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Putting back the pieces of scholarly social networks

User statistics of CEMROL. In the month of November 2019, 666 unique users marked or transcribed letters. Since the launch of CEMROL in December 2018 more than 128.000 classifications were completed (with one classification being equal to one item marked or the transcription of one particular feature).

The ideal of open science has a long history, with evidence that scholars and scientists in the early modern period corresponded extensively with each other, often to share ideas and knowledge. We spoke to Dr Dirk van Miert about his work in reassembling these learned networks through digital analysis of correspondence from the period. A high degree of collaboration is a central feature of academic research, with scientists and scholars often sharing knowledge with colleagues to gain deeper insights across both the humanities and sciences. Scholars also shared ideas with their peers during the period of the Republic of Letters, a term which dates back to 1417, although it did not become more commonly used until the 16th century. “The phrase ‘Republic of Letters’ or respublica literaria, was a term frequently used by scholars in their letters to each other between 1500-1800,” explains Dr Dirk van Miert. As the leader of the SKILLNET project, Dr van Miert aims to effectively reassemble these social networks through analysis of letters and text mining techniques, focusing primarily on the period between 1500-1800. “We focus on printed letter collections. Many of these letters were sent by scholars across European states to colleagues in different countries,” he says. “They were also often assembled and then published later on, as sources about who was communicating with who.”

Public engagement Printed letter collections from the period are widely available in digitized form on the internet and researchers are encouraging the public to get involved in gathering data about these letters through the CEMROL crowdsourcing project. With the SKILLNET project funded by the taxpayer, Dr van Miert is keenly aware of the need to engage the public and demonstrate the wider relevance of their research. “People with an interest in history can get involved


CEMROL crowdsourcing project screenshot.

by gathering data,” he continues. The correspondence itself relates to a wide range of scholars; one figure of interest is the Dutch scholar Aernout van Buchel, or Buchelius. “He was raised as a Catholic scholar, then when the reformation came to Holland he converted to Protestantism and became an influential

the Republic of Letters coincided with major social and religious change, in particular the Reformation, which effectively split the intellectual world. “The Republic of Letters can be thought of as a scholarly or scientific community which evolved alongside the great crises or revolutions in learning in Europe,” says Dr van Miert. “It survived the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and came into its own during the Enlightenment, when scholars and scientists communicated not only through letters and books, but also through scientific journals.” The focus of the project is the social fabric of the Republic of Letters. “We’re particularly interested in the networks these people created,”

We’re looking at the Republic of Letters from a social perspective. We’re particularly interested in

the networks these people created. Protestant,” explains Dr van Miert. “He was very interested in antiquity, in buildings and archaeology. He kept on collecting that kind of material, writing about it and making drawings of buildings and sharing that knowledge through his letters. He was based in Utrecht, but he maintained correspondence with friends of his, in Rome for example.” A further prominent example is the philosopher and scholar Desiderius Erasmus, who helped popularise the concept of a Republic of Letters through his correspondence and writings. The rise of

Dr van Miert explains. The relationships between scientists were established in different ways – they may have been friends, fellow students, or neighbours – but it is their correspondence with each other that is of interest in the project. “A letter ties one person to another at a particular time or date, across a particular space,” points out Dr van Miert. “So, if somebody in London wrote to somebody in Amsterdam on a specific date then there’s a link between them. If you have many of these links then you can start reassembling these correspondence networks and model them as a social network.”

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