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"Every early modern document is a record of complex relations between authors, printers, publishers, booksellers, dedicatees, polemical opponents, and so on," says Daniel Shore. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "network" via Shutterstock)

European history

Website tracks the close buddies of Francis Bacon

Before sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, it wasn’t so simple to map how people were talking to one another, forming social groups, and sharing beliefs and ideas.

“Six Degrees of Francis Bacon” changes that for the early modern period.

The new website recreates the British early modern social network to trace the personal relationships among figures like Bacon, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, and many others.

The website lets anyone else interested in this period view and add to the network. The site currently identifies more than 13,000 individuals and highlights approximately 200,000 relationships.

“Are you researching Anne Boleyn to find out if she knew Thomas More, author of Utopia? Now, you can see that in an instant,” says project director Christopher Warren, associate professor of English in Carnegie Mellon University. “But not only that, you can see all of the people they knew, thus giving you new ways to consider communities, factions, influences, and sources.

“It’s critical for scholars because even experts have a hard time keeping so many relations in their heads. Meanwhile, newcomers have nearly instantaneous access to contextual information that’s often really difficult to access.”

Building the site

To create “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon,” Warren, Georgetown University’s Daniel Shore, and Carnegie Mellon’s Jessica Otis mined the 62 million words in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography to map who knew whom between 1500-1700.

[Europeans are basically one big family]

The site lets users add research and knowledge. “One of the biggest challenges of getting the site to this latest version was building the underlying infrastructure to support the crowdsourcing aspect of the website,” says Otis, a postdoctoral fellow in the English department.

“We have an incredibly rich and complex dataset, and wanted to create a website that would allow experts to contribute their own knowledge to that data. The site has the most vital of these features in place, but we also have several new and exciting features already in development.”

They relied on the data-mining expertise of Associate Professor Cosma Shalizi and PhD student Lawrence Wang to develop the visual social network.

Mystery networks in red

In order to make “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon” as accessible and accurate as possible, the team spent a huge amount of attention on the site’s functionality, design, and color schemes.

“Something as basic as color choice on this version of the site represents a lot of thought about how to communicate that scholars probably haven’t studied someone enough,” Warren says. “People whose nodes appear in red have the fewest connections.

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“In most cases, this isn’t because they were solitary people or something like that. Instead, it’s because they’ve generally been underserved in the history of scholarship. Many women, for instance, appear in red. We need to know a lot more about their networks, and the color red helps people see that very quickly.”

The site encourages professional researchers, students, and amateurs to participate in the same community. And, at a basic level, it can give anyone an immediate sense of historical networks and communities and help them develop more sophisticated interpretations.

“For instance, we’ve long known that John Milton didn’t just associate with other poets. ‘Six Degrees of Francis Bacon’ makes it really easy to see how he was connected to various other spheres of society,” says Shore, associate professor of English at Georgetown.

“With a few clicks of a mouse, you can discover that Milton was connected to composers, musicians, and cavalier poets through the singer and composer Henry Lawes. His polemical opponent Joseph Hall, the Bishop of Norwich, was his bridge to a sizeable slice of elite English clergy.”

Add to the network

College students have already used the network to understand how early modern people were related, and they also added information to the network based on their own research in the period. The team hopes that more classes take advantage of the tools and information the site offers.

“‘Six Degrees of Francis Bacon’ is, perhaps surprisingly, an excellent way to get students to pay close attention to texts,” Shore says. “Every early modern document is a record of complex relations between authors, printers, publishers, booksellers, dedicatees, polemical opponents, and so on. Students can often add to the social network just by studying the relations documented in the title page and front matter of a single 16th-century book.”

The “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon” project began two years ago with initial funding from a Carnegie Mellon’s Falk and Wimmer fellowships and a Google Faculty Research Award. The project also has received recent support from the Council for Libraries and Information Resources/Digital Library Foundation.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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