Notes from Aisling Quigley and Jen Donnelly

The Network Ontologies workshop was an ideal venue for determining the commonalities and differences among and between a range of digital projects incorporating networks, and for exploring complex questions raised throughout this process. As reiterated by the workshop’s organizers, Drew Armstrong, Alison Langmead, and Christopher Warren (Carnegie Mellon University), Network Ontologies strove to represent a safe intellectual space enriched by different academic concerns. Participants, spanning from undergraduates to tenured professors, arrived from many and varied disciplinary backgrounds, including art history, information sciences, English, and Italian, among others.

Itinera (University of Pittsburgh)

During the first morning session, Drs. Armstrong and Langmead introduced Itinera, a “map-based, interactive, digital resource that overlays and juxtaposes” (website) the movements of eighteenth-and-nineteenth century European cultural travelers and artifacts. Itinera, an ongoing project of the Department of History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, emerged from the desire to employ a tool that moved beyond the static and unchangeable characteristics of fixed, print media. In its early phase of development, the central concern, or thesis, of the project is to represent networks of people and artifacts and how these intersect in space and shift throughout time. The project will culminate in a publicly accessible, web-based platform for inquirers from diverse disciplines to contribute and visualize data. With Itinera, inquirers may track the movement of an individual human being and access information about their activities in a particular location, or similarly track the “life” of an object spatially and temporally. Itinera also stems from the reality that computers are quite bad at dealing with images, and hopes to provide rich supportive metadata for object images and human portraits.

Itinera is more than a website, however. It is a classroom, and has already served as a rich learning space for undergraduates (First Experience in Research students), and graduate students. Negotiating seemingly simple questions about life events often leads to broader discussions of relationship types, further examination of the unexplained but clear patterns demonstrated by visualizing tours, and investigation into the nature of cultural travel itself. Itinera operates on CollectiveAccess, a collections management system that continues to evolve and expand, and that handles images better than any other open source system Dr. Langmead has encountered up to this point. The vocabulary for Itinera is comprised of a large, flat list primarily controlled by Alison.

In creating and handling these networks, one of the workshop participants pointed out that it is tempting to think that these networks are holding up a mirror to life, when in fact these projects portray a very specific interpretation of the past. Another member of the audience made a pitch for minimalism, suggesting that these projects should focus on the subtleties of relationships that can be captured only by scholars or content experts, and that everything else should be deferred to Wikipedia or another external resource.

 Questions raised in this session:

  • What is the list of needs for a project like this- as in, what information is beneficial to include and what information is unnecessary?
  • How do you impose a date range on a relationship?
  • How do these networks deal with women?
  • Is it too Euro-centric?

The Republic of Letters (Stanford University)

Dr. Dan Edelstein presented Stanford’s project, Mapping the Republic of Letters. This project, employing data from the Electronic Enlightenment Project (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford), conveys correspondence networks through the “development of sophisticated, interactive visualization tools” (website).