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Text Mining the Republic of Letters

Podcast available on the seminar page!

In the fourth paper of our seminar series on Thursday 17 May, Dr Glenn Roe – formerly of the University of Chicago, and current Mellon Fellow in Digital Humanities at Oxford’s OERC – gave a sophisticated and suggestive paper on ‘Text-Mining Electronic Enlightenment: Influence and Intertextuality in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters’.

Building on his recent work with the Electronic Enlightenment corpus and other online repositories of long-form historical text, Glenn started his talk by observing the irony that the recent efflorescence of big data, culturomics, network analysis, and other quantitative approaches to culture – focusing in many cases on the macro interpretation of metadata over content – has authorized and promoted a convention of ‘not reading’ within the digital humanities, in which historical texts themselves can be marginalized or effaced altogether by the superabundance of information. The ready modelling of letters as a finite number of abstract datapoints (sender, recipient, and so on) and the vast quantities of diverse and often disorganized information exchanged within epistolary systems makes correspondence highly susceptible to such an approach.


Glenn during discussion.


Visualizing influence.

As a supplement to this ‘distant’ reading, Glenn went on to demonstrate the potential of the latest machine-learning technologies to render significant volumes of transcription meaningful via text mining and the automated creation of patterns, frequencies, statistical models, and other forms of ‘mediated’ or ‘directed’ reading. Glenn distinguished between three kinds of text mining: predictive classification (used to generate new categories from unprocessed texts); comparative classification (used to correct and refine existing categories within processed texts); and similarity (used to measure broader similarities between documents and parts of documents, especially in terms of the identification of meaningful borrowing and instances of intertextuality). He then demonstrated each kind of approach within a rich series of examples drawn from his work with the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project, and most recently Electronic Enlightenment, before concluding his analysis by presenting – with caveats – some preliminary radial visualizations of textual influence generated using the D3 JavaScript library.

Wikimedia Workshop: Visualizing Data Resources

While Anna Marie was weaving animal magic at the Royal Society, our Technical Director Neil Jefferies and I were headed to the Forzhungszentrum Gotha of the University of Erfurt for an invited workshop on ‘Visualizing Data Resources: The Potential of  a Wikimedia Platform for the Digital Humanities’ (27–28 April 2012). Expertly organised by Martin Mulsow, Olaf Simons, and Kristina Petri, and generously funded by Wikimedia Deutschland – the largest and most active of the national chapters – the workshop provided an inspiring forum for a wide range of international participants and projects to share approaches and converge on the question of Wikipedia, the digital humanities, visualizations, and many points in between (see the full description [pdf]).

One set of presentations showcased the Wikimedia community’s own plans for data capture and computational seeing, many of which have great potential for the digital humanities; not always a straightforward relationship, as Olaf discussed in his opening address. These include Wikidata (a collaboratively curated, centralised database of entities designed to support the 280+ language editions of Wikipedia, as well as third-party initiatives, currently under development), and Semantic Mediawiki, an open source extension to Wikipedia capable of (re)organizing the site’s existing content into highly configurable, collectively editable semantic databases. The accumulation and management of structured, actionable (wiki)data within these streamlined platforms will facilitate the creation and deployment of information visualizations across the site’s many interfaces, and by its millions of users in the context of exports and mash-ups.


Scott Weingart (Indiana/CKCC), Neil (CofK/Oxford), James (CofK/Oxford), and Nicole Coleman (MRofL/Stanford).


Andreas Wolter (ImpulsBauhaus), Jens Weber (ImpulsBauhaus), and Judith Pfeiffer (IMPAcT/Oxford).

A second cluster of talks focused on the data capture, curation, and visualization techniques and applications being pursued and developed by humanistic projects based in archives, libraries, and universities worldwide. As well as presentations from ourselves and good friends Mapping the Republic of Letters, The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, CKCC, IMPAcT, and Scott Weingart, we heard about (inter alia) linked data and gamification at the University of Colorado; an adaptive, interactive, dynamic historical atlas (AIDA) being created at the University of Erfurt; and the wonderful ImpulsBauhaus initiative based at the the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. Designed to collect information on and represent the global social networks of the Bauhaus, and led by the designer-developer team Jens Weber and Andreas Wolter in 2009, the project harvested extensive biographical and prospopgraphical data on the movement’s participants and affiliates within a specially designed platform which served as the basis for dynamic network infographics and an interactive three-dimensional table, presented most memorably within an illuminated cube. A video of this extraordinary project opens the post.

Intellectual Geography Conference Videos Now Available


Videos of twenty-one papers and keynotes from our 2011 conference Intellectual Geography: Comparative Studies, 1550-1700 (Oxford, 5-7 September 2011) are now available on the conference website or via our Vimeo channel (with more hopefully to come). Organised by Howard Hotson, the event introduced and tested the novel concept of ‘intellectual geography’ as a means of appreciating and understanding the organisation of intellectual activity and the dissemination of ideas within space and across time, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. A taster – Miles Ogborn‘s keynote exploration of ‘What is Intellectual Geography?’ – is provided below. Happy viewing!

Intellectual Geography: Comparative Studies, 1550-1700


Miles Ogborn’s keynote.


Simon Burrows from the FBTIEE project.


Giovanna Ceserani’s keynote.


Discussions continue over lunch.


Testing the demonstrators.


Mark Curran from the FBTIEE project.

The Project’s second international conference, International Geography: Comparative Studies, 1550-1700, took place at St Anne’s College last week on 5–7 September 2011. The event, which was attended by over sixty delegates, allowed twenty-seven emerging and established scholars to present conceptual papers and rich case studies – from Europe and the wider world – which both explored the organization of early modern intellectual activity across time and space, and attempted to implement and refine the concept of ‘intellectual geography’ as a new means of understanding and appreciating the spatial dimensions of intellectual exchange. On the final day, papers from several digital projects – including our good friends from CKCC (Huygens ING) and Mapping the Republic of Letters (Stanford) and new friends from The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe (Leeds) – shared some of the opportunities and challenges of capturing and visualizing intellectual geography electronically. Delegates were also treated to a drinks reception in the historic Museum of the History of Science (which incorporated a talk and tour of the intellectual geography of scientific objects), and enjoyed playing with software prototypes of the enormously impressive database of the STN archives prepared by the FBTIEE project, as well as of our own union catalogue of intellectual correspondence. Conference reports, videos, and other outputs will be available soon; in the meantime, for further information, including speaker profiles and abstracts, please visit the conference microsite. Details of our 2012 conference will be available soon.

Representing the Republic of Letters


Project Director Howard Hotson opens our talk with some Hartlibian background.


Our technical lead Neil Jefferies describes 'Catalogue 2.0'.

Last week provided us with another opportunity to share the Project, specifically its union catalogue and associated editorial tools, at the international conference Representing the Republic of Letters (The Hague, 30 June–1 July 2011). Organised by our partners and good friends CKCC in the congenial surroundings of the recently renamed Huygens ING, and held in conjunction with the Descartes Centre at Utrecht University, the event showcased the fascinating work being undertaken by various individuals and projects worldwide to represent early modern correspondence networks and their constituent components digitally and visually. General sessions devoted to funding and standards facilitated ongoing collaborative discussions between CofK, our hosts, and Mapping the Republic of Letters (Stanford), who also presented at the event.

CofK at Mapping the Republic of Letters Conference

The Fondazione Giorgio Cini on San Maggiore.

The Fondazione Giorgio Cini on San Giorgio Maggiore, with the island of Guidecca visible in the distance.

Our panel at the conference, shared with Charles van den Heuvel from CKCC (Huygens Institute).

Our panel at the conference, shared with Charles van den Heuvel from CKCC (Huygens Institute).

Last week provided us with an opportunity to present the Project, specifically its union catalogue and associated editorial tools, at the international conference Mapping the Republic of Letters (Venice, 17–18 March 2011). Convened by the Stanford-based project of the same name (based at the Stanford Humanities Center), and held in and co-organised by the Fondazione Giorgio Cini on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, the event showcased the work being undertaken by various individuals and projects worldwide to collate and represent digitally and spatially the early modern republic of letters. It also explored the research question of whether global exchanges of correspondences and other texts might be best conceived of as a state or as a network. While main sessions provided insights into the very wide range of approaches to this topic, associated meetings introduced the activities of the Milan-based research laboratory Density Design, and facilitated collaborative discussions amongst CofK, our hosts Mapping the Republic of Letters (Stanford), and CKCC (Huygens Institute), who also presented at the event. For further details, please see the conference webpage.

We will be presenting the Project at a wide range of correspondence-related events in 2011. For full details of our speaking schedule, please see the presentations page.