Historical Texts, Modern Tools: Berkeley Prosopography Services

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By Laurie Pearce and Patrick Schmitz

This post grows out of the roundtable session of the DH Faire held on April 8, 2015 at the University of California, Berkeley, that provided an opportunity for researchers of established and emerging digital humanities projects to share their work, to expose their ideas and methods to the Berkeley campus community.  The charge to the roundtable participants was either to locate the project on the Digital Humanities (DH) landscape at Berkeley, or to present our current research project(s).

Berkeley Prosopography Services (BPS) is a customizable, out-of-the-box toolkit and environment that supports prosopographical research.  It is designed to solve a problem — a complex research methodology — and is not a problem or algorithm in search of a problem to which it may be applied. Prosopography is the process of  discovering, through references to personal names, familial relationships, professional designations, as well as other attributes, pictures of the social, economic, intellectual activities and connections that link them. As the foundational task of prosopography is the collecting of name instances and attributes, it is hardly surprising that prosopographers were early adopters of digital tools, especially databases, which facilitated sorting, searching, and storage.

BPS is innovative as it was conceived as a reusable and generalizable toolkit, rather than as a “one-off” to serve a single, specific project or question. The customizable probabilistic disambiguator, a program that determines the likelihood that two or more instances of the same name refer to the same person, processes a set of pluggable rules that each domain expert develops; the rules articulate the sequence of steps a domain expert uses to collapse multiple instances of names into the individuals that populate the corpus. Once individuals are distinguished out of multiple name instances, they are entered into the social network analysis engine that uses well-established SNA mathematical metrics that define the social network, and a graph visualizer automatically generates interactive visual representations of the social networks reflected in the data set.

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In the construction of BPS, we have learned that a digital humanities project depends on more than a single conversation between humanities researcher and IT professional. On-going development of a shared vocabulary between the domain and technical components and a self-reflective ethnography leads to a strong foundation for confronting problems and problem-solving for both parties. Even this confirmed humanities researcher has learned to think more like a data scientist – not learning to code or engineer software – integrating process, abstraction, and the potential for shaping new directions into a research agenda.

Conceived as a solution to real research problems, BPS provides humanities researchers a powerful digital environment that emulates familiar and comfortable processes of interacting with data, and presents opportunities to explore familiar data in new ways, and, in turn, develop new avenues of research. This is consistent with the best in humanities research, an organic process that generates new and innovative avenues of investigation building on previous work.  Well thought out digital scholarship can and should be comfortable; it should reflect and support research flows with which an investigator is familiar and should not limit or define the investigative process.

BPS team DHFaire 2015Our lead researchers, Laurie Pearce, a lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, and Patrick Schmitz, Associate Director of Research IT, welcome the support of the broadening Berkeley DH landscape that is providing new vistas for humanities research and for growing interactions between the humanities and social sciences.