Slave Biographies: The Atlantic Database Network is intended to provide a platform for researchers of African slaves in the Atlantic World to upload, analyze, visualize, and utilize data they have collected, and to link it to other datasets, which together will complement each other in such a way as to create a much richer resource than the individual datasets alone. There is a significant need for such a collaborative research site about Atlantic slavery.
During the past two decades, there has been a seismic change in perception about what we can know about African slaves and their descendants throughout the Atlantic World (Africa, Europe, North and South America). Scholars have realized that, far from being either non-existent or extremely scarce, various types of documentation about African slaves and their descendants throughout the Atlantic abound in archives, courthouses, churches, government offices, museums, ports, and private collections spread throughout the Atlantic World.
Since the 1980s, a number of major databases were constructed in original digital format and used in major publications of their creators, and they lack a platform for preservation and therefore are at risk of being lost as their creators retire. Also, a number of collections of original manuscript documents are beginning to be digitized and made accessible free of charge over the Web. However, our task as historians is more than to preserve images of primary sources; it is to interpret those sources by finding new ways to organize, share, mine and analyze as well as to preserve original materials which might otherwise be discarded or lost.
With support from the NEH Preservation and Access program, the project will create a digital repository with a comprehensive set of fields about slaves to which scholars will be invited to upload, preserve, and provide public access to datasets from diverse sources and regions throughout the Atlantic. The comprehensive fields will be developed based on six pilot datasets and will be added to and refined through consultation among the Principal Investigators, participating scholars who contribute pilot datasets, and a distinguished group of historians who have agreed to serve on the Slave Biographies Advisory Board. The digital repository will also provide for uploading digital files of original source materials.
Slave Biographies will address two major challenges that historians increasingly face: first, to create models for collaborative research in a field that has been dominated by a methodology of—and rewards for—individual research and, second, to analyze vast quantities of data that can now be accessed digitally. With NEH support, tools will be made available to perform calculations and visualize the data that will encourage and assist collaborative, international studies of these numerous but widely scattered collections of materials. Scholars also will be able to discuss various challenges regarding digital research in Atlantic slavery. The stories about lives of slaves as well as the analyses of slavery emerging from this network will be a unique resource for linguists, creolists, anthropologists, economic historians, sociologists, geographers, cartographers, creative writers, and genealogists searching for their African ancestors as well as for historians of slavery.
Slave Biographies responds to the NEH Bridging Cultures initiative not only by forming the basis for systematic studies of the presence and influence of African peoples of different ethnicities upon regions throughout the Atlantic World including within the United States but also by creating and supporting an international network of scholars to engage in this study together.