Networking Archives: Assembling and analysing a meta-archive of correspondence, 1509-1714

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: History Faculty

Abstract

During the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries Europeans accessed increasingly effective and economical means of exchanging letters within and across boundaries. In their most political functions, correspondence networks gathered information necessary for the consolidation of state authority. At their most esoteric, they were devoted to the exchange of ideas within a trans-national community of learned men and women known as the 'republic of letters'. Although handled in separate historical literatures, these two types of 'intelligencing' overlapped, not least because 'men of letters' possessed the linguistic, rhetorical, and diplomatic skills, as well as the extensive networks, required to obtain the information vital to both real nations and the imagined 'respublica litteraria'.

The study of both kinds of early modern intelligencing has been hindered because scholars have lacked both high-quality epistolary data in sufficient quantity and the tools and quantitative methods needed to analyse the networks documented by them. Traditionally, catalogues of letters have resided in unconnected, digital 'silos', rarely compatible with one another in either technical or scholarly terms.

'Networking Archives' addresses these challenges by consolidating the data, tools, methods, and expertise of two highly successful projects - Early Modern Letters Online [EMLO], a published union catalogue created by the Mellon-funded 'Cultures of Knowledge' project in Oxford, and the unpublished epistolary data extracted from the 16th-century Domestic and Foreign State Papers Online collected by the AHRC-funded 'Tudor Networks of Power' project [TNoP] in Queen Mary University London and Cambridge. Since 2009, Cultures of Knowledge has edited metadata for c. 125,000 letters with a suite of tools developed for use in editorial workflows. TNoP has developed algorithms and built tools for analysing its working archive of c. 133,000 letters using quantitative network analysis methods, demonstrating a capacity to reveal fresh dimensions of early modern state formation and new means to clarify the results obtained by more traditional methods.

By working together to include a third, as yet uncurated, dataset of c. 172,000 letters from the Stuart State Papers Online, EMLO will evolve into a consolidated meta-archive of c. 430,000 letter records and provide the conditions necessary for new research into the early modern 'intelligencing' networks that extended across Europe. The project will use this grant to answer key questions on the role of intelligencers between the accession of Henry Tudor in 1509 and the death of Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, in 1714. It will mentor emerging scholars engaged in the study of epistolary networks via a series of training schools and a colloquium, and freely share its technical infrastructure, methods, and data, ensuring that these are placed at the disposal of a wide community. In the process, this approach will serve as a working model for addressing the proliferation of digital projects by demonstrating how merging successful initiatives and offering the means to integrate data from individual researchers and digital 'silos' can help create a sustainable national infrastructure for interdisciplinary early modern studies.

Planned Impact

'Networked Archives' is designed to remove barriers between specialized scholarly resources and larger public audiences in three ways.

1) Popular history in print and broadcast media. 'Networking Archives' will disseminate its research outcomes to a wide public audience in ways that are accessible, engaging, and relevant. Central to the project are plans for a three-part television documentary on big data in history to be produced by the UK production company Screen Glue for BBC4 or the History Channel; and, developing out of this, a popular history book tentatively titled 'Masters of Intelligence: Espionage and Surveillance in the Premodern World' (to be offered to Penguin). These will engage the public with the compelling topic of espionage and conspiracy in the 16th and 17th centuries and link this to the social analysis methods used by our own modern intelligence agencies.

2) Information brokerage for publishers, archives, and libraries. 'Networking Archives' will engage users beyond the usual parameters of academia by brokering information on behalf of libraries, museums, archives, other open access digitization projects, and commercial data providers referenced by the Early Modern Letters Online [EMLO] union catalogue. First, each letter record in EMLO is linked back to the records and other resources on the contributors' websites. The project will publish hundreds of thousands of new advertisements of documents in The National Archives offered commercially by Gale which will steer many EMLO users to these resources. Secondly, the downloadable sets of carefully curated records can be searched, sorted, analysed, and visualised in a variety of new ways, enhancing the value and visibility of the material published by Gale. Thirdly, marrying State Papers letter records with those already on EMLO will begin integrating the holdings of The National Archive with material in other repositories scattered across and beyond the UK.

3) A model for research policy-makers. 'Networking Archives' offers policy-makers and funding bodies a working model for building national infrastructures for the humanities by reversing the proliferation of similar but incompatible digital resources independently created by short-term research projects. A merger of two successful, previously funded projects will create (a) a consolidated dataset or meta-archive; (b) a consolidated infrastructure for editing, publishing, visualising and analysing these data; and (c) a consolidated course package providing training in the use of these tools and methods; as well as (d) a range of more traditional research outputs which could not have been created without all the work previously undertaken by the merged projects. Finally (e) this consolidated package of data, tools, and methods has the potential to serve as the nucleus of an infrastructure hub attracting other relevant (including 'orphaned' and 'silo') projects and archives, and a model for positioning the UK competitively in the field of nationally funded digital humanities infrastructures.

Publications

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