MARBL — Spring 2014
Change Language:
The Belfast Group’s “Social Network”
Rebecca Sutton Koeser

DURING THE PAST YEAR, A JOINT COLLABORATION OF ARCHIVISTS IN MARBL, software engineers in Emory’s Information Technology division, and scholars in the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship have been working on a project that will enable scholars to see and explore the social connections among the Irish poets in MARBL’s holdings. I have been privileged to be the lead programmer and creative force behind the project.

A few years ago, as I was working on the website that makes MARBL’s archival collection descriptions searchable, I discovered that a few documents had a meticulous, detailed list of significant correspondents represented in the collection. I knew that MARBL had a strong Irish literature connection, so I was curious about the personal and social connections among the poets represented in MARBL’s holdings. I did a brief experiment to generate a network graph based on four of the Irish literary collections with these indexes.

The idea for the Belfast Group project grew out of that early experiment. At the time, I was struck by the wealth of information available in MARBL’s finding aids; detailed indexes aren’t always available, but when archivists process a collection, they still document important correspondents. What if we could leverage that? What if we could turn the existing, human-readable description of connections among authors, which are documented across multiple collections, into data for deeper analysis?

As a test case, we began with the finding aids of Irish poets who were members of the Belfast Group, an informal writing group that ran from 1963 to 1972, and included at different points such luminaries as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson, and Paul Muldoon. We selected the Belfast Group to experiment with this new approach in part because the members are so well represented in MARBL’s collections but also because the group is such a fascinating literary community. Emory holds the majority of the typescripts produced by the group (which were mimeographed and mailed out ahead of meetings), along with many of the other papers that evidence the connections among these writers: letters, reviews, promotions, and even poems dedicated to each other.

The paper trail in the archives provides a wealth of evidence of intricate human connections, but getting at that information is difficult. Without technology, we might be able to track those relationships, but it would be painstaking, tedious, and very difficult to keep all the connections straight. For instance, the typescripts from the group are spread across six different collections in MARBL. A technological approach also potentially reveals new information. For example, the correspondence in the Seamus Heaney collection is restricted, but the collection description notes whom he was corresponding with, so even without access to the paper we still can see and analyze those relationships.

The project team developed tools and a process to identify and annotate the names of people, places, and organizations where they occurred in different collection documents, which then allowed us to pull out and aggregate that information to get a much better understanding of the group as whole. To accomplish this, we have adapted cutting-edge semantic web technologies similar to those that power Google’s “Knowledge Graph,” which displays pictures and information about a person or organization when you search for them. Based on the data, we then generate a “social network,” something like the network graph that Facebook users can explore to see the connections between and communities within their friends online.

Initial data analysis of the Belfast Group already has produced new revelations. For instance, it highlights the centrality of individuals not formally part of the group such as Edna Longley or Frank Ormsby, something not as evident in the paper trail. In the future, we hope to apply this approach to other materials in MARBL, allowing us to document all kinds of connections—social, temporal, and geographic—that will enable us to provide researchers with a big-picture view of all MARBL holdings and the various communities and groups that are represented. And where there are other distinct, significant communities like the Belfast Group, we can use this approach to study the shapes that they take with the hope of better understanding how creativity often flourishes alongside deep human connection.