Circulation of knowledge and learned practices in the 17th-century Dutch Republic. A web-based Humanities' collaboratory on correspondences
11 / 2008 - 10 / 2011
The scientific revolution of the 17th century was driven by countless discoveries in the observatory, at sea, in the workshop, in society at large and in the library. There was a dramatic increase in the amount of information, giving rise to new knowledge, theories and world images. The Dutch Republic played a key role in this 'information society' avant la lettre. Its global trade network, its prosperity and its relative tolerance made the Republic a refuge for intellectuals from around Europe. But how did the 17th-century scientific information system actually work? How were new elements of knowledge picked up, processed, disseminated and - ultimately - accepted in broad circles of the educated community? In short: how did knowledge circulate? The 17th-century Republic offers an ideal case for exploring the answers to this question, and correspondence between scholars is the ideal research subject. That is because until the publication of the first scientific journals in the 1660s, letters were by far the most direct and important means of communication between intellectuals. In order to answer the research question, it will be necessary to analyze a huge amount of such correspondence systematically. Traditional research methods are inadequate, and for that reason a consortium of universities, research institutes and cultural heritage institutions aims to build a multidisciplinary collaboratory to analyze a machine-readable and growing corpus starting with, but not limited to, the approximately 20,000 letters of scholars who lived in the 17th-century Dutch Republic. The grant of 495,000 euro being requested from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) will not be used to fund the digitization of the letters - the consortium will bear the costs of that itself - but to build the web-based tools to analyze and visualize the 17th-century intellectual networks and their themes of interest, and to enrich this corpus with annotations. The collaboratory will not only contribute to our understanding of the circulation of knowledge in the 17th century, but also generate useful technologies for cross-disciplinary collaborations involving data-sharing and data-enrichment in the Humanities. As such, this web-based Humanities collaboratory on correspondences is a valuable prototype for possible future research collaborations focusing on large, heterogeneous datasets in the Humanities.