U.Va.'s IATH Explores Expansion of 'Social Network for the Dead'

November 03, 2011

November 4, 2011 — To demonstrate the capabilities of a new digital humanities tool that maps the records and social networks of important historical figures, Daniel Pitti of the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities likes to start with Vannevar Bush, a forefather of the digital age.

"He was a prominent scientist in the United States who did a lot of things during World War II," Pitti said. "And he was connected to all kinds of people. He's a hero of the Web, in particular to the Web 2.0 crowd."

From his desk in IATH offices in Alderman Library, Pitti pulls up the prototype homepage of the Social Networks and Archival Context Project – or SNAC – and navigates to Bush's profile page. It includes a brief biography of Bush and lists the libraries and archives that hold material related to him.

In addition to Bush's own papers, which are housed at the Library of Congress, eight other archival records in the SNAC database reference him. The profile page lists where these records are kept and includes a description of the collections, a list of Bush's correspondents and colleagues, and a list of the organizations with which he was affiliated.

Pitti said several people have independently described the site as "Facebook for the dead."

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. He's since expanded it to about 140,000 records, with plans to include millions more.

He also recently received a $148,000 grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services to create a National Archival Authorities Cooperative, which would explore expanding SNAC into a central repository of archival records with a trained cooperative of archivists to maintain it.

The idea isn't just to aggregate where the records of important historical figures are kept, though that's part of it. Pitti also wants to show how these people were situated in their own professional networks.

One particularly snazzy new tool creates a visualization of those networks. To demonstrate from Bush's profile page in SNAC, Pitti points his mouse at a small link at the top right corner of the page that says "NEW RGraph demo," and clicks.

"Usually when you show this to a group of people, the best description I've heard of what happens next is 'collective exclamation' – or you could just call it a gasp," Pitti said.

The profile page disappears, replaced by a spider-web of names. In the center is "Vannevar Bush," with lines radiating out to the names of different correspondents or people with whom he is connected in archival records.

"This is very early stages of this," Pitti said. "We're trying to figure out how to display all of the data. These are all of the people and institutions with whom Vannevar Bush is linked in the archival records we've collected."

Pitti follows a thread from Bush's name to that of Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb and a correspondent of Bush's. He clicks on Oppenheimer's name, and a new set of names radiate out from it on the page. One of the new names is that of poet T.S. Eliot. 

A click on Eliot's name expands the visualization again, this time to include those connected to Eliot in archival records. Pitti points out one name in particular.

"This puts Groucho Marx three degrees of separation away from Vannevar Bush and two degrees of separation from Robert Oppenheimer. This is all in the very fine tradition of Kevin Bacon," Pitti said with a smile, referring to the popular game in which actors are connected to Bacon by no fewer than seven degrees of separation. (The Oracle of Bacon, a site that tracks those connections, was conceived and built by a U.Va. graduate student.)

Alan Liu is an English professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and works on a digital humanities project called the Research oriented Social Environment, or RoSE, that aims to link authors with books, documents and articles, going all the way back to the Renaissance. With Pitti's permission, RoSE harvests data from SNAC.

"The parlance of Web 2.0 talks a lot about the 'social graph,' or the ways in which everybody is linked together with everyone else," Liu said. "SNAC is a brilliant project in this way, because it's a complete re-imagination of the library metaphor as a social-document-graph."

Kenneth Price is an English professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive. For researchers looking into Whitman, whose manuscripts are scattered among several collections, a service such as SNAC is a huge benefit, Price said.

"For example, Whitman's poetry manuscripts are scattered at over 30 repositories," he said. "So having the work that Daniel is doing readily available online will really be a boon for Whitman scholars as they pull together records, figure out where documents are located and trace the creative process by looking at early drafts of these works."

The new grant is funding a series of meetings designed to explore the possibility of putting together the National Archival Authorities Cooperative, which would consist of archivists, librarians and scholars. If there's 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.

"The archival community could then begin using it to do all their description and make connections that I'm not making, so that it becomes a professional community project linked back to the collections," he said.

The first meeting will take place this spring at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.

— By Rob Seal

Media Contact

Rob Seal

Director of Media Management and Managing Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications