Slave Biographies: Project Update, August 13, 2012

The MSU-based project planning team has met 12 times this year.  A three person working group, including the Prof. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall (PI), Prof. Paul LaChance (advisory board member), and Catherine Foley (project manager), have been meeting weekly since December 2011 to define comprehensive fields for the database.  Hall and Foley have also convened working group sessions to discuss specific fields needed to describe ethnicity and various types of documents like runaway slave advertisements.

In January, at the American Historical Association annual meeting in Chicago, the planning team convened a session with advisory board members to discuss the preliminary data structure for Slave Biographies.  (An overview of the current structure, including the types of records and specific fields, is attached to this report in Appendix A.)  The advisory board overwhelmingly approved the preliminary plan with only minor suggestions for a handful of additional fields, many of which have been incorporated in the final structure.

Digital Tools

MATRIX staff researched open source calculation software for the statistical layer of the website.  Preliminarily, the team has opted for R, an open source programming language used for statistical calculations.  The current approach will take a search query from KORA, the digital repository/database for the project, and transform the data into a structure that R can handle and run the calculations on.  A MATRIX programmer has invested a significant amount of time figuring out how to use R to carry out these calculations.  This work is ongoing.


In addition to launching a planning website (, we have also developed a design for the final project site.  The final website will include pages describing the contributed datasets as well as a number of ways for users to browse the content of the database, by different types of source documents or by country, for example.  The search interface and functionality are two of the most important aspects of the website.   MATRIX staff is drafting specifications for these now that the KORA data structure has been finalized.  Staff has already completed background research on the search interface and will now link up mechanisms to filter the search results with the metadata defined in KORA.  This work is ongoing. 


Professors Hall and Hawthorne have made presentations about the Slave Biographies project at several conferences (listed below).  They were also featured on African Past and Present: The Podcast about African History, Culture, and Politics ( In this podcast, Hall and Hawthorne discussed the origins of the Slave Biographies project, intellectual and technological challenges, and the wider significance of building a freely accessible web database on the identities of enslaved people in the Atlantic World.


Ethan Watrall, Assistant Director at MATRIX, spoke about the Slave Biographies project in a talk entitled “Big Data, Small Stories: Community, Collaboration, and User Experience in the Age of Digital Cultural Heritage”, at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit 2012 (Redmond, Washington)

July 17, 2012

Walter Hawthorne, Project Director, delivered a paper entitled “The State of Luso-West African Historiography: Slavery and Slave Trading”, at the Luso-Brazilian Review 50th Anniversary Conference (University of Wisconsin, Madison)

April 20-21, 2012

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall participated in an American Historical Association annual conference round table entitled “Communities and Networks in the Americas, Africa, and the Indian Ocean.” The panel was chaired by Paul E. Lovejoy (York University) and included Carolyn A. Brown (Rutgers University-New Brunswick), Gwyn Campbell (McGill University), Myriam Cottias (Centre National de Recherche Scientifique), and Jane G. Landers (Vanderbilt University).

January 6, 2012

Hall delivered the plenary at Purdue University‘s African American Studies and Research Center‘s 27th Annual Symposium on African American Culture & Philosophy.  Her talk was entitled, The Atlantic Slave Data Network: a Tool for Comparative Studies of the African Diaspora.  The symposium’s theme was Afro-Latin America: Rethinking Identity, Politics & Culture.

 December 2, 2011

Hall chaired and presented a paper on the Culture and Biography in the Early African Diaspora panel at the 6th Biennial Conference of Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD).  Hall’s paper was entitled, Biographies: The Atlantic Slave Data Network.  Co-panelists included John Akuma-Kalu Njoku (Western Kentucky University), Zwandi Barskile (New York University), and Ras Michael Brown (Southern Illinois University).

November 5, 2011


Thank you for your continued support. We welcome any remarks, observations, suggestions/and or questions you might have which we will respond to as soon as possible and with your permission post on our website blog:


Best wishes from your friends and colleagues at MSU.

Walter Hawthorne                        Gwendolyn Midlo Hall

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