Mapping the Lakes

3 Mar

As the digital corpus of historical data continues to expand, historians are faced with the task of making sense of the “zillions of pieces of information that traverse the Internet.”[1] It is becoming clearer and clearer that the vast digital archive at once presents great opportunities, as well as numerous challenges. We touched on a few of these challenges in class last week, and they became even more apparent as I did the readings assigned for this week’s class. On one hand, visual representations of “long data” tend to require supplemental interpretation. Further, corpuses of data can become “blobs” of non-knowledge, so much the product of mathematical algorithms that all traces of lived human experience become nearly inextractable.[2] In this post, I will explore the challenge of creating historical visualizations, and look at a project that successfully employs textual and visual analysis to interpret the past.

In paying particular attention to challenges associated with visual representations of the past, I was struck by the idea in John Theibault’s piece, “Visualizations and Historical Arguments” that as visual representations of the past become more complex and less self-explanatory, there is a risk of widening the gap between “expert and novice interpreters.”[3] Users who do not have a great deal of experience in reading complex charts or other visual representations of data (be them qualitative or quantitative) might be deterred from taking the time to explore visualizations that are not easy to understand at first glance. Complex visualizations might have the same effect on “digital natives” who find themselves taking less and less time to consume information before moving on to explore other projects or articles. Theibault uses several examples of visual representations of the past in order to illustrate his point that visual histories are becoming more and more complex as we move deeper into the digital age. For instance, he cites Shaping the West as one project whose complexity necessitates “help” and “about” sections on its webpage in order to assist those users who have trouble navigating the site and interpreting its data, or who might be inclined to navigate away from the site when it at first does not seem self-explanatory.

In thinking about the risk of creating a gap between expert and novice users, I recalled one project that reconciles its more complex digital visualization and textual analysis aspects with a great deal of contextualization and critical commentary. Mapping the Lakes: A Literary GIS emerged from the work of the Wordsworth Centre for the Study of Poetry at Lancaster University. Though the leaders of this project are not historians, per say, but digital humanists and literary scholars, it is very much in the vein of the projects being launched by historians. The project aims to create spatial interpretations of England’s Lake District based on the travel writings of poets Thomas Gray (1716-1771) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Analyses of the authors’ writings reveal feelings related to their travels, and also allow the creation of visual representations of the routes they took. An example of the maps used on the website can be seen here.

Mapping the Lakes is an example of successful textual and visual interpretation and overcomes challenges associated with representing complex datasets due in part to the fact that it includes a great deal of methodological transparency and theoretical explanation. It also combines visual and textual analysis in an interesting way. The project ultimately asks how digital technology can facilitate thinking about the spatial history of the Lake District. It explores how Gray and Coleridge had different attitudes regarding space and therefore experienced their travels in very different ways (see the mood map).[4] Users might not realize this just by looking at the comparative map provided, so the supplemental explanation about theories of space and the context on the writings of Gray and Coleridge are immensely helpful. The methodological transparency of the Mapping the Lakes project is further evident on the “Aims and Objectives” section of the website, where users can read basic information about GIS and more detailed explanations regarding the progression of the project from idea to reality.[5] Explanations such as these make the project accessible to all users.

Some might argue that the supplemental text such as the methodology section, and the information provided on theories of space is no different from the “help” and “about” sections on the Shaping the West project, which cater to the “novice” user. In addition, if digital users don’t have the attention span required to spend time to understand complex visualizations without supplemental text, why should they be expected to take the time to read the contextualizations and explanations that are provided on the Mapping the Lakes site? I think that the answer lies in how the material is presented. For me, the project website is easy to use, and unimposing. The supplemental text is sufficient, but not overwhelming. In addition, I found myself reading the text as I scrolled down the page to find the maps that illustrate the authors’ journeys. The text even delves into such things as why Google Earth “facilitates a further understanding of the ways in which both Gray and Coleridge document physical movement through environment.”[6] The supplemental material on Mapping the Lakes is a key component and adds a great deal to the project’s interpretation of the travel writings. While the creators of the project take time to explain why their methods work and facilitate spatial understandings of the Lake District, they also acknowledge the challenges and shortcomings within the project. This self-criticality enhanced the quality and transparency of the project.

Ultimately, Mapping the Lakes overcomes some of the most common challenges associated with creating visualizations of past events and places. It does so namely by balancing a more traditional, yet complementary set of historical explanations and written analyses with its digital applications of data. The transparency of method evident in this project is also unique, and sets an inspiring example for other digital (and non-digital) humanists.


[1] James Grossman, “‘Big Data’: An Opportunity for Historians?,” Perspectives on History (March 2012), http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2012/1203/Big-Data_An-Opportunity-for-Historians.cfm (accessed March 1, 2013).

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

http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/evidence/theibault-2012-spring/ (accessed March 1, 2013).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lancaster University Department of English and Creative Writing, “Gray and Coleridge: Comparative Maps”, Mapping the Lakes: A Literary GIS, http://www.lancs.ac.uk/mappingthelakes/Comparative%20Maps.html (accessed March 1, 2013).

[5] Lancaster University Department of English and Creative Writing, “Aims and Objectives”, Mapping the Lakes: A Literary GIS, http://www.lancs.ac.uk/mappingthelakes/GIS%20Aims.htm (accessed March 1, 2013).

[6] Lancaster University Department of English and Creative Writing, “Interactive Maps”, Mapping the Lakes: A Literary GIS, http://www.lancs.ac.uk/mappingthelakes/GIS%20Aims.htm (accessed March 1, 2013). 

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2 Responses to “Mapping the Lakes”

  1. Nick Sacco March 4, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

    I enjoyed reading this post, Abby. I appreciate your concern for clarity and the need to bridge the gap between expert and novice. It seems that digital technology, big data, and visualization, have heightened our awareness of the need to Have “about” pages or “interpretive” pages that provide transparency to the research process while offering a form of guidance for readers of all levels. “Mapping the Lakes” did a great job of doing this and I hope that more sites use this formula, especially as our graphs, maps, and trees become more complex and relied upon for conveying historical knowledge.

  2. angelabpotter March 4, 2013 at 10:43 pm #

    Abby,
    I really enjoyed your post. I was intersted in your analysis of the structure and information that was on the page for the different user. As we would in museums, I think public historians will need to give more thought to what our web site “visitors” need. I think that surveys of sites allow us to see what works, and what does not, for our own work.
    I want to visit the “mapping the lakes” more.
    Great job,
    Angie

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