See and Believe

The saying goes that “seeing is believing.”  In the age of big data, this becomes ever truer.  Raw numbers and other data have a tendency to overwhelm comprehension, but when organized visually their meaning is much more quickly apparent. 

Part of the reason for this is that our brains are simply more capable of interpreting visual information, even in abstraction.  To make a digital comparison, it’s estimated that we process about 1250 MB/s (megabytes per second) visually but are only conscious of about 0.7% of this information.[1]  By tapping into this faster processing, we can comprehend information that is normally to vast to grasp.  This vastness may not necessarily just be the volume of data—it may also be the scope of the data.  W. E. B. Du Bois presented a stark graphic of the population distribution of African Americans in Georgia at a 1900 exposition in Paris.

The straight lines adjoining diagonally represent African Americans living in various sizes of city, whereas the line spiraling in to the center of the page represents rural dwellers.  The significance of the spiral is slow to dawn on the viewer since the compact form of the graphic initially tricks the eye into confusing smaller visual area with a shorter proportional line.  To me, this makes the image all the more powerful.  Source: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Georgia Negro: City and rural population, 1900, photograph of ink and watercolor, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, https://www.loc.gov/item/2013650430.

Information similarly difficult to grasp, Napoleon’s march on Moscow resulted in mind-boggling attrition.  While presenting simple numbers may be an accurate representation of the loss of life, it has less impact than a visual.

Charles Minard’s famous representation of the Napoleonic Army’s march to Moscow. The width of the line is proportional to the number of troops remaining; tan is the march into Russia, black is the retreat. Notice also the river crossings and the temperature graph corresponding to the retreat. By deftly layering multiple data on top of another, Minard communicates a complex event easily. Source: Charles Minard, “Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans le campagne de Russie 1812-1813,” infographic, 1844, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Joseph_Minard#/media/File:Minard.png.

Visual representation helps us make connections that are not otherwise easy to make due to the overwhelming quantity of data.  Figures of study from Voltaire to Franklin to Kissinger have left us literal archives full of written works.  Stanford University’s Mapping the Republic of Letters project is creating a database of the correspondence between 18th century notables in order to examine their patterns.  In particular, researchers have noticed “coldspots,” such as Voltaire’s relative lack of correspondence with anyone in England.[2]  I am reminded of our HIST 454/544 class last week where we sat in silence trying to think of a voice that was “notably absent” from the oral histories we had been studying; a visual web of connections showing information about the speakers may have helped us find an answer sooner.  Similarly, the work of Micki Kaufmann to create an archive of Henry Kissinger’s memoranda provides a glimpse of his shifting priorities and emotional state.  An example of how she has used this visualization, Kaufman writes about the topic (i.e. word frequency) of “laughter:”

The “Laughter” topic is based upon those documents in which the transcriber literally placed the phrase “[laughter],” representing jovial, lightheaded moments of Kissinger’s correspondence in which the participants had a chuckle. A historian would expect these sorts of emotional expressions to occur in inverse proportion to the gravity of their respective topics (for example, the least ‘laughter’ during those negotiations in which relations were at their most sensitive, tense and/or adversarial), and the placement of the “Laughter” topic at the furthest possible point from topics relating to the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam negotiations validates this interpretation. [3]

This “exhausting preparatory work” to create “appropriately formatted data”[4] is a service to all future historians using the data sets.  From the database, “web services like Overview make visual topic modeling easy; tools like NodeXL and Gephi greatly facilitate complex network analysis; and mapping tools like QGIS, while not exactly intuitive, help users sidestep prohibitively expensive software that was required to make even rudimentary maps only a short time ago.”[5]

GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is indeed a new and powerful too available to historians. When utilizing time mapping, a new feature also called temporal GIS, spatial data can be connected with chronological data.  Analog versions of this kind of knowledge publication exist—Edward Quin’s “A General View of Universal History…” is a series of maps showing what was thought of as the “known world” at various points in history, for instance—but temporal GIS technology allows for the production of new knowledge, not simply the publication of the old.  A “time slider” controls the temporal moment as the requested data displays; Joshua MacFadyen and Nolan Kressin of the University of Prince Edward Island explored firewood transportation along Canadian railways 1876-1921 using this technology.  This allowed them to identify several railways for further study based on what visually “stood out” when their data displayed.[6]

As with all other tools in the digital humanities, novel ways to visualize data are worth little if not subjected to the same kinds of scrutiny applied to “traditional” work in the field.  Frederick Gibbs convincingly argues that “[o]ur visualizations and data interfaces must provide or at least suggest historical insight… or shed new light on old questions, rather than simply present a novel view of the historical record for novelty’s sake.”[7]  He encourages all historians, even those not “enthused about gathering, producing, or working with data,” to engage with graphics as we would any other source, interrogate them, and review their methodology.[8]  Indeed, this seems necessarily now that such visualizations have made the leap from simply representing data to helping us draw conclusions from it.  History as a discipline prides itself on maintaining an unbroken epistemological chain of conclusions, and new sources of knowledge must naturally be included in that unbroken chain.


[1] David McCandless, “The beauty of data visualization,” produced by TED-Ed, November 23, 2012, video, 9:25, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Zg-C8AAIGg.

[2] Dan Edlestein et al., “Voltaire and the Enlightenment,” Mapping the Republic of Letters, Stanford University, accessed October 11, 2020, http://republicofletters.stanford.edu/casestudies/voltaire.html#.

[3] Micki Kaufman, “Force-Directed Diagram: MEMCONS and TELCONS ‘Textplot,’” “Everything on Paper Will Be Used Against Me:” Quantifying Kissinger, January 6, 2015, accessed October 11, 2020, https://blog.quantifyingkissinger.com/category/interactivity/interactive.

[4] Frederick W. Gibbs, “New Forms of History: Critiquing Data and Its Representations,” The American Historian, February 2016, https://www.oah.org/tah/issues/2016/february/new-forms-of-history-critiquing-data-and-its-representations.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Joshua MacFadyen and Nolan Kressin, “The Fir Trade in Canada: Mapping Commodity Flows on Railways,” NiCHE, October 8, 2020, accessed October 11, 2020, https://niche-canada.org/2020/10/08/the-fir-trade-in-canada-mapping-commodity-flows-on-railways.

[7] Gibbs, “New Forms of History,” The American Historian.

[8] Ibid.

Photos, Photos Everywhere

Of of the hallmark changes of the mobile revolution is making cameras ubiquitous. While by no means is smartphone ownership universal, it is pretty darn close. Most people now have the ability to take a photo and thumb-type a blog post about it (like I’m doing now #PostedFromMyAndroid) in a matter of minutes. This presents incredible opportunities for researchers. Not only will future historians potentially have access to more material than ever before, but the researcher’s task in the present is made much easier.

Digitizing a document from an archive by snapping a photo is now commonplace. So much so that specialized photo organizng programs for academics now exist, such as Tropy. Tropy keeps pictures of archival resources collected by project, allows the user to create meaningful metadata, and critically, requires resources to have their reproduction rights noted so an absent-minded scholar doesn’t accidentally publish something contrary to copywrite. Sadly, no android version exists (yet), so it still requires mobile photos to be transferred to a computer.

But what of the photos themselves? In archives, researchers often have the privilege of interacting directly with the document, but if something is on public display it is almost assuredly behind glass. I have personally spent the better part of hours trying to deal with glass glare in my pictures and it is about one if my least favorite things to do. Fortunately, technology comes again to the rescue. Google makes a free photo-scanning app that uses composite images to digitally remove glass glare. Take these for example:

Taken with my bob-standard phone camera.
Taken with Google Photo Scan.

The difference is (literally) clear.

Tech like this represents some of the newest tools for researchers, made all the more valuable to us by deploying devices most of us already have.

Geotagging Yarns

My Mom and I are both knitters.  By “knitters” I mean we both know how to knit and delight in finding inspiration at yarn stores, starting projects, and never finishing them.  You know, like literally every knitter ever.  Mom was visiting this weekend and we, completely by accident and definitely not in any way planned by her for months in advance of her trip, found ourselves at Paradise Fibers in Spokane.  While exploring the best yarn store I have ever been to, I began to notice that the building itself was really, really cool.  Remembering that part of my homework for HIST 544 was to check out several local history sites, I pulled out the Spokane Historical app on my phone and found our location.  Sadly, no story pin existed for the place.  Nonetheless, even the hope of finding hyper-local stories like “the history of the building that now houses this particular yarn store” is an incredibly recent phenomenon.

Like its several sibling Curatescape-powered websites and apps, Spokane Historical allows users to explore stories of particular places through text, images, and oral history recordings.  When out-and-about, a particularly useful feature is using the phone’s GPS to find geotagged stories in one’s immediate vicinity.  Even when mildly disappointed to discover that a particular place of interest may not yet have a published story, other finds are near at hand.  This last Saturday, for instance, I ended up virtually adventuring to a few blocks away and reading about Corbin Park, the Spokane Coliseum, the Chamberlin House, and Broadview Dairy while Mom took another pass through some sock-weights.  It is a strength of these projects that they allow the curious to traverse time, space, or both at their leisure.  At the risk of stating the obvious, geotagged history projects are built for place-based stories; the problem is that not all of history is place-based.

Historian and creator of Cleveland Historical Mark Tebeau writes in The Oral History Review that “some stories… transcend any single location.”[1]  He cites the burning of the Cuyahoga River and the rise of Standard Oil as prominent examples of this problem.  “[P]lacing the story,” of the river burning, writes Tebeau, “at an abandoned railroad bridge along the Cuyahoga River (as we now do) may be physically accurate but remote from a location where its interpretive connections are richer.”[2]  Certainly, an event that has no clear location at which it began or ended such as this is difficult to “pin.”  The same concern may be raised for a story like “Helga Estby’s Walk Across America” on Spokane Historical—ought it to be Mrs. Estby’s home to be marked as “the” location or somewhere of greater significance to a theme such as the suffragist movement? Tebeau continues down this line, questioning whether “the story of Rockefeller… and the origins of Standard Oil [should be “pinned”] to a brownfield along the Cuyahoga River or connect[ed]… to the rise of the city’s economic fortunes through geolocating that narrative downtown.”[3]  History, as a succession of human acts, occurs in particular locations but themes happen across space within and throughout a particular temporal context.  Location-based history projects have yet to settle on a unified approach to this issue.

An even more immersive iteration of place-bound histories is the virtual tour.  While the idea of experiencing a distant locale without ever leaving home has been in practice since at least the panoramic theatres of Victorian London,[4] technology has pushed the art further still.  It is now possible to “break the fourth wall” between the user and a digital recreation of the past, having “the effect of transporting” them into the project.[5]  The island of Arvia’juaq in the Canadian Arctic can now be virtually visited by and interpreted for anyone with an internet connection.  In concert with the nearby community of Arviat, Nunavut and Arviarmiut knowledge-holders, a team from the University of Calgary captured 360-degree panospheres of the island, produced oral/video histories, textually contextualized heritage sites, and continue to work with communities and educators to share its cultural richness through the digital realm.  This project was fortunate to receive equipment donations that allow it to be shared through immersive virtual reality technology a few people at a time, but the Arvia’juac project leaders note that access to computers and sufficient internet bandwidth are an ongoing issue.[6]  This brings to the fore an issue that is not unique to virtual reality projects, or even to location-based histories, but to all digital humanities: access.

In order to engage with any digital history, one must be able to access it.  Quite simply, not everyone has a smartphone, tablet, or computer.  Fewer have reliable, robust internet access.  While this is often represented as almost exclusively an issue of economic means, there are geographic considerations as well.  The internet requires a physical infrastructure, and the more remote or rural an area, the more expensive and issue-prone that infrastructure becomes.  Solutions such as pre-loading digital heritage resources onto local computers or intranets address this on a case-by-case basis but at least provide assured access.  Computer literacy can also be a factor in effective access.  Stefano Burigat and Luca Chittaro studied navigation in 3D virtual environments, finding that experienced computer users (i.e. computer literate) were able to navigate significantly faster than inexperienced users under any conditions in a simulated geographic environment.[7]  Solutions that strike at root causes are perhaps outside the scope of the academy, except in our role as problem-identifiers, contextualizers, and advisors to policy-makers.  Additionally, the more rural an area, the thinner spread the trained historians.

Intermountain Histories is a digital history project with a massive scope.  With entries for New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, the geographic span of the site makes multiple contributors necessary.  The issue with greater numbers of contributors, however, is quality control.  The articles on Thistle, UT and Saving Jazz in Moscow(, ID) are fabulous, for instance.  They capture interest, tells succinct and compelling stories, and open the door to further research.  The Paiute War of 1860, however, is not to the others’ high standard.  Even at first glance it is suspiciously short for an interpretation on a “war,” and on further inspection reveals a preoccupation with the grievances suffered prior to the conflict with “the natives” before US forces come swooping in to bring a terse ending.  Crowdsourcing (or “community sourcing,”[8] as Tebeau puts it) history absolutely invites broad, shared ownership of the past, but must be approached with scaffolding.

Trained support is also most useful in the form of curation.  Most Curatescape sites have virtual tours available which bring together several stories into a linked narrative.  Some follow modern paths of travel, such as the Journey along the Light Rail tour on Salt River Stories.  Others, historical routes such as Lost Apache, on the same site.  Tours can also pull locations linked thematically even when not geographically, like the Cultural Gardens tour on Cleveland Historical or The CCC in the West on Intermountain Histories.  Such tours are carefully constructed to show a particular forest by picking specific trees, if you’ll pardon the metaphor.  They deploy several entries that can stand independently of another, but when presented together enhance understanding, just as many fibers of wool create a single strand of yarn.

Once Mom and I finally called “done” at Paradise Fibers and went up to pay, I saw a single framed photo behind the register of the building before the current tenants occupied it.  No caption, no interpretive sign, just the photo.  Even without anything else, the single photo publicly recognized that “there is a story here,” even if it still waits to be told.  It struck me then that there may be a reason telling a story I sometimes called “spinning a yarn.”


[1] Mark Tebeau, “Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era,” The Oral History Review 40, no. 1 (2013): 30.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Peter Dawson et al., “’Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller’: Using Virtual Tours to Access Remote Heritage Sites of Inuit Cultural Knowledge,” Études Inuit Studies 42, no. 1 (2018): 246.

[5] Peter Dawson, Richard Levy, and Natasha Lyons, “‘Breaking the Fourth Wall’: 3D Virtual Worlds as Tools for Knowledge Repatriation in Archaeology.” Journal of Social Archaeology 11 (2011): 387–402.

[6] Dawson et al., “Extraordinary Traveller,” 250-263.

[7] Stefano Burigat and Luca Chittaro, “Navigation in 3D Virtual Environments: Effects of User Experience and Location-Pointing Navigation Aids,” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 65, no. 11 (2007): 945–58.

[8] Tebeau, “Listening to the City,” 30.

Digital Humanities

Change brings angst.

The academy has certainly been undergoing a significant amount of angst around the transition to digital forms of research and publishing. Some believe that the online revolution will irrevocably change our relationship with source materials and published works. Others fatalistically view digitization as yet another alteration that scholarly disciplines will rise to meet. A few hold most everything other than the written word scornfully and actively resist further attempts to take advantage of the greatest advancement in publication since the telegraph. Whatever one’s opinion on digital humanities, the field is devilishly tricky to pin down.

I would suggest that “digital humanities” means, concurrently, two separate things: the first being “the study of humanities by use of digital methodology” and the second being “the publication of scholarship in the humanities through digital means.” While some literature treats both aspects simultaneously (Adam Kirsch’s “Technology is Taking Over English Departments,” for instance), most focuses on either digital methodology or digital publication. For the sake of sanity, I will also be treating them separately.

Computing facilitated new avenues for scholarly analysis. While, in the strictest sense, all the techniques currently lauded as “new” since the advent of computers were possible through brute human force, they were practically unachievable due to the sheer brute-ness of the force required. Digitized indices allow for sophisticated and speedy searching and creations such as optical character readers (OCRs) and handwritten text recognition (HTR) are constantly adding to the body of machine-searchable content. This newfound searching capability expedites the quest for knowledge exponentially, but is not without its dangers for a researcher who does not consider digital hermeneutics (a third layer of criticism to examine why a particular source was digitized and how it came to be selected as a search result). In addition to the speeding of effectively “traditional” research methods, programs such as Google’s “Ngram” viewer allow analysis of data at quantities beyond the reasonable scope of a human researcher.

Digital publication is, perhaps, much easier to grasp. The internet has given us the ability to transmit our thoughts farther and faster than we have ever yet been able. Personal websites allow us to cultivate and maintain an image of ourselves over which we have complete control. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter connect us with others in short-form engagements and conversation-starters. Online journals present the opportunity to publish entirely online, our work immediately available to any who want it and searchable by those employing digital research methodologies. The seismic shift with online publication is not so much the means itself, but rather the audiences it opens and the speed at which it allows communication. It is absolutely true that academics are from necessity learning how to communicate more effectively with lay and amateur audiences. Twitter threads are almost poetic in their attention to word choice and self-support. “Thumbnail History” is now a legitimate mode for a serious researcher wishing to present their work in digestible, but no less rigorous, packets that maintain pacing and flow. Fully interactive media now allow someone to follow their curiosity geographically simply by clicking around an online map, a new story around every virtual corner. The humanities grasped the printing press with both hands and employed it to its full advantage–it is only natural that the humanities are doing the same with digital publication.

Digital humanities are simply the newest expression and evolution of steady disciplines. It is absolutely the case that older methods of storing and engaging with knowledge–books, archives, and the like–will maintain their value to researchers. There is also no doubt that humans will remain essential to the humanities. Digitization allows for the expansion of our disciplines, not their depredations. Change brings angst, but beyond the angst lies the opportunity.

Breaking the Ice

There is nothing quite like breaking the ice simply to break the ice. While this is certainly no masterpiece of filler text like “Lorem Ipsum,” it should suffice.

Besides… non omnes Latine loquunt.