Imagining a Structure for Meaningful Historical Relationships

This innovative workshop, held at the University of Pittsburgh on November 21st and 22nd, 2014, brought together specialists across a range of early modern disciplines (English, History, French and Italian, Art History, Musicology) and a number of existing projects to address questions of network ontologies in the early modern world. Aided by the participation of experts in linked data and information systems, the workshop was, and continues to be, an exercise in what Bruno Latour calls “practical ontology.”

Scholars of the early modern period have long been interested in networks. Networks of scholarly and literary exchange, international trade, kinship, and patronage have been but a few of the many fruitful and durable areas of study. Recent and ongoing digital humanities projects are now considering such networks with fresh approaches and at larger and larger scales. At the heart of many of these digital projects are “network ontologies”—that is, networks of meaningful relationships that offer implied or explicit answers to the question, “What was there in the early modern world?”

The starting points were the early modernists’ existing research practices on the one hand, and the data practices currently employed by the four projects—Mapping the Republic of Letters, Itinera, Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, and Manner of Belonging—on the other. Spanning the workshop’s one and a half days, three blocs of sessions will aim to develop the prototype metadata standard to support ongoing collaborative digital research in early modern networks.

In Friday morning’s session, open to all without preregistration, project leaders from the four participating digital humanities network projects introduced the successes and struggles found within their current and proposed network data models, leaving room also for conversation and questions about the issues being raised within each project and across projects.

In Friday afternoon’s working session, pre-registered participants explored the limits of existing data models and generated further questions. Informed by participants’ individual and discipline-specific research agendas, by “thick descriptions” of early modern networks, and by the morning’s presentations, participant working groups identified areas for subsequent focus.

Saturday morning’s session was open to those who participated in the working groups on Friday, and was an opportunity to produce tangible research outcomes from the workshop, including a prototype network ontology structure.