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August 26, 2013
New Stanford website takes a digital approach to an ancient topic: families
Drawing connections through 15 centuries of historical data, Kindred Britain reveals how an interconnected network of families influenced British history.
By Corrie Goldman
Nicholas Jenkins, associate professor of English, calls the Kindred Britain website a social network of the past that uses modern technology to visualize relationships that would be impossible to discern through traditional means. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)
Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is a direct descendent of King Henry VIII. There is a distant family relationship between Virginia Woolf and Anne Boleyn. Family ties connect the Royal Baby, Prince George, to Isaac Newton, to Jane Austen, to William Wordsworth and to Florence Nightingale.
These are just a few of the thousands of surprising family links that users can see for themselves on Kindred Britain, a newly launched Stanford digital humanities website.
Originated, researched and overseen by Nicholas Jenkins, an associate professor of English at Stanford, the interactive site is built on a customized database of nearly 30,000 individuals who either are British or have a familial relationship to a British person.
Records in the database span the last 15 centuries and include the noteworthy and the notorious – from prime ministers, novelists and scientists to lunatics, misfits and criminals.
Kindred Britain can show a family link between any two people in the database. The site can quickly diagram how a monarch connects to a sea captain, a composer to a squire, a diarist to a doctor, a poet to a banker.
But Kindred Britain is much more than a hyper-detailed genealogical network.
A scholar of 20th-century culture and literature, Jenkins calls the site a social network of the past that stands midway between scientific studies of ancestry and the popular hobby of exploring family roots. In developing the site, Jenkins aimed to look at history through the "very distinctive lens of family," or, "to use a metaphor, we said, 'let's treat family as the master key to the past.'"
By integrating familial relationship data with historical, vocational and geographic details, Jenkins says, Kindred Britain retains narrative and personhood while using modern technology to visualize relationships that would be impossible to discern through traditional means.
Kindred Britain makes great efforts to explore such non-traditional genealogical subjects as gay and lesbian partnerships, long-term affairs and "illegitimate" children.
British history, as the site illustrates, "can seem like a very small, conservative, insular world, almost an empire run like a family business," Jenkins said.
The spheres of politics, art, philosophy, banking and science, "which we normally think of a separate," Jenkins said, "are all very closely intermingled through family ties."
Questions are research gold
Prompted by the discovery of a long-ago murder-suicide in his own family and propelled by academic curiosity, Jenkins spent five years researching and manually entering information about British families into a database.
Jenkins, who has published extensively on the works of W. H. Auden, began with Auden's father and mother, and built on those entries, adding only individuals who had a connection to someone already included.
The more people he linked into the network, which he likens to a coral reef, growing node by node, the more he saw that "many other luminaries and well-known figures in British history could join the structure."
The director of Stanford's Program in Writing and Rhetoric, Jenkins said the familial matrix raises new questions about his own field.
At one point, he was surprised to learn that "poets tend to be related to one another by ancestry, and novelists by marriage." For example, Jenkins saw that Byron, Shelley, Tennyson and T. S. Eliot were all distant cousins, while familial links between Austen and Dickens and Trollope came predominantly through marriage.
The observation led Jenkins to reconsider the relationship between the "social worlds of authors and the forms they write in."
"Is there something intrinsically aristocratic and conservative about poetry? Is there something inherently worldly and bourgeois about the novel?" he said.
Because Kindred Britain offers a unique perspective on literary characteristics through the lens of family experience, Jenkins said it raises as many questions as it answers. But questions are gold in humanities research, and this, said Jenkins, is where Kindred Britain shines.
"Genealogy is one of the most ancient historical genres," and Kindred Britain, Jenkins said, "projects that old, traditionalist discipline into an absolutely modern medium to produce new understandings."
The ultimate aim of the site, he said, is "not to establish empirical truths" but, on a foundation of fact, to "blend the scholarly and the creative" in a way that generates "propositions, suggestions and metaphors" among both academics and the broader public.
Visualizing the familial matrix
Jenkins sought out the expertise of Elijah Meeks, a digital humanities specialist in Stanford University Libraries. Meeks created web software capable of producing a variety of customized interpretations of the data.
The resulting site, hosted and published by Stanford University Libraries, can sort, shape and visualize data by parameters like profession, geography, eras, family clusters and lines, as well as individual relations and life events.
"Culturally, one can see the shifting patterns from one occupation to another play out generationally," Meeks said. For example, he noticed that "the children of politicians are army officers, but the children of army officers are likely to be more army officers."
Each of the nodes on the Kindred Britain welcome screen represents a person. Paths of family connection appear whenever users drag and drop nodes onto one another.
The three types of interactive visualization panes on the site, Network, Timeline and Map, respond symbiotically to each other, as interactions with one pane are reflected in the other two.
Network shows the relationships between people. Timeline contextualizes the events in any individual's life against events from the lives of other family members, or against events of broad historical significance. Map highlights parts of the country or part of the British Empire associated with figures or families.
Users also can filter for more abstract values such as the degree of tragedy experienced by an individual, such as the death of a child or the death of a spouse before the age of 45.
Case study "stories" demonstrate the site's capabilities. The Frankenstein story, for example, illustrates how family dynamics played out in both the life and works of author Mary Shelley.
Scott Murray, a data visualization expert and professor at the University of San Francisco who designed the site's aesthetic and functionality, noted the intentional simplicity of the interface, which "conceals a massive complexity of database queries and path-finding algorithms that happen on the back end."
"We aim to engage visitors as quickly as possible," Murray said, adding, "If a design isn't engaging, then it can't communicate."
Communication is key, as Jenkins hopes the site will engage a wide range of audiences. To that end, Stanford undergraduates Hannah Abalos and Emma Townley-Smith are producing video tutorials that will show visitors how to use the site.
Abalos, a junior studying English, who plans to minor in computer science, said the project opened her eyes to the potential of digital humanities research, which creates scholarly work that isn't "bound in the pages of a largely inaccessible text publication."
A biology major in her sophomore year, Townley-Smith had never heard of digital humanities before working on Kindred Britain. She said the site has shown her the "flexibility and adaptability of the humanities."
"The process of writing and editing for the site," Townley-Smith said, has also given her "a sense of the breadth of unexplored themes around the modern family."
Or, as Jenkins put it, "Kindred Britain is like a mirror: You look at the past, in all its beautiful, lost detail, in order to reflect on the present."
For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.