My Great-Grandfather’s Notes: A Technological Archive Project

My great-grandfather died decades ago, before I was even out of high school. I was given one of his old Bibles, full of marginalia and notes, at his service. I negotiated with my cousins to keep a box that was filled with his old sermon and Bible study notes–one of those typical document or file size boxes you see in offices, closets, or garages.

Yet, for years, I have been stumped. Other than let them sit in my closet and move with me from apartment to apartment, I had absolutely no idea what to do with them.

I considered scanning all of them, but that would be a lot of time. And, quite frankly, people still wouldn’t take the time to read them, even in digital format.

I considered some kind of art collage, photo collage, or shadowbox as gifts for family members, but I couldn’t think of anything. Many in my family are artistic people that are well-versed in physical mediums; I am not. I am far more comfortable with digital mediums, like the photography I have posted about before.

The Technology

Then, one day, I suddenly remembered a data visualization program called Gephi. The first time that I had seen it in action was a few years ago, when someone mapped out a web of all the influential thinkers on Wikipedia. I tracked it down, and I found a great explanation of how the data was found and used in a post by Brendan Griffen here.

Last summer and fall, I spent a good portion of my free time on Codecademy learning what I could about basic computer programming. I know that people have been critical of such websites that do not have in-person instruction or time in class with tutors. I will not go into that here. However, after learning HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Python, Ruby, the Command Line, and Git, I learned enough about computer syntax (not of any specific language, but the general technical language that is used) that I now felt comfortable around explanations of how to use Gephi.

I looked around on the web and found some great tutorials, on how to manipulate the data in Gephi and on how to set-up Spreadsheets for use in Gephi.

So, I decided that I would use Gephi to map out the data in my great-grandfather’s notes.


I have a few goals with this project:

  1. I want to archive, in some form, the work and study of my great-grandfather.
  2. I want that archived data to be accessible and patterns recognizable, so that future generations of my extended family will be able to see the work he did and understand what kind of man he was. There is already a new generation of kids that are growing up that have never met him.
  3. I want to learn about him. My memories of him are from childhood and adolescence, when he was already retired. Anything I hear about him now is second-hand, at best. When he was still alive, I was interested in playing outside, climbing trees, being loud (as kids are). I hadn’t yet studied philosophy or theology or psychology or the doctrine and traditions of the church as they evolve over time. In some way, this is a way for me to have those deep conversations with him that I never had a chance to, since he recorded so many of this thoughts in the form of these notes.


The general method that I follow is to analyze one set of notes for data points (called nodes), and record them in one spreadsheet. These include the following:

  • the title of the sermon/study (or series if it includes multiple parts)
  • the supporting points
  • Old Testament (OT) references
  • New Testament (NT) references
  • related holiday, if mentioned (i.e., Mother’s Day, Christmas, Easter)
  • year, if mentioned
  • real world references

After that, I go back through the sermon and record how all of those nodes are connected in a second spreadsheet. If one OT reference is connected to two the supporting point, I record those connection. This is how the lines (called edges) in the web are formed.

I decided against recording chapter AND verse for the references, because it seemed there would have been a profusion of nodes with only one or two connections. Rather than have to manage granular detail of that sort, I opted for keeping them at the chapter level.

Sometimes, those connections may be to a passage or point from a previous set of notes, which is how the webs become interconnected.

First Successful Result

It took me a few attempts before I achieved my first success. The failures came down to a technical problem, since the version of Numbers I have auto-adds highlighted heading sections in every new spreadsheet.

I solved this by exporting empty spreadsheets from the Gephi program and using those instead.

So, after analyzing just 3 sermon/study notes, I arrived at the web to the right.

The Gephi program can color code items that are most connected to each other. So in the image to the right, each of the 3 sets of sermon notes are a different color of the palette (which is completely customizable).

Additionally, one of the settings in Gephi will resize the nodes based on the number of connections that it has. With this project, that will often be the topics of each sermon, since they are connected to everything else from that sermon.

For this first data web, that would be the nodes for Virgin Birth, Jesus’ Birth, and Justification.

Yet, as you can see, some of the other circles are a medium size as well, like Miracles and Matthew 1.

Further Results

After achieving this initial success, I kept working through the box of notes.

Here you can see the next set of data, which only includes two more sermons.

It should be immediately obvious that the web of data has increased in complexity, which comes from just two more sets of notes.

Those notes, however, were a two-part series about Putting Away Sin and instead focusing on the peace of God, which is why it takes up most of the middle to bottom of the data web.

What is fascinating, to me at least, is that some of the larger nodes now, like Personal Savior and Bear world’s sins (please excuse the grammar error) were tiny in the previous data web. Yet, their connection to this new data has changed their relative importance, size, and location, as well as providing a link between the previous data sets and the new additions.

Ever since I read Jurassic Park as a teenager and learned about fractals in math classes, I have been fascinated by the repetition of patterns, how one small change in that pattern creates more and more differences, and the way that complexity can be shown visually.

I find that same fascination here. I keep wondering how the addition of new data will change the complexity of what is shown, rearrange and resize the nodes, and otherwise provide insight into my great-grandfather.

Most Recent Data

The most recent data that I have includes a total of 7 sets of notes, as you can see at the right.

Again, the data web has evolved and changed as new data has been entered. There are more nodes now, and the connections have changed as well.

One of the aspects of the Gephi program that I mentioned earlier, but which can really be seen now is the color palette choices for the different clusters of data. This project had led to a small realization for me: data can be beautiful.

I mean, I always knew that photographs or light or sound was our brain interpreting data and stimuli around us.

I also always knew that data could be the behind-the-scenes framework for something creative and beautiful, like hexadecimal codes for colors, or the data that goes into a computer game’s god-rays or other lighting effects.

I had not, however, really thought about how data itself could be rendered beautiful.

The more data that I put into this, the more it looks like a map of the galaxies in the universe or a star-chart. In some ways, I guess it is. It is a map to the guiding thoughts (stars, if you will) of my great-grandfather’s faith and beliefs and thoughts.

In some ways, these are the make-up of the spiritual and mental and metaphysical universe that his mind occupied.

Continuing On

I have a few goals and thoughts moving forward from where I am now:

  1. I will keep saving the data every few sermons. I like watching it evolve and change over time. Also, I want to be able to share that change and the process with others.
  2. I need to start saving the files at higher resolutions when I export them from Gephi, so that the data doesn’t get pixelated or blurred when people zoom in to see the smaller sections in more detail.
  3. I need to fine tune the selection mechanism for the data. Because of the visual nature of this project, I don’t want labels that are too long–they’ll get in the way. However, I don’t want the data to become just a web of Bible references and study titles; I need to make sure that I abbreviate or condense labels for the supporting points to make sure they are included as often as possible as well, instead of left out completely because they are unwieldy.
  4. Research Gephi plugins and techniques for things that would help with the data resolutions, screenshots of sections, etc.
  5. Keep working.

If you have any thoughts, comments, or tips, you can go to the contact tab on my blog or comment below. Thanks!

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