Big Data Projects: Finding New Connections in Old Materials

4 Feb

In my last post, I discussed my own understanding of how to define digital history.  The next step towards understanding this sub-field, and its implications for the field of public history, is to examine a project that showcases the transformative utility of digital history.

In my mind, the truly extraordinary thing about digital history is its ability to take information that historians have already been studying for years, and find new connections within it that would have been nearly impossible to find otherwise.  An interesting example of this can be seen through a project at Stanford University, called “Mapping the Republic of Letters.”  The Republic of Letters is a term used to describe the explosion of correspondence between Enlightenment era thinkers in Europe and America.  Notable authors include figures like Voltaire, Rousseau, Isaac Newton, and Benjamin Franklin, along with over 6,000 others, spanning some 55,000 letters.

Clearly, these letters have been used many times by many different scholars for many different projects.  The project that the faculty and students at Stanford are working on, however, is unique.  The group has built a tool that simply tracks where each letter originated from, and where it was sent to.  By collecting and mapping this information for each letter, it is possible to trace the spread of ideas through the Enlightenment world, and study how communication webs began and grew.  Already the project has found results that are counter-intuitive to the accepted narrative of the Enlightenment, by noting the lack of letters going into and out of England, considered the birthplace of many Enlightenment ideals.[1]

Dan Edelstein, one of the project leaders at Stanford, has noted that some of his colleagues find his work with the Republic of Letters to be “whimsical, the result of playing with technological toys.”[2]  He argues, and I agree, that this analysis represents a limited view of how digital history is being used, and what it has to offer.  To a certain extent, it is true that historians are “playing” with the data—that data is being entered into digital databases and analyzed without a clear idea of what the result will be.  The results of such play have been far from “whimsical,” however.  The Stanford webpage on their product describes the project as using “quantitative metrics to examine the scope and dimensions of…’big data.’”[3]  As discussed above, this analysis of “big data” has already provided new information on the spread of thought in the Enlightenment world.  Other “big data” digitization projects have provided a whole new way to study medieval history[4] and given clues to etymological turns in the nineteenth century.[5]

It is nearly impossible to predict what impact the tools and techniques of digital history will ultimately have on the broader field.  It is clear, though, that even without precisely knowing what they are looking for with these tools, historians are using the tremendous potential of the digital world to unlock new secrets of the past.  Big data projects like “Mapping the Republic of Letters” would have been nearly impossible without the use of computers; studying such large accumulations of data shows new connections and patterns that were invisible to practitioners of conventional history.  In this way, then, digital history has transformed the practice of public and academic history.

[1] Patricia Cohen, “Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches,” The New York Times, November 16, 2010.

[2] Cohen, “Digital Keys.”

[3] “Mapping the Republic of Letters.”

[4] A digitization of the enormous Bayeux Tapestry has allowed a collaborative study of its contents, a project that was nearly impossible before the digital revolution:

[5] The Abraham Lincoln papers have been used extensively by the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary to study word origins:


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