'Social Network for the Dead' Set to Expand Due to Mellon Grant

April 19, 2012

April 19, 2012 — A digital humanities project at the University of Virginia that maps the archival records and social networks of important historical figures is poised to dramatically expand, thanks to a $575,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The Social Networks and Archival Context Project, or SNAC, is based out of U.Va.'s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. The project uses archival records to create a social network for historical figures, complete with profile pages for the likes of Robert Oppenheimer and Buckminster Fuller. Several people have jokingly referred to it as "Facebook for the dead," according to project organizers.

The project began as a tool for the archival community. The new funding, which begins this month, will help expand the project and make it more accessible to scholars, said Daniel Pitti, associate director of the institute. The project tackles a basic research problem: Records relating to historical figures are often scattered at different repositories. SNAC creates a list of where these records are and what is in them.

"We'll be able to create cooperative access to cultural information," said Pitti, who collaborates on the project with Ray Larson at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and Adrian Turner and Brian Tingle at the California Digital Library.

In addition to tracking where those records are kept, SNAC draws on a voluminous database of records to places historical figures into professional and social networks.

A visitor to Oppenheimer's page, for example, would see that his papers are housed at the Library of Congress, and that he is referenced in 14 other collections in the SNAC database. The page also displays some biographical information and includes a link to a demo of a visualization tool that traces the lines of contact between him and other historical figures, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and physicist Niels Bohr.

The Mellon grant will allow for the inclusion of other information, such as corporate or government entities a figure was associated with, as well as geographic location information for the records.

The funding will also allow the project team to vastly expand the source data employed in the project, adding new archival records drawn from all over the country and world.

Pitti started SNAC in 2010 with a $348,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He began with about 28,000 archival records showing where different collections of papers and manuscripts are housed. It's now expanded it to about 150,000 records, with plans to include many more.

The expanded project will include 2 million summary archival descriptions provided by OCLC WorldCat, a global network of library content. The geographic and historical scope of the new records covers the U.S. since its inception, Pitti said.

The new funding will also develop tools for extracting and assembling archival authority descriptions; match and combine records describing the same entity, and develop methods for accommodating descriptive data in languages other than English, among other features.

The National Archives and Records Administration will host a series of meetings to explore the possibility of putting together the National Archival Authorities Cooperative, which would consist of archivists, librarians and scholars. The administration will also provide SNAC with archival records relating to the history of U.S. government agencies, past and present.

A $148,000 grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services is funding the meetings, as well as 140 scholarships to seven regional workshops on the underlying standard used in SNAC, administered by Simmons College in Boston, and workshops organized by the Society of American Archivists.

With sufficient buy-in, SNAC could grow into a national program that provides a near-comprehensive list of records on millions of historical figures, Pitti said.

Now, the project team is tackling challenges such as ensuring that the archival records – which come from government entities such as the Library of Congress, as well as from organizations such as the American Philosophical Society – are formatted the same way so they can be easily indexed for searching.

"We're getting vast amounts of data, and we're still adding to it," Pitti said.

– by Rob Seal