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Early Modern Performance ‘Events’ and Linked Open Data

Posted in Digital Humanities, Fulbright, and Research

The following is a description of the project I will be pursuing at the University of Guelph as a Fulbright Canada Research Chair in Digital Humanities, 2022-3.

This project develops and implements a new data model that makes discoverable REED London archival information to the semantic web. Working at the University of Guelph, with the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory (CWRC) and Linked Infrastructure for Networked Cultural Scholarship (LINCS) teams and researchers will allow me to build upon complex understandings of ‘events’ in cultural and historical contexts that were heretofore not possible; through this project I will contribute to larger efforts to develop new ways for scholars and students across the humanities to establish connections across research subjects in the humanities.

REED London consists of a publicly accessible dataset of thousands of pieces of documentary evidence from 1200-1650 of performance, music, and theatre in London. These records range from legal proceedings to ledgers of payments for goods and services to parish registers to eyewitness accounts of the business of performance, as well as the experience of performance. From these records we have created an authority list of over 2,000 names of men and women from all socio-economic groups, and over 400 London place toponyms associated with performance. We are also developing an ontology (with CWRC and REED Online) of occupations and offices as they evolved in Britain over this period. The promise of REED London is that because of the breadth of our information, we can actually offer a significant (and as yet unrealized) resource to researchers beyond theatre historians; one of the goals of REED London has always been to make these person and place entities discoverable through linked data – to connect with the complementary work of other researchers focusing on London cultural studies. But offering lists of entities and ontologies is not enough: we need to make discoverable the context in which these people participated in and experienced life in London through performance. The way in which we can do this is to articulate and integrate the reason why REED London records refer to these people, which oftentimes doesn’t align with larger understandings of the City and its identity.

The context is rooted in the idea of the ‘event’ – not only the performance itself, which involved a variety of participants (performers, musicians, and audiences), but also the business occurrences that were required for the performance events to take place, involving an overlapping set of participants (set builders, clothiers, instrument makers, financiers, legal and municipal officials). Furthermore, the idea of performance and entertainment was woven into the fabric of London (royal progresses, church ales, guild feasts, public punishments) and so involved an unexpectedly broad number of people and places that are not traditionally associated with our modern understandings of staged entertainments. In these ways, therefore, establishing a data model for the concept of ‘event’ using the REED London records offers great promise for historians because our events are doubled – the event(s) described related to business (a lawsuit, payment for services rendered or belongings damaged, bestowal of an honorary title or membership in one of the Worshipful Companies or Inns of Court) and the experiences of those who participated in or witnessed the performances (eyewitness accounts in diaries, correspondence, chronicles). The challenge, however, lies in how to create a model that both accommodates this richness and is useful to both to REED London and to other researchers, and avoids establishing a process that is unsustainable across thousands of pieces of information.