Networking Women: Digital Tools and the Archive

Yesterday I gathered with a fantastic team of fellow IU Bloomington early modern scholars for a satellite session of the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon Networking Women event. The event proved incredibly satisfying – nationwide efforts, based at Carnegie Mellon and several satellite locations, resulted in 117 new person entries, 225 new relationship links, and 506 new “type of relationship” assignments (and that’s only the last count from the SDFB curators at 3:45PM yesterday). My individual efforts focused on rounding out Margaret Cavendish’s network, which was painfully thin as of yesterday morning. Here’s a comparison between how her network (55%-100% relationship certainty) looked at the start of yesterday’s work and then by the end:

While these images help demonstrate just how satisfying the work was on many levels, I want to address some of the frustrations that emerged as we worked to situate women within early modern social networks. We hit walls in our own expertise, turned to resources only to find gaps and missing information, and eventually encountered problems with the structure of our tool, the SDFB project site itself. This is not because the SDFB project is misguided or technically unsound – I have only the highest praise for the project’s goals, am excited and energized by the promise it holds for early modern research, and am very impressed by the relatively small number of technical glitches we encountered yesterday given the massive amount of site traffic and use across the country. So let me explain.

For those who aren’t familiar, the SDFB project is working to construct a large-scale network analysis for early modern England (1500-1700). In order to contribute a new entry (individual person or relationship link), you submit a form to add new information to the project’s database, which then generates the new link in the network analysis visualization on the site’s front end. As part of this process, when you add a new relationship between two individuals, you’re prompted to enter the “type of relationship” using a dropdown menu the site curators have created. The list includes fairly standard and frequently used relationship types, like “spouse of” and “child of,” but also less objective relationship categories, like “enemy of” and “attracted to.”

What we found as we started entering new women into the SDFB database and tried to catalogue their relationships was that the existing relationship category options were inadequate for women. In other words, while “spouse of” and “child of” were still helpful, we were stuck when it came to more ambiguous (and, thus, more frequent) female network categories. Amelia Lanyer, for instance, is “connected” in some way to every woman she addresses a dedication to in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, but we have little or no evidence that she actually had relationships with these women. We needed a relationship category for “dedicated a work to” or “referenced in writing” or “wrote a poem about.” Similarly, my good friend and colleague, Amanda Zoch, works on early modern pregnancy and added several midwives to the SDFB database yesterday, but hit a wall when she tried to connect them to their patients. We needed a relationship category for “served as midwife to.” (N.B. the SDFB leaders were awesome and extremely efficient about adding these new categories as they emerged – we added at least four new relationship categories yesterday, including “midwife for,” “had as midwife,” “attendant of” and “attended by”).

The take-away: adding more women to the SDFB database also necessitated adding a new set of relationship categories to the available network terms. This is not a revolutionary observation. We can turn to work by scholars like Laura Gowing, Julie Campbell, Karen Newman, Penelope Anderson, Susan Frye, Amanda Herbet (who gave a captivating and informative keynote for yesterday’s event), and many others for arguments on the different kinds of relationships women participated in and cultivated compared to early modern men. But the #networkingwomen event reminded me not only that the relationships were different, but that we need different language for talking about them, especially when we condense these relationships down to short, descriptive phrases or character strings for digital recognition and manipulation.

Our work yesterday called to mind Lauren Klein’s important and compelling work on archival absence and digital tools.* As we discovered and created new network terms for the SDFB project, our digital work was, as Klein suggests, “render[ing] visible the archival silences implicit in our understanding” of early modern social networks (Klein 665). Adding new women to the database and generating visible/digital traces of their relationships both reframed the archive “as a site of action rather than a record of…loss” and also revealed the limits of our digital methods (Klein 665). We were using our expertise to fill the gaps in the SDFB database with knowledge of early modern women (gaps on the level of content), creating visual evidence for the active and vibrant female social network we know existed in the period. But at the same time, that activity and new knowledge forced us to reconsider the core terms and language of the SDFB project, revealing gaps on the level of structure within the tool we were using to remedy gaps at the content level.

By pointing us to these “structural gaps” behind our efforts to bolster the content, digital tools continue to provide an important, and potentially hard-to-swallow, intervention in our scholarly methods. They prompt us to rethink the research methods and frameworks of analysis behind our work, and force us to interrogate the way we approach and handle our historical objects in both digital and analog registers.

A big thanks to the SDFB project for an especially energetic and thought-provoking event.

*Lauren F. Klein, “The Image of Absence:vArchival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings,” American Literature 85.4 (2013): 661-688.
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