Prosop: A Social Networking Tool for the Past

This presentation will concern an NEH funded project I’m heading to develop a tool called Prosop. Prosop’s first aim is to assemble a database of descriptions of a very large number of historical individuals, of inferior socio-economnic rank to those who feature in most prosopographic projects. The tool is meant to preserve such information in its native format, without any fixed category requirements. It will then find connections within a very large pool of demographic data, and allow aggregate analysis. Ultimately, Prosop aims to make the various historical description and categorization schemes themselves the subject of research.,

Prosop is intended to help three kinds of users: microhistorians who have completed research projects and want to preserve their data, the collection of which cost them their eyesight and at least one marriage; microhistorians doing new work, who want to collect material in a format more useable than a word processor document or spreadsheet; and family historians, who are currently doing tremendous “crowd-sourcing” style work with primary documents, work that is being captured by for-profit sites such as Ancestry.com but passed over by professional historians.

This presentation treats a methodological issue: the techniques that we use to deal with the tremendous volume of data generated by Middle East microhistories. I will describe my sense of the challenges and potentialities of this aspect of our work, and discuss ways that I think Prosop can support collaborative historical work. I will explain, in fairly general terms, the features of the data structure of Prosop and its most innovative aspect, which is on-the-fly ontology. I will invite participants to describe the technical characteristics of their own work, their needs, and the solutions they imagine. I will focus this conversation around the ongoing design of Prosop, but my aim is to facilitate a conversation that treats the broadest issues raised by technology-assisted prosopography.

Author: Will Hanley (Florida State University)

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