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Nov 12

Illuminating historical networks

Following the great session proposals by Lincoln, Aaron (in both what researchers want and is it really you?), and Colin, I would also be interested in exploring the uses of networks and databases in the practice of digital humanities. In particular, I would like to discuss how we can rethink the way that archival records are organized and displayed online, to more effectively present the networks of ideas, goods, and people that are often at the center of historical work.

I work on Atlantic abolition movements, and most of my research concerns tracing very geographically broad networks of people and ideas as they moved throughout the Atlantic basin. As I work to illuminate these networks, I can’t help but think that in many cases, I am re-doing work that has been previously done by others. Could historians, like scientists, get into the habit of putting their data online for the benefit of others? What barriers, technological and otherwise, currently prevent historians from doing this? What sort of infrastructure would we need to create in order to enable this sort of information sharing in an organized and coherent manner? How might we reconceptualize the archive to incorporate data sharing?

Related to these issues, I am intrigued by the way that most online archives are still organized around discrete collections of documents, even though most documents, such as letters, books, broadsides, and land records, were created as part of much larger networks of exchange that go far beyond the boundaries of collections. How might we use digital technology to better display the connections between documents and collections? Would it be possible to foreground these networks by making them an access point to archival material? This is obviously largely a problem of limited resources – archivists don’t often have the time to undertake these sorts of massive projects. With that in mind, could we make the creation of these networks into a participatory endeavor that leverages the expertise and work of both archivists and historians?

I think that many of the more technical questions that Aaron and Lincoln brought up in their session proposals are central to thinking about this, and I’d love to have a session made up of archivists and historians to talk about the issues around displaying historical networks.

7 comments

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  1. Edward Whitley

    I’d be happy to participate in this session. My own research is on 19C New York writers, social networks, etc. Colin Wilder’s proposal for a session on “Network analysis” looks like a good dovetail with this one as well.

  2. Lauren Klein

    Hello, Kate! I’m interested in a lot of the same issues, and I hope that we can talk about them this weekend…

  3. Patsy

    I think this would be a very valuable discussion despite the fact that limited resources may pre-empt implementations. My proposal for understanding better how to geo-reference images is a very tiny piece in the same spirit–an effort to discuss displaying geographical as well as historical networks in more complex ways.

    I see this in addition to collection level access, not instead of it. Collections provide one of the many contexts we could be supplying users. Historical and geographical displays are two others.

    Thanks for proposing this.
    -Patsy

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    cdi.uvm.edu

    I’d be interested in participating in this session as well. I’m currently working on a Vermonters in the Civil War collection which brings together archival resources from around the state. It would be great to have some means not only capturing more contextual information about relationships between these soldiers, but also of how they may connect to other Civil War collections.

  5. Elisabeth Nevins

    This is very interesting to me and at the core of what we hope to do with the Old North’s Tories, Timid, or True Blue? website…the awesome version. Right now it’s a very rudimentary prototype but the big plan has always been to include lots more interaction between users of the program/archive to share and make connections between the documents–ideally in very visual ways. User generated connections as the whole idea is to let the users interpret of the various “historical dilemmas” presented on the site. The interpretation will evolve over real time, online in a very public way. We’ve mapped some of our plans out, but there are some many possibilities…

  6. Libby

    I’m an historian who also works on social networks [particularly late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century modernists–literary and artistic–I’m interested in how friendship informs cultural production] and I’ve spent the past decade or so trying to link the networks of the folks at the center of my study [through correspondence, tracing obscure footnotes in other scholars’ works, looking at when and where these folks published in the same journals and had artworks in the same exhibitions]. My project [the book’s out in June] is also geographically specific, so I’d love to hear about how others are capturing and tracking similar data in their own work, and perhaps, how they are digitally visualizing their networks. I’m in!

  7. David Dwiggins

    I’m also interested in this. I was thinking about it in terms of the work I did for my thesis where I basically rekeyed small chunks of Boston city directories for a 25 year period. I’d love to see some de facto standard for crowd sourcing this sort of thing so that the work I did could be rolled in with the work of others to create larger, more useful digitized sources. But there are a lot of hurdles to this sort of thing, starting with the fact that original data can be so ambiguous that different people may interpret the same thing in different ways. Coordination and data scrubbing can help, but these things take resources. So part of this is figuring out how the data can be structured, stored, organized, annotated and retrieved in ways that facilitate the creation of larger collections of networked information, and envisioning models for how work on this sort of crowdsourced historical information might be encouraged and funded.

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