Project Overview

Six Degrees of Francis Bacon (SDFB) is a digital reconstruction of the early modern social network (EMSN) that scholars and students from all over the world will be able to collaboratively expand, revise, curate, and critique.  Historians and literary critics have long studied the way that early modern people associated with each other and participated in various kinds of formal and informal groups.  Yet their scholarship, published in countless books and articles, is scattered and unsynthesized.  By data-mining existing scholarship that describes relationships between early modern persons, documents, and institutions, we have created a unified, systematized representation of the way people in early modern England were connected.  Unlike published prose, SDFB is extensible, collaborative, and interoperable: extensible in that actors and associations can always be added, modified, developed, or, removed; collaborative in that it synthesizes the work of many scholars; interoperable in that new work on the network is put into immediate relation to previously mapped relationships.

In the project’s start-up stage, which has been supported by a Google Faculty Research Award (received in July of 2012), we have mined a single source, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), to produce a preliminary list of 6000 actors and to infer, with confidence intervals, a map of the associations between them.  We have validated the associations inferred by our statistical models against lists of associations produced by experts in the field.  Results of this data mining already make it possible to visualize and understand the early modern social network in exciting new ways.  These results will soon be available here in both database and visual formats.  We soon plan to make the beta version of the EMSN publicly available using a Wiki front end and open access network visualization tools.  

Our current goal is to improve the project and increase our impact on the scholarship of the early modern period in three ways.  First, we aim to expand the range of the texts from which we can infer associations.  The entries of the ODNB include limited and partial information, but a fuller range of sources - biographies and scholarly work from the nineteenth century to the present - will allow us to extend these limits, correct these partialities, and thereby increase the accuracy of the reconstructed network. Since the project’s use of texts is non-consumptive, Hathi Trust Research Center and Google Books have expressed interest in supporting our work by giving us access to texts in their archive.  Adding new kinds of data will also allow the network to expand beyond a personalist model to include different kinds of entities, like texts and institutions.  Second, we intend to develop and refine our statistical methods to incorporate different types of documents and entities, as well as develop a computational framework for handling the increased scale of the project.Finally, we will build and improve the interactive front end interface to make it intuitive, attractive, and flexible enough to meet the needs of scholars, teachers, and students of the early modern period.