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Revolutionary Research Tool Puts Historical Documents at Researchers’ Fingertips

Aug 20, 2014 |

Documents and materials that connect historical people’s work and lives are housed in archives, libraries, and museums all over the world – making them hard to find for researchers, budding scholars and the wider public.

Until now. A digital project at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities is aiming to tie together primary sources from all over the world in one online application.

Users of the “Prototype History Research Tool” developed by the Social Networks and Archival Context project have access to more than 2.6 million persons, organizations and families – soon to grow to more than 3.5 million – linked to millions of historical records documenting their lives. The project’s director, Daniel Pitti, said that the new tool could save months, if not years, of research work, and perhaps connect researchers with resources that might otherwise be overlooked.

Through the Social Networks and Archival Context website, users can look up a historical figure like Edgar Allan Poe and find hundreds of items related to the 19th century author who attended U.Va.

On the search page, the user can input the name of a person – say, Edgar Allan Poe – and up pops a list of items (for Poe, 798 of them) that includes his own writing, his papers, names of people with whom he corresponded, societies devoted to him, places named after him, and collections and where they’re located, among other related topics. The late Irby Cauthen, a U.Va. English professor and former dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, wrote letters about Poe manuscripts that are listed. The French poet Charles Baudelaire shows up, because he translated Poe’s horror stories.

Just for fun, the search page features a rotating, random selection of about 25 people to explore by clicking on their portraits. A recent visit turned up Wyatt Earp, Armand, John Edward Gray, Jeanette MacDonald, Charlie A. Beckwith, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Paulus Orosius and Juan Felipe Herrera. Click the “explore featured identities” link, and a new group populates the page.

The archival platform “provides convenient, one-stop access to locate historical resources,” Pitti said.

Primary documents about an individual could be housed, for example, in the Library of Congress, several university libraries, a state’s historical society and an international archive. On the Social Networks and Archival Context website, researchers can find personal, family and organization descriptions, the intellectual and social networks in which they existed, and the documentary evidence of the lives lived. The prototype searching tool finds biographical information about people, both individuals and groups, who created or are documented in historical resources.

Close to $1.6 million in grants, from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation – the latest being $344,000 from Mellon – have brought the project to a crucial stage: the final planning for an international cooperative, to be hosted by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. It will be a public website and continue free access to users.

“SNAC promises to change the way history is imagined and written,” said historian Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and a former U.Va. faculty member. “For all that the digital revolution has revolutionized, the heart of research lies within the primary record embedded in archives large and small. The pioneering work of SNAC will unlock that record, revealing connections and patterns invisible to us now.”

After using the prototype, Ayers wrote in an email: “Wow! This is remarkable. I just did a couple of searches for ... the Valley [of the Shadow] and see all kinds of stuff I didn’t know about (creating mixed feelings, but that’s another issue!) This works wonderfully.”

Ayers’ Valley of the Shadow, a pioneering digital humanities project initiated while he was on the U.Va. faculty and an IATH fellow, contains materials from two American communities – Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania – before, during and after the Civil War.

U.Va. drama professor LaVahn Hoh, a historian of the circus, said the site “is terrific. I have already been looking up circus folks. I have discovered new collections and areas in collections where I can find information without doing a lot of research.”

“We are very excited at the possibilities of collaboration with other U.Va. research,” Pitti said. “For example, the Center for Automata Processing, a new Computer Science center, is exploring ways to improve the speed of name matching in SNAC, and English professor Alison Booth’s ‘Collected Biographies of Women’ is exploring with us ways to interconnect her data and SNAC data.”

The National Archives and Records Administration-hosted cooperative will enable archivists, librarians and scholars to maintain the descriptive data and to extend the scope of the people and records included. The current efforts, supported by the Mellon Foundation, are planning the legal, administrative, governance and technical structure of the cooperative, in preparation for a pilot implementation in 2015.

SNAC is a collaboration among the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at U.Va., the California Digital Library, the School for Information Science at the University of California, Berkeley and the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

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