purely digital form.

impact: the project’s second milestone will be to set up a Lab at the University and State Library in Darmstadt ...

Schmunk: the Lab is a place where the public can work together with us on the project. The digitalized letters will be sent from Koblenz to the University and State Library in Darmstadt, where a range of digital tools can be employed to facilitate creative – even playful – ways to engage with the love-letters. For them to be processed digitally or physically the letters will need to be transcribed and analysed: for instance, is this name an expression of affection or a pet name? Why is precisely this name being used? Could it be an actual name? We cannot employ machine processes exclusively here. We require a way to train algorithms to recognize which form applies to certain contents. The Love Coding App should enable both approaches to be employed. These constitute attempts to transcribe texts, yet another method using  ‘Speech to Text’, familiar to most via their mobiles, is also planned: the spoken word delivers written text. This would enable us to visit retirement homes, where residents who can only read texts written in Sütterlin or Kurrent, yet who may well not be able to type, could then read out and have their letters transcribed.

impact: in your opinion what is the most significant challenge the project faces?

Schmunk: the greatest challenges we face are in communicating how actual processes function, as well as stream-lining cooperation between the public and scientists. This is an exciting prospect for all of us working on the project, because our primary aim is to facilitate analysis of the letters. To maintain our primary focus on what is reasonably feasible we need to curtail attempts at guessing what might finally be achieved. Will 5,000 or 2,500 letters be digitalized? Could we possibly receive up to 50,000 new letters for the love-letter archive – or will there only be a paltry trickle of 500? 

impact: meaning it is not your express aim to optimize the algorithms to such a degree, during the project’s duration, that they would be capable of registering and categorizing the entire archive?

Schmunk: we’ll do our best, but owing to the extreme differences between the letters, in terms of both language and content, we will never achieve a ‘one size fits all’ solution. In order to get anywhere near to this we need the public’s support and cooperation. We intend to establish a starting point that encourages public engagement with Citizen Science projects and enables us to expand the archive.

impact: is the love-letter archive open to the public?

Schmunk: this is one of the research projects primary goals: to provide broad access to the letters. Although authorship and privacy rights often need to be resolved, our first goal is to establish a partial collection comprising content that can be freely disseminated and worked with via the website.

Translation: Paul Comley

Contact details

Nico Damm
Science editor
Press department
Tel.: +49.6151.16-37783
Email: nico.damm@h-da.de