Considered one of this country’s founders and greatest intellects, Benjamin Franklin was also a printer, postmaster, scientist, inventor and prolific letter writer. It’s through a digital mapping of Franklin’s correspondence from 1757 to 1775 that historian Caroline Winterer and her colleagues seek to better understand his networks and define Franklin before he became the Benjamin Franklin we know today. This use of technological review and analysis tools is not unlike e-discovery.
A Smithsonian article by Jonathan Lyons illuminates Winterer’s work, which is in its early stages and part of the greater Mapping the Republic of Letters project at Stanford University. Such research is part of a new generation of studies known as digital humanities.
Like email threading for the 18th century, the computer-powered project is plotting Franklin’s letters and tracing key interconnections. As Lyon’s article details, researchers pore over Franklin’s correspondence and carefully record data from each letter written or received. They mark down the sender, receiver, location and date but they do not actually read each letter or note its contents — or as we in the legal industry know it: coding metadata. Meanwhile, another database keeps track of individual senders and receivers. Then, a customized computer application turns these two sets of data into charts, maps and graphs “that allow the research team to search for patterns and interrogate the material in new ways.” It would be interesting to know whether Winterer is using algorithms similar to clustering to draw connections and analyze data sets.
Some proponents of her work have called it, fittingly, “revolutionary.” Her critics, however, believe it is misguided and its avoidance of the humanity of Franklin’s work as “pure folly.”
Winterer states that this digitization and visualization are “simply another path to try to add complexity and life to a lost world that we can never go back into.” She also adds that the digitization of these early modern social networks can help “begin to discern new patterns and make new comparisons that would either not have occurred to us before or that would have been impossible to see, given the huge and fragmentary nature of the data set.”
One can’t help but wonder what Franklin would think of these digital mapping efforts that, much like e-discovery, draw important connections. Perhaps he would find the electronic endeavor of great interest and encourage the Stanford researchers to continue to trust thy selves.