Murray Scriptorium

Photo of James Murray

The Murray Scriptorium project aims to produce a fully annotated and digitized scholarly edition of the correspondence of Sir James Murray (1837-1915), chief editor of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Much of the research for the OED was carried out though the medium of letter-writing, and Murray wrote so many inquiries to his vast range of correspondents that in the early 1880s the Post Office installed a pillar-box outside his house at 78 Banbury Road, Oxford.

In pursuing the meaning and history of words, Murray exchanged letters with prime ministers (e.g. William Gladstone), distinguished writers of the day (e.g. George EliotThomas Hardy), subject experts and academics both professional and amateur (the Director of Kew Gardens, men and some women of letters such as Professor W. W. Skeat in Cambridge and the medievalist Lucy Toulmin Smith), as well as ordinary individuals whose identity is now unknown (Dear Sir, Dear Madam).

Image of a red pillarbox in front of a blue plaque for Sir James Murray

The postbox installed outside Sir James Murray's house

Project directors Professor Charlotte Brewer (Hertford College, Oxford) and Dr Stephen Turton (Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge) have published a pilot edition, designed by Huber Digital, containing a selection of letters transcribed from photographic scans (checked against the original documents where possible) and marked up in XML in accordance with the open-source protocols of the Text Encoding Initiative. Supporting resources include an Introduction explaining the general interest of the letters as well as the role they played in the making of the dictionary, while the letters themselves are searchable by author, recipient, subject, location, etc. Editorial commentaries explain the special character of the dictionary along with some of the features illuminated by individual letters, e.g. the contributions made by women to a largely male-dominated project, the difficulties in including obscene vocabulary, the treatment of World Englishes.

Most of the letters in this initial stage of the Murray Scriptorium are held by the Bodleian Library, part of a huge collection of family papers donated to the library in 1996 by K. M. Elisabeth Murray, the editor’s granddaughter and author of a best-selling biography of him, Caught in the Web of Words (1977). Others have been transcribed from the other main holding of his letters, at Oxford University Press, which employed Murray on the OED from 1879 till his death (when he was part-way through editing the letter T), as well as from smaller collections in public or private ownership. Later instalments will represent both archives more fully as well as those further afield, while enhancing its inbuilt digital resources and expanding the range of topics covered.