What Names Can (and Can’t) Tell Us

This past Monday, I went with Shane to the National Archives in Dublin, where we spent some time photographing documents for the Letters of 1916 project.  The project, now in its second year, aims to create a digital archive of letters sent to and from Ireland from November 1915 to October 1916—the months before and after the Easter Uprising, one of the major events leading to the country’s establishment as an independent nation.  The Archives have diligently preserved a large number of documents, which researchers from the Letters of 1916 project then looked over and selected for preservation.  The archivists go through a painstaking process of restoring the documents to a state where they can be photographed at a decent level of quality, which is what I was helping with that day.

One of the things that may not be obvious prior to looking at all the letters that collected on the site is just how broad the concept of a “letter” can be.  Today, nearly 100 years after the Easter Rising, we have all manner of communications—telephone calls, television broadcasts, e-mails, text messages, Twitter feeds—that were unheard of in the past.  In 1916, the only commonly-available means of communicating with people over a distance was through letters.  The more technologically cutting-edge communications—telegraphs—were still transcribed and delivered like letters.  As a result, even simple personal or official communications left written or typed physical records.  A cursory glance at the Letters of 1916 site will give an idea of the variety of topics covered by the letters that have been collected.  Some are personal love letters, some are religious in nature, and some discuss business; still others are directly concerned with the question of Ireland’s independence.

With such a great variety of letters to look at, I did not know what to expect when I went to the National Archives to help with digitising letters.  I thought that maybe I would come across some basic correspondence, perhaps some letters from churches or perhaps, if I was lucky, someone discussing the question of whether Ireland should pursue independence.

Instead, I found a packet of telegrams and documents from a prison, featuring page after page—after page—of names.

What was I looking at?  These were names and places of origin of hundreds of Irish citizens, reported to officials in Dublin Castle, who were being released from prison over the summer and autumn of 1916.  The documents were all bore stamps stating that they originated in Wales.

The original documents are of course safely ensconced in the Dublin Archives, and the digital images of them are currently awaiting post-production, so I do not have access to them right now.  I did, however, remember enough details to do some research upon coming home.  My best guess is that these documents originated from the Frongoch Prison Camp in Wales, where BBC writer Phil Carradice reports that the British government detained 1,863 rebels in “the worst type of knee-jerk reaction.”  While Carradice and the Frongoch Prison Camp Wikipedia entry report that the camp was emptied in December of 1916, the records I photographed show that several hundred prisoners were released prior to this date.

What’s so great about a list of names, you may wonder?  To be honest, even back through most of my undergraduate years, I would have found page after page of names to be painfully boring.  Most letters tell a story; they may be a statement of love, a set of instructions, a personal account of someone’s experience, or a thank-you for a particular favour.  But, apart from giving one an idea of just how many people were incarcerated in Wales, what information can be gleaned from a list of names alone?

Not much, really—if you were to look at the names alone.  But part of the beauty of Digital Humanities lies in the tools that technology puts at our disposal.  I’d be interested to see, for example, the geographical distribution of people who were arrested and then released.  Did the people tend to all originate in the same location?  Sure, one may expect that the lion’s share of those arrested would be from the area near the General Post Office where the uprising was centered, but what about people from far away?  I even saw names from as far away as Cork: were those people simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, or did they have more significant reasons for participation?

We can do far more than just run analyses on the list itself, however, and this is where I am particularly excited.  Hundreds of people were arrested after the Easter Rising and were released from prison in Wales over the course of the following seasons.  What did these people have to say about their experiences?  Did any of them write letters before or after their imprisonment, and if so, what did they have to say?  Once we have the records and letters transcribed into computer-readable data, these questions and more can be explored.

When we reach that stage, however, we need to be careful about simple name-matching: lumping together every letter that is written from someone with the same name would be a critical mistake.  This is a pitfall that John Bradley knew enough to avoid even back in 2005, in his analysis of the thousand-year-old Durham Liber Vitae.  Bradley reports that the list he was examining is a church record containing names added from the 800s all the way up to the 1500s, making for an extremely large record.  It is hardly surprising that, in such a large list, there would be cases of two or more distinct individuals sharing the same name.  Complicating matters further, a single individual might be listed in one place under one spelling of a name, while in another place, the name might be written differently, just as some people call me “Joshua” and others refer to me as just “Josh”.

People are sometimes under the misconception that, when Digital Humanists talk about applying the power of computers to humanities research, we mean to take people out of the equation entirely, and let computers to all the work for us.  Nothing could be further from the truth: thinking that we could let computers do every bit of critical analysis for us would be the height of stupidity. In fact, computational analysis is only as good as the data we input—and the output, similarly, means nothing unless a human is there to examine and draw conclusions from it.  Bradley realized that the computer wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between two people with the same name (or one individual with her name written two different ways) unless it was specifically instructed to treat two entries as separate or unique.  Therefore, in addition to encoding the names from the Durham Liber Vitae into the computer, he assigned each a unique identifying number, and the team of researchers were then able to decide on their relative degrees of certainty regarding whether a particular mention of an individual was referring, say, to person #397 or to person #4569.  With such a system in place, a computer can run analyses on instances of a person with a certain numerical identifier, rather than with a certain name, and could then produce results that would be much more in line with what the researchers would want to see.

Mercifully, the Letters of 1916 project is focused on a period spanning several months rather than several centuries, and so the problem of names is much smaller in scope.  Even so, however, we would do well to approach individuals in a manner similar to Bradley, using the information available to us to decide whether different mentions of a name are in fact the same person, should we hope to do analyses tracking the movements, behaviour, or correspondences of specific people over the course of 1916.  And with opportunities that the lists of names we’ve found in the National Archives provide us, it’d be a shame not to do so.

Further Reading:

Bradley, John. 2005. “Documents and Data: Modelling Materials for Humanities Research in XML and Relational Databases,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 20.1 (2005): 133-151. Oxford Journals. Web. Accessed 7 October 2014. Weblink: http://llc.oxfordjournals.org/content/20/1/133.full.pdf+html (requires subscription)

Carradice, Phil. “Frongoch Prison Camp.” BBC. 21 October 2010. Web. Accessed 12 November 2014. Weblink: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/wales/posts/frongoch_prison_camp

Letters of 1916. Maynooth University. Web. Accessed 12 November 2014. Weblink: http://dh.tcd.ie/letters1916/

Wikipedia: “Frongoch Internment Camp.” Last Modified 8 October 2014. Web. Accessed 12 November 2014. Weblink: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frongoch_internment_camp

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