What We’re Learning From Ben Franklin’s Metadata

3 min read
  • Education
  • Information Technology
  • Document & Records Management

Much as we love to discourage the use of printing and paper, we have to confess our admiration for an early printer and publisher, Benjamin Franklin.

While he may not have been a general like George Washington, Franklin became a founding father by fulfilling the important role of communication during the Revolutionary War, notes the Library of Congress in its description of an exhibit celebrating the tercentenary of his birth. “As a printer and postmaster, Franklin’s early work to disseminate news and create communication networks among the British colonies contributed directly to their subsequent unification,” the library writes, adding that he also founded scholarly societies, colleges, and libraries even though he reportedly had only two years of formal education.

As with a number of other historical figures such as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, Franklin’s papers are gradually being digitized and made available online for the benefit of scholars and anyone else interested in his work.

In 1935 Yale acquired a collection of Franklin’s papers from alumnus William Smith Mason (class of 1888). “It was hailed as the largest and most valuable gift ever made to the Yale Library up to that date, and acknowledged as one of the finest collections ever assembled around an individual,” the project writes. But the Franklin Papers Project really started in 1954, when a team of scholars began collecting the papers for publishing—an effort that now amounts to 41 volumes.

Things really got interesting in 1988, when The Packard Humanities Institute began working with the editorial team at Yale to create a digital archive of Franklin’s papers, known as Digital Ben Franklin. (“Packard” is David Packard, son of Dave Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard.) Initially available as a CD ROM with limited distribution, the project has since moved to the Internet, where the curious can search through Franklin’s papers to their heart’s content, browsing by date, name, or phrase.

People are particularly interested in Franklin’s letters. He wrote so many that people can make interesting observations just by studying their metadata—that is, where and with whom he corresponded. According to Stanford University, which includes Franklin in its “Mapping the Republic of Letters” project, he wrote more than 15,000 letters in his lifetime.

In fact, Franklin wrote so many letters that the project couldn’t study all of them. Instead, it decided to research just the ones written between 1756 and 1763, which was a few months before and after his first trip to England and Scotland. It was during that trip that he met many important people.

By studying the metadata of those letters, the project writes that, it has “formulated new questions about the nature of Franklin’s correspondence network—questions that lend themselves to the deeper and more precise nature of our investigation now structured around Franklin’s first trip to London.”

Even just studying the metadata was complex, the project explains. “Using the collection of Franklin’s correspondence found online, we extracted from Franklin’s correspondence the following information about each letter: its date, its author and recipient and their genders, communities (aka ‘professions’ in an eighteenth-century sense of the word), and places of birth; its source location and the location of its recipient,” the project writes.

Next, the project then created two spreadsheets: One for the letters themselves, and one for the correspondents. “Armed with these two spreadsheets, we could begin the process of creating computer-generated visualizations that enabled us to formulate and begin to answer very specific questions about the nature of Franklin’s correspondence and correspondents network,” the project continues.

(Of course, we have to mention that enterprise content management software can track and extract metadata from documents, removing the manual work of creating spreadsheets and making it easier to work on these types of projects.)

In addition, the project is comparing the metadata of Franklin’s correspondence with that of some of his contemporaries, such as the French author Voltaire, which gives the historians the opportunity to do the sorts of analyses that historians like to do, such as whether Voltaire or Franklin was “more cosmopolitan.”

That may seem esoteric, but what might you find out by doing a similar analysis on your company’s metadata? Like, finding out that certain people, market segments, or regions could use more attention? (Keep in mind that the National Security Agency reportedly can find out a lot more than that about people just from their metadata.)

If Franklin were still around, he’d probably be on the Internet himself, notes the Library of Congress, which has its own Franklin site. “During his lifetime, he witnessed dramatic changes in North American life—and contributed greatly to those changes, especially in the areas of communication, technological innovation, and politics,” the library writes. “Given his background and interests, Franklin would no doubt have valued the expansive resources of the Internet.”

Wonder what Franklin would think about the metadata project. Maybe he’d write somebody a letter about it.

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