Crafting History: Using a Linked Data Approach to Support the Development of Historical Narratives of Critical Events

Karen F. Gracy (, Kent State University, United States of America

This poster will present a progress report on a project that aims to explore how historians and other humanities scholars can most effectively access and use the data hidden in the silos of digital archival collections to craft narratives about significant developments and critical junctures in historical events, using Linked Data and event-based description. This project has two objectives: 1) to investigate the efficacy of an event-based model of description that will facilitate search across archival inventories and textual documents found in archival collections, and, 2) to develop and test a software tool that will allow scholars to more easily discover and use these hidden nuggets of information about events, and facilitate the construction of explanatory narratives about historical phenomena.

Linked Data and Event-Based Description

In the last two decades, the number of documents, photographs, and other archival material available in open digital archives
worldwide has increased dramatically. Yet, these valuable sources of information are often hard to discover, due to long-standing practices in how archival materials are described and cataloged. Archival collections represent a tremendous source of untapped data, which is not discoverable without significant effort on the part of the researcher. Linked Data represents a new approach to information access that goes beyond simple tagging and indexing of documents using a predefined set of topics. Rather, it relies on semantically structured data embedded within the collection inventories, or even in the documents themselves, to interlink related information and make it searchable through semantic queries.

This particular project focuses on the difficulties of finding information on historical events in archival collections. Events are a special form of named entities, as they serve as a nexus point that marks a relationship between specific agents, places, and points in time (Gracy, 2015; Hyvönen, Lindquist, Törnroos, and Mäkelä, 2012). Thus, they act as gathering mechanisms for records of actions and are crucial aspects of archival information systems.
To explore the concept of event-based description, the research team for the project has chosen the May 4, 1970 tragedy (during which four students were killed by members of the Ohio National Guard during a Vietnam War demonstration and nine others were injured) as our test case, as it has special resonance for our location at Kent State University. Kent State and other academic institutions have significant archival holdings and other information resources related to this event.

Usefulness of the Event-Based Model for Historical Research

This project employs archival finding aids and selected archival materials to create historical event vocabularies and ontologies, while creating and testing an event-based model that encompasses spatio-temporal dimensions and agents associated with events. The event vocabularies and ontologies are used as the basis for identifying and encoding information about persons, organizations, places, and topics. The event-based description model will be used as the basis for designing an information service that facilitates the linking of historical documents and archival descriptions related to an event, and will also help to link those materials and descriptions to other relevant published and archival sources.

Upon completion of the initial design of the event-based model (which is already underway), the project investigators will
develop and test a prototype tool for event information discovery and use which can be used by scholars, students, and others interested in building historical narratives using archival material and related resources. Narrative building, which is the methodological stock in trade for many historians and humanities scholars, relies on the careful accumulation of data via the examination of documents relating to the topic under investigation (Barthes, 1977; White, 1984). This tool will also allow the investigators to test the validity of the event-based model as a suitable approach for facilitating information discovery for archival materials.
This project proposes the process of historical research may be aided by a web-based tool designed to help with the discovery, collation, annotation, and sequencing of relevant information, and aims to build a web-based software with that functionality. The investigators propose that this project will have positive outcomes for digital history and humanities work, as it will empower humanities researchers to build complex historical narratives from various primary and secondary sources.

This poster will provide a progress report on the following activities: 1) Testing the event model with semantic metadata drawn from the May 4 Collection, which is an archival collection from the Kent State University Libraries; 2) Developing and refining a web-based tool to assist historians and cultural heritage scholars in building and testing hypothetical narratives based on the linking of event information from various sources.

Appendix A

  1. Barthes, R. (1977). Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative. In Heath, S. (trans),
    Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill & Wang, pp. 79-124.
  2. Gracy, K.F. (2015). Archival Description and Linked Data: A Preliminary Study of Opportunities and Implementation Challenges,
    Archival Science, 15: 239-254. doi: 10.1007/s10502-014-9216-2 
  3. Hyvönen E., Lindquist T., Törnroos J., & Mäkelä E. (2012). History on the Semantic Web as Linked Data—An Event Gazetteer and Timeline for the World War I. Proceedings of
    CIDOC 2012, Enriching Cultural Heritage, 10-14 June 2012, Helsinki, Finland. Retrieved from
  4. White, H. (1984). The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,
    History and Theory 23(1): 1-33.

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