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The Letters Connection: Social Network Analysis in the scientific correspondence collection

Anne Alexander, Hugo Leal (CDH Learning), Louisiane Ferlier (Royal Society) and Elizabeth Smith (Darwin Correspondence Project)

Letters have been for centuries the main form of communication between scientists. Correspondence collections are a unique window into the social networks of prominent historical figures. What can digital social sciences and humanities reveal about the correspondence networks of 19th century scientists? This two-session intensive workshop will give participants the opportunity to explore possible answers to this question. 

With the digitisation and encoding of personal letters, researchers have at their disposal a wealth of relational data, which we propose to study through social network analysis (SNA). The workshop will be divided in two sessions during which participants will “learn by doing” how to apply SNA to personal correspondence datasets. Following a guided project framework, participants will work on the correspondence collections of John Herschel and Charles Darwin. After a contextual introduction to the datasets, the sessions will focus on the basic concepts of SNA, data transformation and preparation, data visualisation and data analysis, with particular emphasis on “ego network” measures.

The two demonstration datasets used during the workshop will be provided by the Epsilon project, a research consortium between Cambridge Digital Library, The Royal Institution and The Royal Society of London aimed at building a collaborative digital framework for 19th century letters of science. The first dataset, the “Calendar of the Correspondence of Sir John Hershel Database at the Adler Planetarium”, is a collection of the personal correspondence of John Frederick William Herschel (1792-1871), a polymath celebrated for his contributions to the field of astronomy. Its curation process started in the 50s at the Royal Society and currently comprises 14.815 digitised letters encoded in extensible markup language (.xml) format. The second dataset, the “Darwin Correspondence Project” has been locating, researching, editing and publishing Charles Darwin’s letters since 1974. In addition to a 30-volume print edition, the project has also made letters available in .xml format. 

The workshop will provide a step-by-step guide to analysing correspondence networks from these collections, which will cover:

- Explanation of the encoding procedures and rationale following the Text Encoding Initiative guidelines;

- Preparation and transformation of .xml files for analysis with an open source data wrangler;

- Rendering of network visualisations using an open source SNA tool;

- Analysis of the Ego Networks of John Herschel and Charles Darwin (requires UCINET) 

About the speakers and course facilitators: 

Anne Alexander is Director of Learning at Cambridge Digital Humanities

Hugo Leal is Methods Fellow at Cambridge Digital Humanities and Co-ordinator of the Cambridge Data School 

Louisiane Ferlier is Digital Resources Manager at the Centre for the History of Science at the Royal Society. In her current role she facilitates research collaborations with the Royal Society collections, curates digital and physical exhibitions, as well as augmenting its portfolio of digital assets. An historian of ideas by training, her research investigates the material and intellectual circulation of ideas in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

Elizabeth Smith is the Associate Editor for Digital Development at the Darwin Correspondence Project, where she contributed to the conversion of the Project’s work into TEI several years ago, and has since been collaborating with the technical director in enhancing the Darwin Project’s data. She is one of the co-ordinators of Epsilon, a TEI-based portal for nineteenth-century science letters.

No knowledge of prior knowledge of programming is required, instructions on software to install will be sent out before the workshop. Some exercises and preparation for the second session will be set during the first and participants should allow 2-3 hours for this. 

Please note, priority will be given to staff and students at the University of Cambridge for booking onto this workshop. 

Please register here

Wednesday, 18 September, 2019 - 11:30 to 16:30
Wednesday, 25 September, 2019 - 11:30 to 16:30
Event location: 
S3, Alison Richard Building, West Road, Cambridge