The “sell” for a recent article on Mapping the Republic of Letters, a Stanford University digital humanities project led by Dan Edelstein and Paula Findlen, highlights the ways in which technology is altering our understanding of the past and shaping the kinds of questions we can ask:
Researchers map thousands of letters exchanged in the 18th century’s “Republic of Letters” – and learn at a glance what it once took a lifetime of study to comprehend
In this case researchers have applied GIS (geographical information system) mapping technology to explore the wealth of letters exchanged by Enlightenment figures. As the article details, the computer mapping of correspondence from the Enlightenment (the dates focus on 1759 to 1780, but the project also contains letters from the Renaissance) has enabled the relationship among vast amounts of material to be organized and presented in flexible ways. This YouTube video, Tracking 18th-century “social network” through letters, shows snapshots of the trajectories of Locke’s and Voltaire’s correspondence:
The “big pictures” that this project facilitates are altering perceptions of Enlightenment networks and their influences. As the video demonstrates, despite French views of England as an incredible site of religious freedom and tolerance, Voltaire actually corresponded very little with those in England.
What is especially interesting (but not surprising) is the importance of metadata and collaboration to this project’s success. That Oxford “supplied the metadata for 50,000 letters,” Dan Edelstein explains,
“allow[ed] the project to go “beyond any of our expectations.” Mapping the Republic of Letters has also acquired the data for all of Benjamin Franklin’s correspondence, and talks are underway to obtain data from other European sources.
Projects such as TCP and 18thConnect, which are establishing rich, reliable metadata for digital texts, are expanding the possibilities for scholarly exploration of past textual worlds, both for individual and collaboratively-driven scholarship.
Jonathan Rose, whose post on SHARP-L drew my attention to this project, noted the potential of GIS technology for literary and intellectual history. Canadian book historians Bertrum MacDonald and Fiona Black have already begun to realize this potential for book historians. Their article “Geographic Information Systems: A New Research Method for Book History” (Book History 1 (1998): 11-31) can be found through Project Muse, and they have also
proposed a long-term, international, collaborative project using GIS for comparative analyses of defined elements of print culture in several countries. An Advisory Board is being established, which currently includes scholars in the United States and the United Kingdom. The project has three primary goals: to explore the methodology through a variety of applications concerning various aspects of book history; to aid comparative studies; and to provide the foundation for an electronic atlas of book history (GIS for Book History International Collaborative Project, description from Fiona Black’s website).
Such technology of course has rich potential for other projects, and we have had various mentions of such projects in past emob posts including comments on the Monk Project.
For more recent work on uses of GIS in historical research, see the special issue of Historical Geography: An Annual Journal of Research, Commentary, and Reviews, Emerging Trends in Historical GIS, ed., Anne Kelly Knowles, vol. 33 (2005).