11 Feb


One of the biggest potentialities of digital history, in my opinion, is its ability to handle so-called “big data,” packets of data that are much larger than what any single person could analyze on their own.  In my last post, I discussed how digital history is being utilized to map out one such big data set, the epistolary canon of Enlightenment thought in Europe and America.  This mapping out process has revealed new trends and discarded past ideas about the spread of specific ideas in the Enlightenment.  Franco Moretti, in his book Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, latches onto the power of this new visual tool; as he explains it, the visualization of data requires a study of “fewer elements,” but because of that, provides “a sharper sense of their overall interconnection.”[1]

Reflective again of the changes wrought by the digital humanities Moretti’s study is…

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3 Responses to “”

  1. angelabpotter February 11, 2013 at 6:38 pm #

    I was really interested in the idea of asking questions you do not know how to answer. It is a lot harder than it sounds. In school, we are given questions and search to find answers. How to think creatively about question strategies is not taught in schools, and not generally rewarded. I was thinking of it as the “Jeopardy Effect.” You have the answer, now come up with the question.

    After thinking about it for a while, I actually wrote a blog post about this but scrapped it. After days of thinking about it, asking new questions seems, for me, seems to come reaching outside of my own head, and adopting a new perspective. In teaching, student questions sometimes lead me to look at things in a new way. When working in the archives, cataloging sheet music challenged me to think about its meaning. (Which I am still not sure how to answer.)

    I guess that this is another of the reasons for interdisciplinary projects, driving innovation through sharing the perspectives of others. I like this aspect of projects, but am less fond of the “play.” I find it very difficult to dive in and play with digital tools. But I guess more about this in next weeks readings.

    • ngoodlin February 11, 2013 at 6:54 pm #


      I agree completely that finding questions without an answer is not an easy task. I think part of what appeals to me about digital history is that you don’t even have to have a question really to start playing with the data.

      This may be a weak example, but recently I was tasked with looking at the statistics for the NCPH website, which have been collected for several years now. I had no specific questions going in, other than trying to find ways to optimize web traffic. By just looking at the aggregate data, I was able to find patterns that would be practically impossible to find without the specific digital tool that I was using.

      This is exactly the “play” that I’m talking about, where you can ask a very general question, plug a bunch of data into a tool, and identify results that weren’t immediately visible before. In my mind, that’s exactly what Moretti was doing with his graphs, maps, and trees, and it’s potentially a very potent tool for studying history.

  2. MDKenny February 11, 2013 at 7:54 pm #

    Noah, I’m with you (via Moretti) on the importance of noting and charting the interconnectedness of our areas of inquiry through the use of big data and visualization tools. I also appreciate your emphasis on the potential benefit that we may derive from using portions of Moretti’s framework without having to accept each individual component of his approach. I think that you’re right that playful exploration, no matter how apparently unsuccessful, can help us to devise new questions and new ways of approaching our research.

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