SNAC: Connecting Archival Collections

Today’s post comes from Dina Herbert, the National Archives Liaison to Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC). 

History buffs love trivia and making connections between historical figures. Like, how many degrees of separation are there between George Washington and Albert Einstein? Answer is two! (They both have materials at the Columbia University Libraries.) Or did Eleanor Roosevelt and Shirley Chisholm ever connect? 

There is now a way to easily find these connections, and it’s through a cooperative called Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC). While part of its name is Social Network, SNAC is not a social networking or social media tool like Facebook or Twitter, although we sometimes joke that SNAC is the Facebook for dead people. Rather, it is a way to connect the scattered archival collections of important people, places, and events.


The National Archives is a key partner in SNAC, which is wrapping up a two-year pilot phase funded through an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant. The cooperative partners are National Archives, IATH at the University of Virginia, and California Digital Library, plus 16 other institutions (libraries, archives, and museums). During this pilot phase, SNAC is developing its prototype research tool as a usable and successful platform.

So why use SNAC? Mostly, it will save you many steps in your research. A researcher no longer needs to go to each repository’s website to search the finding aids for materials: it’s now all in one place.

Also, each individual is linked to others in the database. These relationships are the key to SNAC: it is a type of  social network after all. Let’s look at an example of Shirley Chisholm in SNAC. In just the National Archives Catalog, Chisholm has an authority record and is connected to just five descriptions. There are a pictures of her, an interview, and more. The National Archives has even more records of Chisholm such as speeches, interviews, etc.

But the Archives is not the only repository to collect Chisholm’s work: 51 collections in SNAC either list her as the creator or have a referenced to her. For example, Chisholm’s letters are located in the New York Public Library.

Through SCAN, we can also see who she is associated with. Among them are major historical figures like Presidents Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson; Shirley Bernard, a professor and an active member of the National Organization of Women; and Constance Baker Motley, an important African American judge and social reformer.

Screenshot of Shirley Chisholm SNAC page.

The possibilities of connections between Chisholm and others is broad. One of the exciting features of SNAC is the radial graph:

Screenshot of Shirley Chisholm radio graph.


If you select Constance Motley you can now see how they connect to each other and branch out even further:

Screenshot of Shirley Chisholm and Constance Motley radial graph.

While it may seem difficult to connect Eleanor Roosevelt and Shirley Chisholm, there is a something they have in common: both have papers at Harvard University Libraries. Although it appears the two women didn’t meet in person or write to each other, people connected to them did correspond with each other: Chisholm is associated with President Johnson, and both Lyndon Johnson and Eleanor Roosevelt have an association with James Roosevelt, Eleanor’s son and U.S. Congressman from California. He served in Congress during the time Johnson was Vice President and President.

I invite you to search in SNAC and see these and more possibilities. Pretty easily we can begin to make the connections between important collections. What have you been able to find in SNAC? Let us know on twitter at @snaccooperative.

4 thoughts on “SNAC: Connecting Archival Collections

  1. Great catchy name for a very useful archival data structure! Thanks for letting us in on it.
    However, please ask one of NARA’s grammar police to go through it and make a couple of edits for the kind of thing that leads me to check the URL for authenticity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *