One Person in Context – Working with Biographical Histories

I have been starting to think about the user interface for Linking Lives. We will probably go for something quite simple in terms of layout, because there is quite a bit of complexity when bringing together a range of data sources.

It may be thought that integrating the external data sources is the challenge, but I think that it is probably more of a challenge to integrate several archival descriptions into one biographical record and also to convey the context of the archival descriptions clearly.

In this post, I am focusing on that often very useful field of information, the biographical history.  This is a field that is used to help place the archives in their context, by providing significant and relevant information about their creator(s). It is widely used in archives, although there are increasingly moves to exclude this information from the actual collection description and provide it separately. There are a few observations worth making about this field:

  • In general, it is considered good practice for the biographical history to be appropriate to the records being described. So, you don’t include a full life story when you are describing one letter relating largely to one event in a person’s life….
  • …but this guidance is not always adhered to, so some biogs are long and detailed for a small and discreet collection, others are very brief, even though they may relate to an archive that spans the individual’s entire life.
  • Some repositories will use largely, or entirely, the same biog for different collections about one individual, others will create very distinct biogs, and some may use biogs that have  been created by other institutions.
  • Some biogs will involve a significant amount of research, with the archivist drawing on the unique sources they are cataloguing to provide information that may then be quite unique in itself, making this field particularly useful for researchers.

I am going to use the example of Martha Beatrice Webb here, a significant figure in history, and one with plenty of archival sources that relate to her.

Photo of Martha Beatrice Webb

From the LSE collection on Flickr

On the Hub we have 14 collections where Beatrice Webb is the ‘creator’ or co-creator of the archive (for information on archival creators see a post on the Hub blog, Who is the creator?).  These collections are from three different archive repositories. Here is a selection of the biographical histories (not all yet available from our Linked Data store):

Beatrice Webb (1858-1943), nee Potter, social reformer and diarist. Married to Sidney Webb, pioneers of social science. She was involved in many spheres of political and social activity including the Labour Party, Fabianism, social observation, investigations into poverty, development of socialism, the foundation of the National Health Service and post war welfare state, the London School of Economics, and the New Statesman.
(from A summer holiday in Scotland)

Beatrice Webb (1858 – 1943). Fabian Socialist, social reformer, writer, historian, diarist. Wife, collaborator and assistant of Sidney Webb, later Lord Passfield. Together they contributed to the radical ideology first of the Liberal Party and later of the Labour Party.
(from Letters)

The role of the Reconstruction Committee involved ‘…surveying and unravelling the whole tangle of governmental activities’ introduced during World War I (1914 – 1918). It was established in early 1917 but by July 1918 had been disbanded, Webb reporting that its ‘…machinery was too rickety to survive’.
(from Webb Beatrice 1858-1943 nee Potter)

Beatrice and Sidney Webb were pioneering social economists, early members of the Fabian Society and co-founders of the London School of Economic and Political Science, and had a profound effect on English social thought and institutions. Beatrice Potter Webb was born in 1858, the eighth daughter of Richard Potter, a wealthy businessman, and Lawrencina Heyworth. Surrounded from an early age by her parents’ intellectual and worldly friends and visitors, notably the philosopher Herbert Spencer, she was largely self-educated through copious reading, and frequently a partner for her father during business trips abroad. Following a tempestuous relationship with Joseph Chamberlain, which began in 1883 and lasted several years, Beatrice took up social work in London, acting as a rent collector for the Charity Organisation Society, and becoming steadily disillusioned by the inability of charitable organisations to tackle the basic causes of poverty. During 1886, she participated in research for Charles Booth’s investigations into London labour conditions, eventually contributing to Volume I of Life and Labour of the People of London (1889). During this period she continued to write articles on social subjects, most of which were printed in The nineteenth century , and published The co-operative movement in Great Britain (1891). She met Sidney Webb in 1890 during research into economic conditions and labour unions. Sidney Webb was born in London in 1859. Educated in the local academy, he left school at sixteen to work as a clerk in a colonial brokers. By attending evening classes, he passed the civil service exams in 1881 and was appointed a clerk in the Inland Revenue. The following year, he took the Civil Service upper division examination and was appointed to the Colonial Office in 1883. He also began lecturing on political economy at the Working Men’s College. Webb was a close friend of George Bernard Shaw, who induced him to join the socialist Fabian Society in 1885, where both men became leading members: Webb was responsible for putting forward the first concise expression of Fabian convictions in Facts for Socialists (Fabian Tract 5, 1887). As a member of the Fabian executive, Webb continued to write and lecture extensively on economic and social issues, and took a leading role in Fabian policy-making…..…….[cont’d]
(from Webb, Beatrice, 1858-1943 and Webb, Sidney, 1849-1947, social reformers and historians)

If we want to create a biographical page for Beatrice Webb ideally we would have one biog that combines the best of all of the 14 available. However, apart from this being pretty much impossible, we come back to the fact that they are often appropriate to specific collection descriptions. You can see a good example of this above, where the text refers to the ‘Reconstruction Committee’, although the title does not, in fact, tell you that this is what the collection is about.  There are also clearly some issues with two of these titles, which are not really titles at all, but names of creators, but that’s another story…

For researchers, the prospect of trawling through 14 biog entries may not seem very enticing. We do have the option to use one as the default display and then provide links to the others, but then which to pick and why?

So that leaves us with listing all of the biogs along with the collection titles. Possibly a rather unwieldy answer, but on the other hand, it could be argued that this is an improvement on researchers having to click through 14 separate records. It does at least pull the biographical information together to some extent.

In terms of our data modelling, the great thing about Linked Data is that we can decide what to say about entities within the data. For Locah, we have linked bioghist to the agent – so in this case the agent is Beatrice Webb (or Beatrice and Sydney Webb) – and we have also linked it to the ‘Archival Resource’ (the collection itself). We could decide to say that a bioghist is about someone strictly in the context of one archival resource, rather than making a link directly with the agent, but this would probably complicate things too much.

The SNAC project in the US (Social Networks in Archival Context) is working on creating archival authority records, which is a little like our project to create biographical records, but they are using a distinctly archival standard, EAC-CPF, and not incorporating external data within the records (though it may be referenced on their interface). Most of the people on their prototype have only created one collection, which makes life easier, but looking at the entry for Ella Fitzgerald, there are two collections. You can see that both biogs are displayed, and the source for each is given. It is interesting to note with this display how the source is given less prominence, being given in smaller letters at the end of the text. Another example, Royal Chicano Air Force, provides two biogs, but they are both the same apart from a small addition to one, even though the collections are held in different institutions.

I should emphasise that the SNAC interface is a prototype, and I know they will be doing more work on the display, so I’m not out to be critical (I think its a great initiative). But I do wonder whether it is a good idea to display all the biog entries one after the other with not much emphasis on where they come from and hence why there are several of them, maybe with substantial repetition. If they had an entry for Beatrice Webb with our 14 collection descriptions the biog entries would create one very very long page.

I think that we may look at including all of the biog entries, clearly linking them to the collection titles, but possibly only displaying a limited number of words for each, with the option to go to the full entry. That way we can include all of them, give a sense of what each of them provides, and let the user decide where to go from there.

Another avenue we would like to explore is extracting concepts from this data, and maybe that would be a way to start to find common concepts within a number of biogs. But we’ll have to see how far we manage to get with that particular challenge.




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