Prosopography Workshop

workshop / tutorial
  1. 1. Harvey Quamen

    University of Alberta

  2. 2. Constance Crompton

    University of British Columbia

  3. 3. Paul Hjartarson

    University of Alberta

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This workshop is co-sponsored by the Prosopography Working Group, Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory Prosopography Group, Editing Modernism in Canada (Alberta collaboratory) and the Humanities Computing Program at the University of Alberta.

Harvey Quamen is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities Computing at the University of Alberta, where he contributes to several digital humanities research teams, including the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory and the Implementing New Knowledge Environments project. With the Editing Modernism in Canada cluster at the University of Alberta, he has helped develop a literary walking app, WatsonWalk, and is currently researching how data visualizations can be used archival searches and prosopographies. He teaches a course on “Databases for Digital Humanists” annually at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria.

Constance Crompton is an assistant professor of Digital Humanities at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan Campus, with research interests in data modelling and curation, queer history, and Victorian popular and visual culture. She is co-director of Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada, an infrastructure pilot project of the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory at the University of Alberta and a member of the Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) modelling and prototyping team. Her work has been published in the Victorian Review, Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, and the UBC Law Review.

Paul Hjartarson, Professor of English at the University of Alberta, researches primarily in the areas of modernism, print culture, and the digital humanities. With Harvey Quamen, he oversees the EMiC UA research group and leads the Editing the Wilfred Watson Archive Project. He contributed to volumes 2 and 3 of the History of the Book in Canada. With Gregory Betts and Kristine Smitka, he is co-editing Counterblasting Canada, an essay collection that assesses the importance of Marshall McLuhan’s media theories for Canadian writers and artists. With Shirley Neuman, he is editing the letters Sheila and Wilfred Watson wrote one another between 1956 and 1961.

Workshop Details
Duration: half day

Budget: none

Brief Workshop Outline
This half-day workshop is designed to promote interest in—and share resources for building —prosopographies. In the most general sense, prosopographies are simply databases or encoded files containing information about people. The groups sponsoring this workshop are all involved in the building of prosopographies of various sizes and so have been pooling resources and developing best practices. This workshop is an extension of that community’s work.

Although the prosopographical form dates from the 16th century, the computer’s ability to search and store vast quantities of data has lead to a recent expansion of prosopographical work in a digital context. Always somewhat interdisciplinary in nature, prosopographical studies are described by scholar K.S.B. Keats-Rohan as being “an independent science of social history embracing genealogy, onomastics and demography” (Prosopography Portal). King’s College London scholars John Bradley and Harold Short agree, but extend their definition of prosopography in ways that are central to this workshop. In their estimation, a “new-style” prosopography consists of a collection of so-called factoids: “assertions made by the project team that a source ‘S’ at location ‘L’ states something (‘F’) about person ‘P’. . . . A factoid is not a statement of fact about a person.... Instead, each one records an assertion by a source at a particular spot about a person. Factoids may contradict each other” (8).

Prosopographies, then, are not the same as authority list records because prosopographies can often capture contradictory or untrue information—precisely the type of information that would be ruthlessly edited out of an authority list. Prosopographies can be fruitful resources for humanities research, however, because as they collect historical claims about people, they tie those claims to sources. Prosopographies can track rumour, myth, debate, and propaganda in ways that reveal the personal and political struggles that constitute history. Prosopographies, then, can not only promote new kinds of research questions, but can also track contentious research debates themselves.

Prosopographies and authority lists often work in conjunction with one another, and so the distinction between fact and factoid need not pose a practical conundrum. Indeed, the workshop will look at a variety of “open data” authority lists, including the giant Virtual International Authority File (VIAF). Stored in a relational prosopographical database, for example, an authority list might constitute just one table amid other tables designed to store assertions and their respective links to sources.

Workshop Agenda
The 3-hour workshop will be divided into two sections: Part One will last approximately an hour and be devoted to discussion about, and brainstorming of, the types of data that practicing and aspiring prosopographers need to capture. To frame the discussion, we’ll make available online some of the theoretical readings (including works by Keats-Rohan, Bradley and Short, Alison Booth, etc.), and participants will be invited (but not necessarily required) to read them before the workshop begins. Workshop participants will come away from this part of the day with a workshop-generated bibliography of prosopography-related resources and scholarship. (Note: this discussion could be enhanced by participants who might have participated in a workshop proposed by John Bradley on the Ontology of Historical Persons).

Part Two (approximately two hours in length) will be devoted to the topics of data capture and long-term storage. We will examine the use of low-tech data entry tools (like Excel spreadsheets and XML documents) and then we will consider long-term database storage for these materials. With sample datasets, we’ll demonstrate data design issues in both a relational database (using MySQL) as well as a graph database (using Neo4j). Both MySQL and Neo4j are free, open source tools.

We’ll introduce workshop participants to the two distinct, but related, query languages used by these databases: Structured Query Language (SQL) and the graph-database variant, Cypher. A three-hour workshop will not make query experts out of the workshop participants, but they will be introduced to these languages and will be better able to judge which platform might hold the most promise for their respective projects.

Finally, we will gauge interest in ongoing prosopography work among participants and in developing an international Prosopography Working Group. The workshop organizers currently represent a small Canadian Prosopography Working Group; however, with an online presence, our working group will be able to facilitate the sharing of ideas and resources across national boundaries more effectively. Should there be sufficient interest, our ultimate goal is to hold a conference to help formalize this research and share it among interested groups.

Participant Preparation
Advance Readings (optional)

Loading MySQL and Neo4j (optional)

Works Cited
Bradley, John, and Harold Short.“Texts into Databases: The Evolving Field of New-style Prosopography.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 20 (2005). 3-24.

MySQL. <>.

Neo4j. <>.

Prosopography Portal. <>. Virtual International Authority File. <>.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

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Conference website:

Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None