One of the biggest challenges of historical and humanities research is locating relevant documentary evidence. For scholars working with archival documents, this often means searching inventories and catalogues of many different archives—sometimes across several countries or even continents. Archival inventories are usually very rough guides to their materials, offering only vague chronological limits and basic descriptions of the documents in each volume or carton.
A new digital humanities initiative seeks to provide scholars with a digital guide to locating documents in diverse archival collections. The Social Networks and Archival Context Project (SNAC) has received National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funding to develop an internet-based search engine to archival collections. SNAC is a collaboration between the IATH at the University of Virginia, the UC-Berkeley School of Information, and the California Digital Library.
The idea is to use digital mapping techniques to create ways of searching across different archives’ catalogues and inventories. The SNAC Prototype search engine is available online, but still seems pretty crude at this point. Some other archival search engines, such as the Medici Archive Project Database, offer much more detailed information, but often only for one single archive. [Full disclosure: I worked with the Medici Archive Project for three years as a NEH Fellow and continue to collaborate with the current staff and fellows at the Medici Archive Project.]
SNAC has negotiated to collaborate with the Library of Congress (US), British Library (UK), Archives Nationales (France), Bibliothèque Nationale de France (France), and other major archives. So, this project does have potential to grow significantly.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the SNAC archival digital mapping initiative.