Historical Network Series of the Royal Library of Belgium (October 4, online)

Dear all,

This KBR series on digital cultural heritage might be of interest to some people on this list. The first seminar, focusing on early modern epistolary networks, will take place on 4 October 2021, 1-2.30 p.m. CET (see below). For more information and registration: https://www.kbr.be/en/agenda/digital-heritage-seminar-epistolary-data-collections.


Historical Network Series Fall 2021

KBR invites you to attend a scholarly series on digital cultural heritage, the KBR-ULB-UGent Digital Heritage Seminar.

In this series from October to December 2021 we will virtually host three academic scholars in presenting their work on cultural heritage and historical networks. Network research serves to enhance our understanding of the human past, by retracing the social, political, or cultural networks from historical materials. We show in this series how these findings and approaches to networks, through a variety of topics, periods and methods, give us unique insights in the past and the materials we use in our work.

These talks will be held on Zoom in English, with questions in French, Dutch or English. The target audience is scholars, but the general public is warmly welcome.

This series is co-organised by KBR’s Digital Research Lab, in cooperation with Université libre de Bruxelles, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and Ghent University.




From library catalogue to historical network: the challenges and opportunities of working with epistolary data collections.

4 October 2021

A high degree of collaboration is a central feature of academic research, with scientists and scholars often sharing knowledge with colleagues all over the world to improve the quality and impact of their research. The idea that connectivity is key for innovation has a long history, with one of the best examples being the so-called “Republic of Letters”. This “republic” was the network of the scholarly and scientific community of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this period, educated men (and some women) with distinct political, religious and social interests corresponded extensively with each other by letter to discuss the latest news in the scholarly world, based on its ideals of sharing knowledge, mutual support and tolerance.

The SKILLNET project of Utrecht University uses these letters to trace scholarly networks over time to understand the social context in which this idea of sharing knowledge occurred. Fortunately, many libraries, archives and research institutions across Europe have digitized their epistolary collections and catalogues, creating online repositories of early modern correspondence. These epistolary databases often offer standard content-related metadata such as the sender and recipient as well as the places and dates of sending and receipt. Based on these metadata, it is possible to apply the methods of network analysis to learn how early modern scholars communicated with each other. For example, we can start to map the nodes and edges of the Republic of Letters and calculate the grades of separation and centrality of hubs and brokers in the graph. The measure of betweenness centrality, for instance, is a valuable measure for highlighting scholars who act as bridges, crossing ‘structural holes’ in a network. Having connections across structural holes allows scholars to have early access to innovative information which gives them a competitive advantage in seeing and developing good ideas.

However, before researchers can undertake meaningful computational analysis, a great deal of data preparation is required. By combining the metadata of a wide range of historical correspondence, numerous challenges arise with regard to their accessibility, preparation and harmonization. In this seminar, we will give an insight into these challenges and share some solutions to overcome them, which we hope can be used by librarians and archivists who want to help improve the interoperability of these metadata to make it useful for researchers. To this end, we will focus on the Catalogus Epistularum Neerlandicarum (CEN), a Dutch national database that was established as a collaborative initiative to pull together library holdings of letter collections in the Netherlands. At present, the collection consists of 584.723 metadata of single letters and accumulated bilateral epistolary exchanges from 1303 to 2020, held at several Dutch institutions, among which are the National Library of the Netherlands and the university libraries of Leiden, Utrecht and Amsterdam. In addition, we will take a look at the challenges and opportunities of our crowdsourcing platform called CEMROL (Collecting Epistolary Metadata of the Republic of Letters), which aims to harvest metadata on early modern letters from digitized editions of correspondence benefitting from the online contributions of generous volunteers.

Published by Ingeborg van Vugt
September 27, 2021

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