Digging into Data: the research proposition

Our research hypothesis is that we can revolutionize the practice of interpretive research in the humanities by integrating innovative visualization and annotation techniques into highly interactive tools for excavating and dissecting details about historic people, places, times, events, and relationships in large data sets. . . . The goal of the project is thus to develop new visualization techniques and tools that support research into the "Republic of Letters" by facilitating individual and collaborative interpretation of the rich and complex data sets that have been materialized from this predominantly textual archival document collection.

The "Republic of Letters" — a term used between ca. 1500–1800 to describe scholarly communities and networks of knowledge — has been described as a lost continent, a country without borders. Enmeshed in trading, diplomatic, and missionary networks, it emerged in the early decades of the printing press, came to full fruition in the era which created learned societies and scholarly journals, and declined when the full-scale professionalization of scholarly life and the rise of the modern nation-state made this trans-national scholarly utopia a dream of the past. Organized around individuals, institutions, and projects, the Republic of Letters was the primary means by which knowledge traveled in this earlier era. While its origins were British and European, the Republic of Letters extended to where Europeans traveled, colonized, and settled, including the colonial Americas and Asia.

We aim to unearth that lost continent through an exploration of empirical data gleaned from correspondences, publications, and travel records, combined with the interpretive expertise of historians and literary scholars. The project is thus an opportunity for a unique collaboration between the humanities and sciences to produce a model of a real world social network, using rich and diverse examples from this historical material. Combining the implications of geographic data, historical events, personal relationships, and social data, this is an excellent case study for how the spread of ideas at the global scale relates to the dynamical processes that operate at the local scale.

EE's project application for funding (2009).

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