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Lunch Talk: Biographical Databases

10 May 2017
P.N. van Eyckhof 1
2311BV Leiden

For the second LUCDH lunch lecture of this term we have invited Leipzig-based scholar of Islamic culture, Maxim Romanov, to discuss the role of digital humanitites in his work. He studies Islamic historical texts with computational methods, currently focusing on the analysis of multivolume biographical and bibliographical collections. On Wednesday he will be talking specifically about a project on biographical databases. Joining him in a discussion is LUCDH staff member Javier Cha and professor of Assyriology Caroline Waerzeggers. Continue reading for a short description of what Romanov will be discussing. 

Computational Reading of Arabic Biographical Collections 

Arabic biographical collections constitute one of the most voluminous and unexplored genres in the Arabic literary tradition. They are particularly valuable as a source for the social history of the Islamic world, especially up until 1500 CE, before which we are often poorly served by documentary evidence. Numbered in the hundreds, biographical collections include hundreds to tens of thousands of biographies and thus are ideal for prosopographical research of any kind. Scholars have recognized the value of these texts for decades, but their sheer volume—both blessing and a curse—has posed a formidable challenge, so their potential has remained untapped. The presentation will overview an efficient method for studying these texts through algorithmic analysis, which is here understood as a step-by-step reduction of texts written in a natural language to machine-readable data, and exploratory techniques that rely heavily on the use of graphs, cartograms and networks to identify and interpret chronological, geographical and social patterns from these texts. While the method so far has been applied only to a small number of our texts, I will also lay out current work in progress aimed at the development of maintainable infrastructure that will facilitate the analysis of not only all surviving texts, but also all of them taken together.