This blog posts highlights just a few aspects from the conference “Europa baut auf Biographien”, especially those which are particularly close to my field. I was there to talk about networks.
National Biography projects are seen as trusted repositories for information on selected personalities in a nation’s history. In most cases, three conditions need to be met in order to be considered for an entry: significant accomplishments, death and – since these projects typically ran/run for very long periods of time and move alphabetically: having a surname which starts with the right letter. This procedure is of course pragmatic in the pre-digital world but it also meant that Konrad Bloch, a biochemist and nobel prize winner who died in the year 2000, never made it to the German national biography.
Apart from these selection biases and sometimes outdated information the biographies remain a valuable resource for scholars and the public. It was great to see how keen national and regional biographies projects in Germany, Austria and Switzerland were to interlink their entries by means of VIAF and GND ids.
Growth and enrichment of national biographies were of particular interest: Paul Arthur’s keynote referred to a recent change in biography-scholarship: A move towards a biography understood as a network of intersecting lives and activities. His own efforts in this domain for example seeks to aggregate biographical data from different parts of the population, all branded similarly: there is Indigenous Australia, Obituaries Australia, People Australia, Indigenous Australia, Women Australia, Labour Australia as well as a crowd-based project HuNI which lets the public add relations between objects from Australia’s cultural heritage.
Piek Vossen presented their work in BiographyNet and focused on the automated extraction of additional metadata by means of text analysis. Their accomplishments are impressive and a short video on the site describes the project in detail.
In my interpretation and tightly knit to the current wave of networking thinking, a number of talks circled around the idea that biographies should no longer be thought of as isolated depictions of the great but reinterpreted as collective, explicitly European efforts. This is a big, great and most of all: fundable idea.