The site started one afternoon when I got a call from a storage company. They wanted to drop off several boxes left in long term storage by my late mother. I agreed not knowing what might be in the boxes but suspecting it must be mostly old clothing which in fact it was. A few boxes however did hold something of interest... several old journals belonging to my mother, some old letters written to my Great Grandfather by his mother during WW1, newspaper articles and more. I wanted to share some of what I'd found with my sister so I set up a very simple web page that accessed a small database containing the WWI era letters. A month or two later she asked when I was going to add more letters and my answer was... 'never'. Of course I was wrong.
I've long since run out of my families letters to post but I've found a wealth of letters buried in historic texts that have passed into the public domain and been digitized. First person accounts are often fascinating for a number of reasons - not the least of which is that they provide an up-close depiction of historic events and have a way of being much more vivid, and of course personal, than your typical scholarly work.
I've been searching out and posting old letters for a few years now and have been struck by a rather obvious fact - social networks are nothing new to humans. Who needs Facebook when you actually talk to your neighbors, colleagues and friends on a regular basis? While posting these letters I've learned what might be considered trivia by some, such as that fact that Mark Twain and Ulysses Grant were friends, General Sherman wrote to his brother Senator John Sherman about news from the battlefront and Abigail Adams occasionally wrote to her husband John Adams about women's rights. Those factoids are interesting but are they important? I think the answer is yes when you consider the power of Social Capital as it's been applied to the course of human events throughout history. Being at the center of many relationships within an organization often times imparts more power than an important title. And yet many or all of these relationships are lost to history, scattered across forgotten books, in boxes of old letters, or gone altogether.
My thoughts for awhile have been that recreating some of these lost social networks would be instructive and might even lead to new insights about events in history. With that in mind I've been tagging relationships as I find them in letters with XFN, a microformat. Eventually I'll write something to index all of this relationship information and turn it into more useful information such as a high level view of social networks or something much more granular like the person most mentioned by George Washington in his letters who happened to also be a colleague... or whatever's of interest to an end user. Read more about this on going project here Network Analysis Applied to Historic figures in the American Revolution.
Hans Brough (firstname.lastname@example.org)