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Community building through the DM2E project

Lieke Ploeger - April 9, 2015 in Digital Humanities, Featured, Linked Open Data, Projects

This blog is cross-posted from the Open Knowledge blog.

During the past three years, Open Knowledge has been leading the community building work in the Digitised Manuscripts to Europeana (DM2E) project, a European research project in the area of Digital Humanities led by Humboldt University. Open Knowledge activities included the organisation of a series of events such as Open Data in Cultural Heritage workshops, running two rounds of the Open Humanities Awards and the establishment of OpenGLAM as an active volunteer-led community pushing for increased openness in cultural heritage.

DM2E and the Linked Open Web

dm2e_logoAs one of its core aims, the DM2E project worked on enabling libraries and archives to easily upload their digitised material into Europeana – the online portal that provides access to millions of items from a range of Europe’s leading galleries, libraries, archives and museums. In total, over 20 million manuscript pages from libraries, archives and research institutions were added during the three years of the project. In line with theEuropeana Data Exchange Agreement, all contributing institutions agreed to make their metadata openly available under the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication license (CC-0), which allows for easier reuse.

Since different providers make their data available in different formats, the DM2E consortium developed a toolset that converted metadata from a diverse range of formats into the DM2E model, an application profile of the Europeana Data Model (EDM). The developed software also allows the contextualisation and linking of this cultural heritage data sets, which makes this material suitable for use within the Linked Open Web. An example of this is the Pundit tool, which Net7 developed to enable researchers to add annotations in a digital text and link them to related texts or other resources on the net (read more).

Open Knowledge achievements

Open Knowledge was responsible for the community building and dissemination work within DM2E, which, apart from promoting and documenting the project results for a wide audience, focused on promoting and raising awareness around the importance of open cultural data. The presentation below sums up the achievements made during the project period, including the establishment of OpenGLAM as a community, the organisation of the event series and the Open Humanities Awards, next to the extensive project documentation and dissemination through various channels.

OpenGLAM

OpenGLAM-logoIn order to realise the value of the tools developed in DM2E, as well as to truly integrate the digitised manuscripts into the Linked Data Web, there need to be enough other open resources to connect to and an active community of cultural heritage professionals and developers willing to extend and re-use the work undertaken as part of DM2E. That is why Open Knowledge set up the OpenGLAM community: a global network of people and organisations who are working to open up cultural content and data. OpenGLAM focuses on promoting and furthering free and open access to digital cultural heritage by maintaining an overview of Open Collections, providing documentation on the process and benefits of opening up cultural data, publishing regular news and blog items and organising diverse events.

Since the start in 2012, OpenGLAM has grown into a large, global, active volunteer-led community (and one of the most prominent Open Knowledge working groups to date), supported by a network of organisations such as Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America, Creative Commons and Wikimedia. Apart from the wider community taking part in the OpenGLAM discussion list, there is a focused Working Group of 17 open cultural data activists from all over the world, a high-level Advisory Board providing strategic guidance and four local groups that coordinate OpenGLAM-related activities in their specific countries. Following the end of the DM2E project, the OpenGLAM community will continue to push for openness in digital cultural heritage.

Open Humanities Awards

openhumanitieslogosAs part of the community building efforts, Open Knowledge set up a dedicated contest awards series focused on supporting innovative projects that use open data, open content or open source tools to further teaching and research in the humanities: the Open Humanities Awards. During the two competition rounds that took place between 2013-2014, over 70 applications were received, and 5 winning projects were executed as a result, ranging from an open source Web application which allows people to annotate digitized historical maps (Maphub) to an improved search application for Wittgenstein’s digitised manuscripts (Finderapp WITTfind). Winners published their results on a regular basis through the DM2E blog and presented their findings at conferences in the field, proving that the awards served as a great way to stimulate innovative digital humanities research using open data and content. Details on all winning projects, as well as final reports on their results, are available from this final report.

DM2E event series

Over the course of the project, Open Knowledge organised a total of 18 workshops, focused on promoting best practices in legal and technical aspects of opening up metadata and cultural heritage content, providing demonstration and training with the tools and platforms developed in the project and hackdays and coding sprints. Highlights included the Web as Literature conference at the British Library in 2013, the Open Humanities Hack series and the Open Data in Cultural Heritage workshops, as a result of which several local OpenGLAM groups were started up. A full list of events and their outcomes is available from this final report.

og_fringe_okfest14Open Data in Cultural Heritage Workshop: Starting the OpenGLAM group for Germany (15 July 2014, Berlin)

It has been a great experience being part of the DM2E consortium: following the project end, the OpenGLAM community will be sustained and built upon, so that we can realise a world in which our shared cultural heritage is open to all regardless of their background, where people are no longer passive consumers of cultural content created by an elite, but contribute, participate, create and share.

More information

The Crusade for Curious Images

Marieke Guy - December 19, 2014 in Digital Humanities, Events/Workshops, Featured, Front Page, Open Humanities

In December last year the British Library released over a million images on to Flickr Commons. The images were taken from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th century books digitised by Microsoft and gifted to the British Library.
One-year on and it seems pertinent to mark the anniversary with an event held at the British Library Conference Centre in London looking at what researchers and artists have been doing with the released images, and other open content, and considering what the next phase is for the British Library Labs.

Christmas Carol

Image taken from page 17 of ‘A Christmas Carol … With illustrations [from drawings by S. Eytinge.]’, British Library on Flickr, public domain

Background

The British Library Flickr images received over 5 million views on their first day online and by October 2014 they were up to over 200 million image views, with every image being viewed at least 20 times. There are also now 150, 000 tags on the tags. Despite these fantastic results there remains a massive disparity between what has been digitised and what the British Library physical holds and there always plans in the pipeline for more opening up content.

The Curious Images event held yesterday offered a whirlwind tour of the reuse of the images by artists, researchers and other institutions and of the challenges that tracking use and finding appropriate images continue to pose.

Ben O'Steen

Ben O’Steen introduces the Mechanical Curator

Ben O’Steen, technical lead at British Library Labs, kicked off the day by giving an overview of the Mechanical Curator, a tool which randomly selects small illustrations and ornamentations and posts them on the hour on Tumbr and Twitter. He also highlighted other great digital scholarship work like the map tagathon, an effort to tag over 25,000 maps, and the book metadata and community tags now on Figshare.

Grouping and Organising

If we can’t search, group and organise images then we fail to use them on a grandscale. The Lost visions Project: retrieving the visual element of printed books from the nineteenth century was presented by Ian Harvey of Cardiff University. The project addresses the challenges of working with big data and making the information more accessible and easier to interpret by a lay audience. They have taken 65,000 volumes of literature / 1 million illustrations and are looking at ‘organising them’ by considering what do humans do well, what do computers do well (machine learning). Much of their work is around tagging through crowdsourcing and reusing Flickr tags, they have also been creating metadata linkages to external sources: for example, illustration and the original drawing. Through their work they have been able to identify various groupings e.g. women in trousers; Indian Mutiny; Shakespeare.

Software developer Peter Balman has been looking at what has exactly happened to the 1 million images and gauging their impact using various techniques (online detective work!) for the ‘Visibility’ project funded by the Technology Strategy Board. Methods include Googling using image search, using TinEye reverse image search, looking at the taxonomy of website using dmoz, searching for information on the domain the images are on using Whois.net, detecting the language using Alchemy language API, Dbpedia for more info about the URL. You can learn more about Peter Balman’s Visibility project here in this video.

Creating new work

It was fantastic to hear from two artists who have been reusing the British Library images. David Normal, a San Francisco based artist, has created 4 collages representing ‘a collection of dynamic human dramas’ using the images. His Crossroads of Curiosity project was showcased as four large iluminated light boxes (2.4 metres by 6 metres) at the Burning Man festival held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert earlier this year. Personally I was blown away by David’s fantastic tour of photophilia (inbedding of icons within icons within icons and recognising icons of faces in things that don’t have facial form) and crazyology. His process of taking an image, identifying patterns, replacing elements with things with similar patterns is just brilliant!

Burning Man

Crossroads of Curiosity project by David Normal at Burning Man, photo from British Library blog

Mario Klingeman, a Code artist from Germany works on teaching computers to create art. He sees himself as an ‘Obsessive Compulsive Orderer’ captivated by trying to find clusters between images. His approach is to let human sort, then machines scale the sort and finally humans QA the machine. Mario reflected on how the British Library images had inspired his work and reflected on finding a Victorian image with one view and being the first person to (digitally) see it. Mario has created his sorting lap on his laptop in adobe air – it would be great to see some his work online and available for partners.

44

44 Gentlemen who look like 44, by Mario Klingemann, Flickr, CC-NC

Researching

Later in the day we heard from researchers who are using the British Library images as a test bed. Joon Son Chung from the University of Oxford has been looking at woodblocks and checking for wear and tear in 1,000 images. Elliot Crowley, also from the University of Oxford demoed ImageMatch, a tool which uses computer vision machine learning to aid image search. It employs the Google image search to check 100 images and ‘learn’ what an item looks like e.g. what does a dog looks like? It then applies these newly learned algorithms to other images. Tests so far have been run on the Yourpaintings database and they hope to soon test on the British Library images. All tag information is fed back in to the database. A beta version of the software will be out in the new year.

Image taken from page 139 of '[Sing-Song. A nursery rhyme book. ... With ... illustrations by A. Hughes, etc.]'

Image taken from page 139 of ‘[Sing-Song. A nursery rhyme book. … With … illustrations by A. Hughes, etc.]’, British Library on Flickr, public domain

Researchers have also been using a mixture of computational techniques to analyse digitised handwritten manuscripts (some from the British Library’s collections) and either connect them to their corresponding transcriptions or try and ‘read’ handwriting and create transcripts using machine learning / computational approaches. Enrique Vidal from the Universitat Politècnica de València spoke about the EU-funded Transcriptorium Project which is developing HRT handwriting recognition technology and has been recognising handwriting using the Bentham collection.

Desmond Schmidt from Queensland University also shared his Text and Image Linking Tool (TILT) tool that links transcripts with images of texts. He explained that we need to bring historical texts to a modern audience who can search and analyse them. The TILT software links at word level but unlike other tools takes an automated approach that doesn’t embedded markup. They use a geoJSON overlay of polygons.

Reuseing

The GLAM world are not quite there when it comes to offering quality open content that can be easily used by others. Conrad Taylor, illustrator and cartoonist, considered the complexities of digital imaging and reprinting. He covered the challenges of processing pre-1870 images before Fox Talbot invented half-toning and lamented that people “can’t tell their ppi’s from their dpi’s (doesn’t specify no of pixels in images)”. He has been working on a book entitled Contracts Textures and Hues by Anita Jeni McKenzie and shared the issues reusing low-quality items from Flickr.

Tim Weyrich from Univeristy College London explained how digital acquisition is now prominent in Cultural Heritage applications but digital humanities expectations probably need to be lowered . We are often over optimistic about what is possible, while engineers are good at making tradeoffs. He also offered a reminder that for researchers solving complex real world problems should come before just writing papers. He delivered two cases studies: Firstly reassembling the Theran Wall Paintings (3d heritage ‘jigsaws’!) and asked us to consider how you computationally replicate the real world feel of an exact match? And secondly the digitally reproducing the great Parchment book, a Domesday type book that describes property relation in Ireland. The book was damaged by fire 1786, parchment doesn’t burn so easily but it does warp. The team made a decision to treat the book as a 3d object, photographing it from many angles rendering it as a ‘globe type structure’. This allowed them to later flatten the book and transcribe.

Curious

Crossroads of Curiosity postcards by David Normal

Mixing with Science

In the final session of the day we were given a perspective on image analysis from health and science. Liangxiu Han from Manchester Metropolitan University talked about large-scale data processing and analysis on images. MMU used climate data from NASA and combined it with other data so it could be applied to life sciences using pattern recognition and annotation approaches. The last talk of the day was from Ros Sandler of the Missouri Botanical Garden on the Biodiversity Heritage Library who have instigated the Art of Life project biodivlib.wikispaces.com/Art+of+Life Crowdsourcing identification of Natural History images. They currently have 93,000 pages uploaded to their Flickr stream and on wikimedia commons including images of extinct species. They are building algorithms to find images, volunteers classifying images, then push to description platforms for metadata, then bring it back, share more widely. They have a Macaw classifying tool which allows volunteers to put pictures into broad groupings – including false positives.

The event ended with Adam Farquhar, head of Digital Scholarship at the British Library, sharing insight into in the next phase of the British Library Labs project: more data, more events and more images! The project has been funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for another two years from January 2015, congratulations to Mahendra Mahey, the British Library Labs project manager, and the rest of the BL Labs team!

We were then all treated to mulled wine and mincepies! Season’s Greetings everyone!

The British Library images are available on Flickr at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/. You can also browse British Library images on Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks to James Baker for sharing his notes which proved useful for fill in the gaps.

 Image taken from page 16 of 'The Coming of Father Christmas'


Image taken from page 16 of ‘The Coming of Father Christmas’, British Library on Flickr, public domain

Open Humanities Awards: second round

Lieke Ploeger - April 30, 2014 in Digital Humanities, Featured

OpenHumanitiesLogos

We are excited to announce the second round of the Open Humanities Awards, running from 30 April until 6 June 2014. There are €20,000 worth of prizes on offer in two dedicated tracks:

  • Open track: for projects that either use open content, open data or open source tools to further humanities teaching and research

  • DM2E track: for projects that build upon the research, tools and data of the DM2E project

Whether you’re interested in patterns of allusion in Aristotle, networks of correspondence in the Jewish Enlightenment or digitising public domain editions of Dante, we’d love to hear about the kinds of open projects that could support your interest!

Why are we running these Awards?

Humanities research is based on the interpretation and analysis of a wide variety of cultural artefacts including texts, images and audiovisual material. Much of this material is now freely and openly available on the internet enabling people to discover, connect and contextualise cultural artefacts in ways previously very difficult.

We want to make the most of this new opportunity by encouraging budding developers and humanities researchers to collaborate and start new projects that use this open content and data paving the way for a vibrant cultural and research commons to emerge.

In addition, the DM2E project has developed tools to support Digital Humanities research, such as Pundit (a semantic web annotation tool), and delivered several interesting datasets from various content providers around Europe. The project is now inviting all researchers to submit a project building on this DM2E research in a special DM2E track.

Who can apply?

The Awards are open to any citizen of the EU.

Who is judging the Awards?

The Awards will be judged by a stellar cast of leading Digital Humanists:

What do we want to see?

maphub_oa_comment.png

Maphub, an open source Web application for annotating digitized historical maps, was one of the winners of the first round of the Open Humanities awards

For the Open track, we are challenging humanities researchers, designers and developers to create innovative projects open content, open data or open source to further teaching or research in the humanities. For example you might want to:

  • Start a project to collaboratively transcribe, annotate, or translate public domain texts

  • Explore patterns of citation, allusion and influence using bibliographic metadata or textmining

  • Analyse and/or visually represent complex networks or hidden patterns in collections of texts

  • Use computational tools to generate new insights into collections of public domain images, audio or texts

You could start a project from scratch or build on an existing project. For inspiration you can have a look at the final results of our first round winners: Joined Up Early Modern Democracy and Maphub, or check out the open-source tools the Open Knowledge Foundation has developed for use with cultural resources.

As long as your project involves open content, open data or open source tools and makes a contribution to humanities research, the choice is yours!

For the DM2E track, we invite you to submit a project building on the DM2E research: information, code and documentation on the DM2E tools is available through our DM2E wiki, the data is at http://data.dm2e.eu. Examples include:

  • Building open source tools or applications based on the API’s developed

  • A project focused on the visualisation of data coming from Pundit

  • A deployment of the tools for specific communities

  • A project using data aggregated by DM2E in an innovative way

  • An extension of the platform by means of a practical demonstrative application

Who is behind the awards?

The Awards are being coordinated by the Open Knowledge Foundation and are part of the DM2E project. They are also supported by the Digital Humanities Quarterly.

How to apply

Applications are open from today (30 April 2014). Go to openhumanitiesawards.org to apply. The application deadline is 6 June 2014, so get going and good luck!

More information…

For more information on the Awards including the rules and ideas for open datasets and tools to use visit openhumanitiesawards.org.

 

Let’s Map Open Correspondence Data!

Sam Leon - May 16, 2013 in Digital Humanities, Featured, Open Humanities

At the Open Knowledge Foundation we seek to empower people to use open data and open content in ways that improve the world.

In part this is about the provision of tools, such as our world-renowned CKAN open data portal, but it’s also about bringing people together who are passionate about making a change and giving them a space whether that’s online or face-to-face to wrangle open data, write code and take action together.

At the recent Open Interests hack participants developed a suite of apps that help us understand lobbying in the EU and how money is spent. A couple of weeks ago Open Data Maker Night in London people wrangled data from local authority websites to find out which companies receives the lion’s share of the Greater London’s Authorities resources. Across our various Working Group mailing lists people from all over the world are debating, sharing data and experimenting with code in a huge variety of domains from open science to open government data.

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 13.24.58

At bottom this is about bringing people with bright ideas coming together to collaborate around open content and open data to build things that have transformative potential.

##The Open Humanities Hangout

Over the past few months a group of people interested in open culture, including myself, have been getting together on Google Hangout in order to build stuff with the vast amount of open cultural data and content that’s out there.

In the cultural sphere much of the transformative potential of open lies in widening access to our treasured cultural heritage whether that’s classic literary texts or the paintings of the great masters. But as ever it’s not only about opening up huge amounts of data and content, there’s already a hell of a lot of that already on the Internet Archive and Wikimedia Commons, this is also about empowering people to actually use this material in ways that they deem valuable.

So on the Open Humanities Hangout we’ve tried to do things that address both these challenges:

In order to address the problem of access we’ve held hangouts on how to run a book scanning workshop and how share the works we’ve digitised online. On another occasion, we collectively reflected on how to evangelise about opening up cultural resources and distilled the results in a set of principles which we then shared and discussed on a public mailing list.

In terms of building stuff to help re-use, we’ve built an app that helps you to get to know Shakespeare better called Bardomatic. We’ve hacked on an annotation tool for public domain texts called TEXTUS trying to make it easier to use and deploy on Word Press. We’ve created interactive timelines of the great Western medieval philosophers helping to improve and de-bug the Timeliner tool in the process.

Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 13.26.10

##The Challenge: Mapping Networks of Correspondence

I want more people to join the Open Humanities hangouts – more Java Script coders, more designers, more literature students, more bloggers… anyone who loves the humanities and wants to see the great works of our past accessible and re-usable by everyone regardless of their background or location.

I’m putting forward a challenge for our next set of monthly Hangouts based on some of the great work some of the Open Humanities Working Group members have been doing around open correspondence data and open booking scanning.

I’m challenging the Open Humanities Hangout crew to construct a workflow that will enable *anyone to turn a published set of letters and turn it into a visualisation of a network of correspondence.*

One of the great success stories of the so-called Digital Humanities is the wonderful Mapping the Republic of Letters project, a collaboration between Stanford and Oxford Universities that visualises the networks of correspondence of early modern scholars. The beautiful and insightful visualisations that have been created in the process have captured the imaginations of technologists and humanists world wide.

roflviz_dashboard-800x497

I want to see a million Mapping the Republic of Letters project. I want it to be as easy as possible to map the correspondence of historial figures, so that anyone can do this. This includes the first year school students wanting some beautiful images for their coursework and the scholar who will use much richer data to give a more through, in-depth and academic visual story for a research paper.
I want the underlying tools to be open source and well documented and perhaps, most importantly, I want the underlying data, that collection of metadata about who sent what when to be open for everyone to use and add to.

This effort doesn’t require the existence of a huge repository of data about letters that we tap into (although this might merge in the process). This is about small sets of open data, sourced and formatted in appropriate ways by passionate groups of people all around the world that can be combined and connected easily using open source web-based components.

##How do we begin?

To my eyes, this effort will involve the documentation of at least 4 steps:

  1. Scan in a published collection of letters
  2. Turn this scans intro structured data that contains relevant information on respondent, date, location
  3. Geo-code all those locations
  4. Visualise the results on a map

We’ve already made some progress on steps 1. – 2. and there’s a wealth of information already available on how to do your own scanning and OCRing including manuals on how to build your own scanner. For 3. – 4. there’s already some brilliant information over on the School of Data. However, I want to see this information synthesised into a single point — so any student, teacher or researcher can get all the information on how to go from that collected volume of letters of so-and-so on their shelf to a beautiful visualisation.

##What might result if we’re successful?

Well for one, I hope that a beautiful and insightful set of visualisations might emerge about the correspondence of a number of important figures all over the web. But perhaps a longer term goal is to stimulate the creation of databases of correspondence that are open to everyone to use and add to. To begin with we’ll be constrained to the published volumes of correspondence in print, but if we get enough people contributing we can re-combine these published volumes in all sorts of interesting ways filling in gaps and ultimately creating datasets that might enable us to map whole networks of correspondence for a given period.

##Get involved

So the challenge is on. The next Open Humanities Hangout will take place at 5pm BST on Tuesday May 28th. If you’re thinking of joining ping me a quick message on sam.leon@okfn.org!

Open Humanities Awards: Under 10 Days Left to Apply!

Sam Leon - March 4, 2013 in Digital Humanities, Featured

OpenHumanitiesLogos

A couple of weeks ago we announced the Open Humanities Awards a fantastic new initiative to support innovative projects that use open data, open content or open source to further teaching and research in the humanities.

There are €15,000 of prizes on offer for 3-5 projects lasting up to 6 months. The winners will be given the opportunity to present their work at the world’s largest Open Knowledge event, OKFestival.

The deadline for applications is 13th March so there is less than 10 days to go before we start judging the applications. We want to support a whole variety of projects that support humanities research and use the open web. So whether you’re interested in patterns of allusion in Aristotle, networks of correspondence in the Jewish Enlightenment or digitising public domain editions of Dante do think about applying!

Go to the Awards website to apply and for any queries email me on sam.leon@okfn.org.

€15,000 OF PRIZES ON OFFER FOR OPEN HUMANITIES PROJECTS

Joris Pekel - February 13, 2013 in Digital Humanities, Featured

OpenHumanitiesLogos

We are excited to announce the first ever Open Humanities Awards. The are €15,000 worth of prizes on offer for 3-5 projects that use open content, open data or open source tools to further humanities teaching and research. Whether you’re interested in patterns of allusion in Aristotle, networks of correspondence in the Jewish Enlightenment or digitising public domain editions of Dante, we’d love to hear about the kinds of open projects that could support your interest!

##Why are we running these Awards?

Humanities research is based on the interpretation and analysis of a wide variety of cultural artefacts including texts, images and audiovisual material. Much of this material is now freely and openly available on the internet enabling people to discover, connect and contextualise cultural artefacts in ways previously very difficult.

We want to make the most of this new opportunity by encouraging budding developers and humanities researchers to collaborate start new projects that use this open content and data paving the way for a vibrant cultural and research commons to emerge.

##Who can apply?

The Awards are open to any citizen of the EU.

##Who is judging the Awards?

The Awards will be judged by a stellar cast of leading Digital Humanists:

##What do we want to see?

ab-digi-screenshots-custom1

The Mapping the Republic of Letters project is a great example of what is possible with humanities data

We are challenging humanities researchers, designers and developers to create innovative projects open content, open data or open source to further teaching or research in the humanities.

For example you might want to:

  • Start a project to collaboratively transcribe, annotate, or translate public domain texts
  • Explore patterns of citation, allusion and influence using bibliographic metadata or textmining
  • Analyse and/or visually represent complex networks or hidden patterns in collections of texts
  • Use computational tools to generate new insights into collections of public domain images, audio or texts

You could start a project from scratch or build on an existing project. For inspiration you can have a look at the open-source tools the Open Knowledge Foundation has developed for use with cultural resources.

As long as your project involves open content, open data or open source tools and makes a contribution to humanities research, the choice is yours!

##Who is behind the awards?

The Awards are being coordinated by the Open Knowledge Foundation and are part of the DM2E project. They are also supported by the Digital Humanities Quarterly.

##How to apply

Applications are open from today. Go to openhumanitiesawards.org to apply. Application deadline is 12th March 2013, so get going and good luck!

##More information…

For more information on the Awards including the rules and ideas for open datasets and tools to use visit openhumanitiesawards.org.

Mapping the Republic of Letters

Nicole Coleman - March 21, 2012 in Case Studies, Digital Humanities, Front Page

The following post is by Nicole Coleman, head of the Stanford Humanities Center Research Lab, and is about Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters Project – one of the finest examples of what can be done with cultural heritage data and open source tools. Mapping the Republic of Letters is a collaborative, interdisciplinary humanities research project looking at 17th and 18th century correspondence, travel, and publication to trace the exchange of ideas in the early modern period and the Age of Enlightenment.

What unites the researchers involved in Mapping the Republic of Letters is the opportunity to explore historical material in a spatial context and ask big-data questions across archives: Did the Republic of Letters have boundaries? Where was the Enlightenment?

The Republic of Letters is an early modern network of intellectuals whose connections transcended generations and state boundaries. It has been described as a lost continent and debate continues about whether or not it really existed. Though the ‘letters’ of the title refers to scholarly knowledge, epistolary exchange was, in fact, the net that held this community together. Letters could be shipped around the world and shared across generations. Among our case studies, Athanasius Kircher’s correspondence network was the most widely distributed, exchanging letters with Jesuit outposts from Macau to Mexico.

Since the early stages of our project, we used open-source graphics libraries to visualize our collected data. The first step is to understand the ‘shape’ of the archive. A timeline + histogram, for example, reveals at a glance the distribution of letters in the collection over hundreds of years. And the map connecting cities as source and destination of sent letters reveals geographic “cold-spots” as well as hot-spots in the archive.

As we begin to dive in and pursue specific research questions, visualization tools in the form of maps, network graphs and charts, help us to make sense of piles of data all at once. Voltaire’s correspondence alone includes about 15,000 letters. Putting those letters on a map instantly gives us a picture of where Voltaire traveled and reveals temporal and spatial patterns in his letter-writing. And while there is no record of epistolary exchange between Voltaire and American inventor and statesman, Benjamin Franklin, a network graph of their combined correspondence quickly reveals three second degree connections.

One outcome of this project is a visualization layer to complement the well-established text-based search model for archives. To begin to really piece together a map of the Republic of Letters, we need to find a way to thread a path through the many dispersed and otherwise silo-ed correspondence archives. Another great challenge is to visually reflect the gaps, uncertainty and ambiguity in the historical record. It is often those gray areas that provide new research opportunities for humanists. In this effort we are very pleased to be working in partnership with DensityDesign Research Lab in Milan.

We have also been working closely with the Cultures of Knowledge project at Oxford. Cultures of Knowledge recently released a beta version available of their open access union catalog of early modern letters, aptly named Early Modern Letters Online. Their model is not to be the repository, but to provide a rich search layer across existing correspondence collections pointing back out to the source repository. Our friends at the Dutch 17th Circulation of Knowledge project are addressing the challenges of mining early modern correspondence for topics across many languages.

The code-base for our visualizations is open source and available for download at athanasius-project.github.com. Our code-base is available, but that is not to say that our visualizations are pret-a-porter. Since our research is devoted to knowledge production in the humanities and not software development, the code is rather idiosyncratic and constrained by our changing data model. Please contact us if you would like to learn more or would like to join the effort.