Exploring Prosopographical Resources Through Novel Tools and Visualizations: a Preliminary Investigation




Structured Prosopography provides a formal model for representing prosopography: a branch of historical research that traditionally has focused on the identification of people that appear in historical sources (Verboven et al. 2007). Thanks to computing technologies, structured prosopography has succeeded in providing historians with a mean to enhance their scholarly work and make it available worldwide to a variety of academic and non academic users. Since the 1990s, KCL’s Department of Digital Humanities (DDH) has been involved in the development of structured prosopographical databases, and has had direct involvement in Prosopographies of the Byzantine World (PBE and PBW), Anglo- Saxon England (PASE), Medieval Scotland (PoMS) and now more generally northern Britain (BoB).

Pre-digital print prosopographies presented its materials as narrative articles about the individuals it contains. Structured prosopography instead takes a more database- oriented approach as it focuses on isolating information fragments (usually, in textual form) that are relevant to the task of describing the life-events of a particular person. As a result, it is possible to quickly recollect such results in manifold ways using the logical query languages database systems make available.

In particular, DDH has been involved in the development of a general "factoid- oriented" model of structure that although downplaying or eliminating narratives about people, has to a large extent served the needs of these various projects quite well. The structure formally identifies obvious items of interest: Persons and Sources, and extends to related things like Offices or Places. In our prosopographical model the Factoid is a central idea and represents the spot in a primary source where something is said about one or more persons. In other words, it links people to the information about them via spots in primary sources that assert that information (Bradley & Short 2003).

In general, it is fair to say that the issue of representing prosopographical data to the purpose of building large and efficient knowledge bases is no longer a critical problem for digital humanities research to tackle. Thanks to more than twenty years of research in this niche-area, a number of technical approaches such as the factoid one just mentioned have been discussed extensively and thus can facilitate enormously the initial design and construction of a structured back-end for a digital prosopographical project.

For that regards instead the visual rendering and final presentation of the contents of a prosopography, the amount of existing research is considerably smaller. In fact it is quite common to present data using a classic database-centric approach: the tabular format. This approach normally boils down to a bibliographical-record-like table containing all the information available about a specific person: his/her recorded appellations and life dates, plus of course a variable number of rows that refer to the excepts that describe that person in the primary or secondary sources examined. We can see an example of this classic visualization approach in Fig. 1 (the example can be found online at http://www.poms.ac.uk/db/record/person/251/).

The tabular format has the advantage of offering a wealth of information in a clean and well-organized interface, thus simplifying the task of finding what we are looking for during a search. However, by combining all the information in a single view, this approach also hides some of the key dimensions used by historians in order to make sense of the materials at hand. For example, such dimensions could be deriving from a spatio-historical, genealogical or socio-political consideration of the data.

In other words, we acknowledged that although the tabular format succeeds in creating a comprehensive and condensed version of the information relevant for a search, it would also be interesting to examine if we could present the same data in a more piecemeal fashion, according to predefined pathways or views on the dataset that aim at making explicit some of the coherence principles of the historical discourse.

We believe that this kind of approach could be desirable for both non-expert users (e.g., learners) - who could simultaneously access the data and get a feeling for the meaningful relations among them - and for experts alike (e.g., academic scholars) - who could be facilitated in the process of analyzing data within predefined dimensions, so to highlight patterns of interest that would be otherwise hard to spot.

With these ideas in mind we started to investigate the creation of innovative methods for presenting prosopographical data to users. For the moment these experiments have been developed in the context of a single prosopography, the “Paradox of Medieval Scotland”, but we reckon that they could be easily generalizable to other projects too, due to the intrinsic similarity of the approaches we used.

Full reference:

Michele Pasin. Exploring Prosopographical Resources Through Novel Tools and Visualizations: a Preliminary Investigation - Digital Humanities 2012 Hamburg, Germany July 2012 . PDF

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