Verslag: Workshop Population reconstruction-IISH
The workshop ‘Population Reconstruction’ was held from Wednesday 19 February to Friday 21 February at the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam. About 50 researchers from all over the world and from many different disciplines gathered to discuss several common problems in reconstructing population data from historical sources, such as marriage records, birth records, censuses etc. Each day had its specific theme on which the researchers in their respective fields presented their latest research. These themes were the application of linking theory, cleaning data, standardisation and resources and finally life courses and linking strategy. At the end of each day the overall theme was discussed and this often led to interesting insights.
For me, this workshop was the first opportunity to experience the richness and diversity of historical data collection. I believe that one of the main elements contributing to this wealth of information was the diversity of researchers present at the workshop. With the many presentations it became clear that there are several differences in the stage of population reconstruction in different countries. Not only are there great differences in the availability of data, but also in privacy implementations and collaboration with other organisations (e.g. National Archives or governments). Moreover, each country faces its own challenges; for instance in the Romanian case, the data that they collect is not only written in 6 different languages, it is also written in four different alphabets. One can imagine the difficulties that arise when digitalising these historical records.
Another aspect of the diversity of the attendees is the many different disciplines that they represented. This was especially clear on the first day when we discussed the linking of individuals. On the one hand, programming and ICT specialists were very knowledgeable in for example, methods of linking name variants (e.g. linking the name ‘Johan van Leeuwenstijn’ with ‘Johannes van Leeuwenstijn’), yet on the other hand they do not possess the historians’ knowledge of historical data and its peculiarities. This example illustrates the necessity of collaboration among researchers from different disciplines, but it also shows how researchers as a community can help one another with specialised knowledge across disciplines
As one of the researchers (Alexander Buczynski) very eloquently put it: “we’re all making cookies, and the ingredients are all there; now it’s time to exchange recipes”. To a great extent, all researchers present at the workshop used similar types of data, such as birth and marriage records that in this case are the ingredients. Moreover, it is everybody’s aim to collect as much information from historical sources as possible (the cookies). Gatherings such as this workshop are meant for sharing thoughts and ideas on data cleaning, standardisation methods or other methodological issues, namely the exchange the recipes used for baking cookies.
Overall I think that the diversity discussed above is something to which all future workshops, conferences and symposia should aspire. The American sociologist Mark S. Granovetter in his famous work ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’ demonstrated that persons with diverse networks of weak ties receive more new information since they are more likely to have access to different groups of people. This workshop is a perfect example of such a diverse group with the great variety in disciplines and countries that were represented. It resulted in three days packed full of interesting discussions and many exchanges of ideas and questions.
Nigel Kragten (Universiteit Utrecht)