Visualizations: Seeing history in new ways

2 Mar
An Example from The Spatial History Project

An Example from The Spatial History Project

When assigned a book to read for class, I usually get very excited when I see graphs and images because it means there are fewer pages for me to read.[1] Within the realm of digital history, however, visuals are becoming much more than a page-filler. Digital visualizations are being used by many disciplines to conceive of and illustrate scholarly works in new ways. For historians, visualizations help to interpret big data, provide new perspectives, and understand spatial relationships.

Although most of us can probably guess what visualization is, it is helpful to really understand what I mean when I use this term. A visualization is an image, graphic, or map that illustrates data. There are two primary functions of a visualization. The first type is probably the one we are most familiar with and would be most likely to use. These are visuals used as illustrations to supplement in visual form what has already been conveyed in writing. The second type of visualization takes it a step further and conveys new information in a way that can only really be done with an image. According to Geoff McGhee, “the real power of visualization comes in its ability to make powerful arguments, and show data in a way that raises new questions.”[2] The fact of the matter is that although we primarily conveying information through words, some things are best understood through images. This clarity that visuals can bring is dependent on the visualization and the data. In order to be effective and not just confusing and unnecessary, a visualization must be “transparent, accurate, and information rich.”[3] With careful attention to detail and audience, visualization can serve as a powerful tool.

Even though visuals and images have arguable always been used to some extent in the field of history, digital technology is exponentially increasing the use of this tool. Digital technology not only facilitates in the creation of visualizations that could only have been dreamed off several decades ago, it also has lead in the recent rise of big data that I discussed in my last blog post. Big data is unique in historians sources in that it lends itself to visualizations more than most sources. The Digging into Data Challenge that occurred in 2009, 2011, and again this year, presents numerous examples of “how “big data” changes the research landscape for the humanities and social sciences.”[4] Several of the projects that have been funded by this program use visualizations to ask new historical questions and interpret the past through images. One example of this is the Trading Consequences project which is investigating nineteenth century economic and environmental consequences of commodity trading. This project is ongoing and they are currently exploring the best way to create visualizations of the data they have digitized. In their project blog they are clear that their goal is, “the development of visualization concepts that will reveal a range of temporal, geographic and content-related perspectives on the commodity data, and that will highlight different conceptual angles and relations within the data.”[5]  Visualizations for this project have the potential to aid the historical process by providing a variety of new perspectives on a topic.

One other effective use of visualizations in a history project is the Spatial History Project at Stanford University. This project is a completion of interrelated history projects that all specifically focus on visualization. They describe the purpose of their projects as: “We organize our data in geospatial databases to better facilitate the integration of spatial and nonspatial data, and then use visual analysis to help identify patterns and anomalies…We embrace visualization as a way not simply to illustrate conclusions, but a means of doing research.”[6] These projects are representative of the most popular way for historians to utilize visualizations. Digital visualizations are immensely helpful for mapping and understanding the past on spatial dimensions. In projects like these, images aid understanding and demonstrate relationships in ways that text never could.

Visualizations are an emerging tool in the historian’s toolbox. Digital technology has provided new ways for historians to work with large data sets. When used effectively, visualizations can enhance a history project that works with big data. As these few projects illustrate, visualizations help interpret big data, provide new perspectives, and understand spatial relationships.

Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

[1] Admittedly this may not be the best attitude to have about assigned reading but I have a feeling I am not alone.

[2] Tooling Up for Digital Humanities, “Data Visualization”, Stanford University, (accessed February 25, 2013).

[3] John Theibault, “Visualizations and Historical Arguments” in Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (Spring 2012), (accessed February 26, 2013).

[4] Digging into Data Challenge, “Welcome to the Challenge,” Digging into Data Challenge, (accessed March 1, 2013).

[5] “Progress to Date on Trading Consequences Visualization,” Trading Consequences (blog), February 28, 2013,

[6] CESTA, “About Us: About the Project,” The Spatial History Project, 2013,


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