Today’s New York Times carried a touching obituary of Claude Anne Lopez, author of Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of London   and other biographical studies of Franklin. A Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Belgium, she arrived in America in 1941. She married an historian who moved to Yale, where the only employment available to her was helping with the transcription of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, initially at 65 cents an hour. In time she became the editor of the project.

It seems evident that the very detailed and tactile nature of her first encounter with the Franklin corpus had much to do with the virtues critics saw in her later work. In Literary Studies today there is an enormous emphasis from the beginning on “theorizing” the object of inquiry, and humble scholarly tasks, such as transcription, tend to be treated as mere forms of drudgery to be passed on to somebody else. On the other hand, students who enter into a subject through the patient and meticulous exercise of simple duties may acquire an intimate and “from the ground up” understanding that cannot be reached in any other way.

Transcribing the cultural heritage of a manuscript world into the digital world will be an enormous task for decades to come. Division of labour and network based collaborative tools make it possible for students to take part in entry level tasks that have pedagogical value and make useful contributions to scholarship. Every little bit counts, and many a mickle makes a muckle. In the last decade there have been substantial advances in creating technical frameworks that greatly lower the entry barrier for such work and allow for the co-ordination of the work of many hands. As usual, the social obstacles or reluctancies are harder to overcome.

The obituary is found at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/09/us/claude-anne-lopez-expert-on-franklin-dies-at-92.html?ref=obituaries. It is well worth reading, and if you have an eye for the ironies of war, you may remember that she was almost the exact contemporary of Paul de Man, another Belgian whom the Second War took to America and eventually to Yale. Habent sua fata libelli, Martial observed.  Books and scholars have their fates, oddly different and similar.