This is a guest post by Natalie Lucy, a PhD student at University College London, who recently undertook a British Library placement to work on a project Mapping Caribbean Diasporic Networks through the correspondence of Andrew Salkey.
The project, supervised by curators Eleanor Casson and Stella Wisdom, focussed on the extensive correspondence contained within Andrew Salkey’s archive. One of the initial objectives was to digitally depict the movement of key Caribbean writers and artists, as it is evidenced within the correspondence, many of whom travelled between Britain and the Caribbean as well as the United States, Central and South America and Africa. Although Salkey corresponded with a diverse range of people, we therefore focused on the letters in his archive which were from Caribbean writers and academics and which illustrated patterns of movement of the Caribbean diaspora. Much of the correspondence stems from 1960s and 1970s, a time when Andrew Salkey was particularly active both in the Caribbean Artists Movement and, as a writer and broadcaster, at the BBC.
Andrew Salkey was unusual not only for the panoply of writers, artists and politicians with whom he was connected, but that he sustained those relationships, carefully preserving the correspondence which resulted from those networks. My personal interest in this project stemmed from the fact that my PhD seeks to consider the ways that the Caribbean trickster character, Anancy, has historically been reinvented to say something about heritage and identity. Significant to that question was the way that the Caribbean Artists Movement, a dynamic group of artists and writers formed in London in the mid-1960s, and of which Andrew Salkey was a founder, appropriated Anancy, reasserting him and the folktales to convey something of a literary ‘voice’ for the Caribbean. For this reason, I was also interested in the writing networks which were evidenced within the correspondence, together with their impact.
What is Gephi?
Prior to starting the project, Eleanor, who had catalogued the Andrew Salkey archive and Digital Curator, Stella, had identified Gephi as a possible software application through which to visualise this data. Gephi has been used in a variety of projects, including several at Harvard University, examples of the breadth and diversity of those initiatives can be found here. Several of these projects have social networks or historical trading routes as their focus, with obvious parallels to this project. Others notably use correspondence as their main data.
Gathering the Data
Andrew Salkey was known as something of a chronicler. He was interested in letters and travel and was also a serious collector of stamps. As such, he had not only retained the majority of the letters he received but categorised them. Eleanor had originally identified potential correspondents who might be useful to the project, selecting writers who travelled widely, whose correspondence had been separately stored by Salkey, partly because of its volume, and who might be of wider interest to the public. These included the acclaimed Caribbean writers, Samuel Selvon, George Lamming, Jan Carew and Edward Kamau Brathwaite and publishers and political activists, Jessica and Eric Huntley.
Our initial intention was to limit the data to simple facts which could easily be gleaned from the letters. Gephi required that we did so on a spreadsheet ,which had to conform to a particular format. In the first stages of the project, the data was confined to the dates and location of the correspondence, information which could suggest the patterns of movement within the diaspora. However, the letters were so rich in detail, that we ultimately recorded other information. This included any additional travel taken by any of the correspondents, and which was clearly evidenced in the letters, together with any passages from the correspondence which demonstrated either something of the nature and quality of the friendships or, alternatively, the mutual benefit of those relationships to the careers of so many of the writers.
Creating a visual network
Dr Duncan Hay was invited to collaborate with me on this project, as he has considerable expertise in this field, his research interests include web mapping for culture and heritage and data visualisation for literary criticism. After the initial data was collated, we discussed with Duncan what visualisations could be created. It became apparent early on that creating a visualisation of the social networks, as opposed to the patterns of movement, might be relatively straightforward via Gephi, an application which was particularly useful for this type of graph. I had prepared a spreadsheet but, Gephi requires the data to be presented in a strictly consistent way which meant that any anomalies had to be eradicated and the data effectively ‘cleaned up’ using Open Refine. Gephi also requires that information is presented by way of a system of ‘nodes’; ‘edges’ and ‘attributes’ with corresponding spreadsheet columns. In our project, the ‘nodes’ referred to Andrew Salkey and each of the correspondents and other individuals of interest who were specifically referred to within the correspondence. The edges referred to the way that those people were connected which, in this case, was through correspondence. However, what added to the potential of the project was that these nodes and edges could be further described by reference to ‘attributes.’ The possibility of assigning a range of ‘attributes’ to each of the correspondents allowed a wealth of additional information to be provided about the networks. As a consequence, and in order to make any visualisation as informative as possible, I also added brief biographical information for each of the writers and artists to be inputted as ‘attributes’ together with some explanation of the nature of the networks that were being illustrated.
The visual illustration below shows not only the quantity of letters from the sample of correspondents to Andrew Salkey (the pink lines), but also shows which other correspondents formed part of those networks and were referenced as friends or contacts within specific items of correspondence. For example, George Lamming references academic, Rex Nettleford and writer and activist, Claudia Jones, the founder of the Notting Hill Carnival, in his correspondence, connections which are depicted in grey.
The aim was, however, for the visualisation to also be interactive. This required considerable further manipulation of the format and tools. In this illustration you can see the information that is revealed about the prominent Barbadian writer, George Lamming which, in an interactive format, can be accessed via the ‘i’ symbols beside many of the nodes coloured in green.
Whilst Gephi was a useful tool with which to illustrate the networks, it was less helpful as a way to demonstrate the patterns of movement, one of the primary objectives of the project. A challenge was, therefore, to create a map which could be both interactive and illustrative of the specific locations of the correspondents as well as their movement over time. With Duncan’s input and expertise, we opted for a hybrid approach, utilising two principal ways to illustrate the data: we used Gephi to create a visualisation of the ‘networks’ (above) and another software tool, Kepler.gl, to show the diasporic movement.
A static version of what ultimately will be a ‘moving’ map (illustrating correspondence with reference to person, date and location) is shown below. As well as demonstrating patterns of movement, it should also be possible to access information about specific letters as well as their shelf numbers through this map, hopefully making the archive more accessible.
Whilst we are still exploring the potential of this project and how it might intersect with other areas of research and archives, it has already revealed something of the benefits of this type of data visualisation. For example, a project of this type could be used as an educational tool, providing something of a simple, but dynamic, introduction to the Caribbean Artists Movement. Being able to visualise the project has also allowed us to input information which confirms where specific letters of interest might be found within the archive. Ultimately, it is hoped that the project will offer ways to make a rich, yet arguably undervalued, archive more accessible to a wider audience with the potential to replicate something of an introductory model, or ‘pilot’ for further archives in the future.