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Digging into the Enlightenment: Mapping the Republic of Letters

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Grappling with very different kinds of visualization and analysis of pre-existing structured data were the teams engaged in Digging into the Enlightenment: Mapping the Republic of Letters. Like DMCI, Digging Into the Enlightenment is built upon significant prior work done by collaborating partners. The Electronic Enlightenment, based at the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, continues to collect and make available to subscribers digitized scholarly editions of historical letters dating from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries.  In addition to the source texts, the resource provides chronological, biographical, and geographical information for more than 50,000 letters. In aggregate, these letters provide a remarkable portrait of the correspondence networks of Europe and North America throughout the Enlightenment period. Stanford University’s Mapping the Republic of Letters is an ongoing effort to visualize certain of these correspondence networks as a way of exploring a bundle of historical questions about the geographic range, diversity, and interactions among intellectuals during seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The Electronic Enlightenment team has collaborated with the Stanford Humanities Center on a series of related initiatives since 2008. In their Digging into Data Challenge project, the two teams recruited new partners Chris Weaver and colleagues at the University of Oklahoma, experts in the emergent field of visual analytics, who have been developing the Improvise tool to allow researchers to work interactively with complex data sets in an intuitive fashion.

Each of the three teams has followed an independent work plan designed to help them meet the goals of their individual projects while sharing data and communication tools throughout their work. During the course of the project (some of which at the time of this writing is still ongoing) all partners agreed that the collaboration had enriched their understanding of their own prior work and had been a major influence on their future plans. Notably, students at both the graduate and undergraduate level have made significant contributions to the Mapping effort. The partners are making active use of their work on the project for teaching as well as research.

Unlike the DMCI project, the Enlightenment team’s mapping methodology highlighted one of the most common challenges faced by humanists and other scholars who rely on historical evidence: despite long and painstaking work in collecting and describing the letters in the Electronic Enlightenment collection, inevitably much of the contextual information, including dates and locations, has not survived with the original documents. While these difficulties soon made the collaborators realize that their original ambition to create a complete and definitive visualization of the Republic of Letters would need to be postponed beyond the life of the grant, in this challenge they saw another opportunity, and one that would be a chance to make broader impacts well beyond the discipline of history. Strategies for representing absent or uncertain data have not yet been deeply explored in visual analytics. The collaborators describe the desired functionality as “ampliation,” which they define as “interpretation‐driven extension of data through visual interaction.” Developing and implementing an “ampliable” web-based environment would be revolutionary for humanists, whose task is most often to fill in the gaps in knowledge through interpretation. As an added feature for researchers using collections such as the Electronic Enlightenment, a data-driven, interactive map would expose the rich collections to researchers at the outset of their investigations and allow them to explore the collection through space and time, rather than through words. While the University of Oklahoma team continues to develop Improvise to strengthen its capacity to facilitate user ampliation, the Oxford team plans to seek funding to support a new interactive data mapping tool for its website.

At time of writing, the Stanford team had completed several working prototype visualizations as “case studies” in connection with Mapping the Republic of Letters. An early visualization of the Electronic Enlightenment texts helped them to develop functional requirements for a recent, more flexible interactive tool, which allows a user to explore the correspondence of Athanasius Kircher. This new tool was developed along with a new collaborative partner, DensityDesign Research Lab of Milan. While still in an experimental stage, their visualizations have already led the historians on the project to a new understanding of the Republic of Letters, questioning the characterization of the exchange of ideas during the Enlightenment as a “global” phenonmenon. The visualizations have also taught researchers a number of important lessons that are extensible to other disciplines. Exploring historical data geographically makes noticeable “outlying” evidence that might not otherwise be apparent to the researcher. Since humanistic inquiry is as much about identifying what is unique or exceptional about a subject as it is about observing trends and generalities, exposing these aspects of large data corpora can prove highly useful. Alternating from a geographic to an “interpretive” data histogram, as the new Athanasius project allows, permits that researcher “to explore many more dimensions of a correspondence collection, while also addressing, in part the problem of incomplete data.”

Finally, in their words, the Mapping project “has changed the way that all parties involved do research.” This was the result of extending their own collaborative network to incorporate experts in visual analytics. They explain:

For one thing, formulating humanities research questions in terms of machine‐readable queries required us to think systematically, across our areas of expertise and our individual research interests, and come up with broad, generalizable concepts. Humanistic inquiry-by contrast- is freeform, fluid, and exploratory; not easily translatable into a computationally reproducible set of actions. Much of our work throughout this project has been bridging this cultural divide: learning more about each other’s underlying assumptions in order to communicate the needs of humanistic research within the constraints of visual analytics.

This observation about the need to “bridge” a gap between automated computational analysis and interpretive reasoning that must make allowances for doubt, uncertainty, and/or multiple possibilities, is characteristic of the Challenge projects. But rather than seeing this mismatch as a barrier, for most of the researchers in this study this seems to have been a highly productive tension that prompted rethinking the potential of computer science to address the more amorphous kinds of questions that preoccupy scholars of human culture and behavior as well as redrawing the conceptual boundaries of those kinds of scholarship.

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Project Participants

  • Nicole Coleman (Stanford University, US) provided leadership for the day-to-day work on the project, including providing collaborative research support and facilitating project documentation and communication.
  • Peter Damian-Grint (Electronic Enlightenment Project, University of Oxford, UK) serves as Correspondence Editor for the Electronic Enlightenment Project and contributed subject expertise in French language and literature
  • Dan Edelstein (Stanford University, US) served as Principal Investigator of the NEH-funded portion of the project and provided subject expertise in European history, literature, and culture.
  • Paula Findlen (Stanford University, US) lent subject expertise in for the project in European history and and culture and co-authored a project white paper with Edelstein.
  • Robert McNamee (University of Oxford, UK) served as Principal Investigator of the JISC-funded portion of the project. He heads the Electronic Enlightenment Project, the major source of data and metadata for the initiative, and offered both technical and subject expertise.
  • Mark Rogerson (University of Oxford, UK) is the Technical Editor of the Electronic Enlightenment Project and offered data expertise for the project.
  • Rachel Shadoan (University of Oklahoma, US) worked with Weaver on the analysis of project data using the Improvise advanced visual analytics tool, including software engineering and usability evaluation.
  • Chris Weaver (University of Oklahoma, US) served as Principal Investigator of the NSF-funded portion of the project, involving implementing the Improvise advanced visual analytics tool.

Other contributors and stakeholders

Density Design Research Lab (Polytechnical Institute, Milan)
Keith Baker (Stanford University, US)
John Bender (Stanford University, US)
Giovanna Ceserani (Stanford University, US)
Jon Christensen (Stanford University, US)
Dario Generali (National Publication of the Works of Antonio Vallisneri, Italy)
Anthony Grafton (Princeton University, US)
Carl-Olof Jacobson (Uppsala University, Sweden)
Wijnand W. Mijnhardt (Utrecht University, Netherlands)
Peter M. Miller (Bard Graduate Center, US)
Guliano Pancaldi (International Center for the History of Universities and Science, Italy)
Mark Peterson (University of California at Berkeley, US)
Jessica Riskin (Stanford University, US)
Jacob Soll (Rutgers University, US)
Francoise Wacquet (French National Center for Scientific Research, France)
Caroline Winterer (Stanford University, US)

See also:

Project website

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