Celebrating FactGrid’s Q100000: Conrad Alexandre Gérard

Silently and without any fanfare we have passed the 100,000 mark on FactGrid! The item in question is a person: Conrad Alexandre Gérard. In a way he is the perfect candidate to mark this occasion. FactGrid has been diving into networks obscure and less obscure, and Gerard travels on both sides of this distinction: The first French ambassador to the United States and a person interested in Mesmerism, the world of miraculous cures based on “animal magnetism” in the 1780s. Our project started with the German Illuminati and spread into Freemasonry. In doing so, it broadened its scope to include France and England. Gerard is again a perfect representative of this outlook: born in Masevaux, France, in 1729 he pursued a diplomatic career that brought him to Mannheim and Vienna and eventually to the young United States of America. If our hopes are fulfilled, we will follow in his tracks and extend ourselves westwards and across the Atlantic over the next year.

Conrad Alexandre Gérard, Philadelphia 1779
The 100.000th item was created by Bruno Belhoste who began to fuse the Francophone Harmonia Universalis database into FactGrid from where the Mesmerism of 1780s and 1790s Paris will now radiate outwards and into the network of its French and continental adherents. J.J.C. Bode brought these spheres into exemplary contact on his journey to Paris in the summer of 1787 – in the journey that marked the end of the Illuminati since he subsequently declined to resume his work as the last active secret superior when he returned home later that year. Mesmerising is the right word – a word derived from Franz Anton Mesmer, who will stand in the centre of the exceptional scene that is unfolding here.

FactGrid was established in order to give historical data a wider outreach and deeper impact. It is living up to its promise. We welcome joint ventures between platforms. We love to give data an additional outreach. We hope that we can give data sets wider connections and place them within unexpected and exciting contexts of research; and we hope that we can bring research teams together on this mission. Wikibase is designed to encourage this mission.

Looking back: we grew much faster than expected

Bruno Belhoste’s (and David Armando’s) project will deserve a longer blog post in 2020; it will take him another two or three months to feed all his data into the database and to be able to offer more substantial and significant insights; the present input is just preparing the basic structures one can then begin to interconnect. The 100,000th item is more of an opportunity to look back and to speak about the future as far as we can see it from our current vantage point.

Collective editing on FactGrid started on June 11, 2018. We began with data from the two Illuminati research projects that have dominated the scene since the late 1990s. The Illuminati will remain a construction site as we hope to bring online the entire “Swedish Box” (the core collection of Illuminati documents as amassed by Bode from 1782 until 1789). Berlin’s Lodge “To the Three Globes” and the Privy State Archive in Berlin have given encouraging signs that they would support the digitisation and detailed cataloguing. We will need three years of public funding for a project of these dimensions.

The Wikibase installation also invited local low-level projects that were open to testing and developing this resource. Would the “citizens” of Gotha be able to work on one and the same platform used by scholars in their wider international projects? Gotha’s City Church Archive was willing to bring its catalogue online on FactGrid. Heino Richard of the city’s Genealogy Association began an enormous project and has already transferred about two thirds of the “Pfarrerbuch”, volume one of the former duchy of Gotha’s pastors, into structured database information. The former duchy’s 140 pastorates are the project’s backbone; more than 2000 pastors filled the positions since the Reformation. The database has linked them to their parents, their spouses, their respective families, and Heino Richard is now on his way to add all the children — work which will eventually comprise over 15.000 data sets. Here is a perfect opportunity for scholarly professionals since we are dealing here with a tight network of families marrying among each other for over five centuries. We will add information about the professions to allow the sociological evaluation of these family ties.

The Illuminati allowed for the database to grow and merge with Freemasonry — after all this was what they were doing in the 1780s: infiltrating lodges in the German speaking territories. Hermann Schüttler had already identified members of some 130 lodges. Christian Wirkner brought his dissertation on Göttingen’s two late 18th century lodges into the database with some 800 biographies which inspired Martin Gollasch to widen the scope with his own research on the beginning of German’s student fraternities. We are now beginning to understand how the “Landsmannschaften” and a wider spectrum of quasi masonic organisations which recruited students in the central Protestant university cities, laid the ground on which the early 19th-century “Burschenschaften” emerged in the years of the Napoleonic wars. Martin Gollasch’s data sets are enriched by information about all the smaller, more intimate circles of friends which traveled through these wider organisations as he has been mining contemporary “books of friends”, the “Stammbücher” in which students collected entries from their dearest friends.

Bruno Belhoste’s and David Armando’s Harmonia Universalis data will widen the spectrum. One thing has already happened with this new project: Bruno Belhoste has effectively turned the entire site into a trilingual project: All our properties are now available in German, French and English. The interface is already speaking Russian and Chinese (and more than 100 other languages), so there remains some work to be done.

We would love to turn Magnus Manske’s Reasonator into the standard — multi-lingual — interface for simply viewing FactGrid data; that, however, will need a bit of more work from different sides.

One of the projects is hibernating at the moment: Tim Herb made it possible to quote the entire (Protestant) Bible on FactGrid down to the level of the individual verses. The central idea was here to connect all the people and places mentioned in the Bible and the Quran and thus to transform the Biblical historicity and genealogy into structured information. The project is daunting: Wikibase allows contradicting statements. How would a database fare with the competing chronologies of modern and early modern historians? Our predecessors saw the Bible with its succinct 6000 years of Universal history since the creation of the world as the ultimate historical source. When they made the comparison to the Greek and Roman sources, it seemed to them as if the pagans had nourished blatant mythologies. How would the project develop if it was widened into the Quran? The Bible and Quran project is an open challenge at this point. Being able to quote the Bible down to the level of verses has, in the meantime, the charm of offering concise intertextual connections: We might develop a new focus on “Early Modern Networks of Religious Dissent”. The protagonists of this scene had their favorites among the Biblical Books — Daniel, the Prophets, the Apocalypse. Collecting the references we should be able to see how the Bible was used by competing groups on their respective missions, so there is potential here.

The shadow of history: All the GND’s Masonic lodges on a map. The former German speaking regions are coming back to life. We have to get beyond this map – and our map should have historical layers.

Our work on Freemasonry is ultimately as much of a challenge: We could theoretically invite lodges from all over the world to map their historical membership lists and their institutional networks of affiliations and systems back in time. FactGrid should allow visualisations of the spread of Freemasonry on timelines and maps. We are presently at about 850 lodges mostly in the former German speaking territories thanks to a test input of GND data, and these data are broadly unconnected so far — an invitation to dream of the far bigger project that could explore Freemasonry as part of early modern globalisation.

…and ahead: a year of massive challenges

2019 was still a year of cautious consolidation. We have grown faster than expected but we remained a platform of projects that worked silently side by side and in a spirit of open-minded friendship, interlocking knowledge here and there. All data on FactGrid is so far hand picked in tremendously time-consuming work. The GND-input should change the work flow and it should invite projects to start right in the middle of publicly available knowledge. Ten million data sets of people, organisations and places will create a landscape ripe for immediate cultivation.

A lot of questions are still open in this project: Shall we include the whole GND in order to operate as a complete DNB-filial project? Our initial idea was to restrict FactGrid to the early modern period but even such self-imposed and somewhat arbitrary limitations were open to later revision. 1900 had been the line we would draw back in 2018. Today we are confronted with ideas to open FactGrid for research on the entire range of data harvested at the German National Library. How could we deal with personal information of living people without the National Library centre that is responding to requests to modify these data? The opposite threat is just as crucial: And how will we make sure that the input (no matter where it ends) does not turn FactGrid into an agglomeration of data that only a few SPARQL-specialists will be able to mine and which we can hardly keep fresh and alive on our site?

We will have to generate a wider community. We will have to advertise the project in the wider field of Wikimedia projects in order to attract fans of open knowledge from Wikidata and from the different Wikipedia history projects. We will need technical help during the input and we will need a community that adopts this mass of data and that transforms the massive mound of date into a vibrant intellectual playground.

As FactGrid is not exactly a grass roots project we will have to make sure that historical research, archives and libraries will see us as a resource and as a site of collective work. If you belong to the wider world of historians, librarians and archivists and if you are interested in big data you should feel challenged by a project that will turn public data into a treasure one can now, all of a sudden, revise, enrich and explore with unprecedented freedom.

The project will need a more solid technical basis on this course. We need an interface to meet the wider public: an interface which anyone can handle without SPARQL. The interface should be multilingual and it will look more like the Reasonator than our present Wikidata-style pages, which want to be edited rather than looked at.

So, some quite daunting challenges ahead – but we expect it to be inspiring to confront and eventually master them. The software is incredibly cool. It has been opening doors to us during its first one and a half years and we have every reason to think that it will continue to demonstrate this potential for the next years. Wikibase is on its way to become the software of a wide network of Wikibase instances and we should try to become a research platform in this network.

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