Aside

Railroaded

4 Mar

I started this blog by trying to use different software program to construct a visual representation of the arguments I wanted to present.  Although I was extremely frustrated by the process, I think I learned some valuable lessons about the process.  The process requires the understanding of the technology, a match between strategy and content and rethinking the construction of the argumentation.  (It was a bit like watching my two-year old eat with a spoon.  It takes so much longer and is so messy it is painful to watch, but unless he experiments he will be stuck eating with his hands for his whole life.)

ImageSo, after a bit I decided that it was instructive and that I would construct a analog narrative.

In monographs and peer-reviewed journal articles over the last 50 years, which I will refer to as academic projects, historians have used visualization strategies to help convey information.  Because the past is a “foreign country,” it has been incumbent on historians to use rich description, drawings, photographs, maps, timelines and other visualizations to help reanimate the past. Due to the cost of reproducing images, the use limitations, and the generally conservative nature of the field these visualizations strategies have been more circumscribed than would be optimal.  The headshot photograph, a standard of academic projects, does little to help the reader visualize the topic  and reenter the world of the past. This is perhaps a last vestige of the great man theory of history.

To best select a visualization strategy, it is incumbent on the author or researcher to identify their goals, audience for the topic, and the nature of the information to be conveyed, the resources available and the limitations (as well as tools to circumvent them). The digital environment opens up rich possibilities for data visualizations, as well as interactive  visualizations, where the reader not only shares authority, but share creation.  To utilize these models, we need to move past using the “digital” to conduct primarily analog tasks, all be it with more  speed, and experiment and embrace the new digital epistemological paths. Tim Hitchcock, in his recent article, “Confronting the Digital: Or How Academic History Writing Lost the Plot,” explores the current state and future for the retrieval, analysis and presentation of data in the historical narratives.[1] He advocates  a fresh look at digital tools and the nature of the narratives historians create.

The Old Bailey Project is an example of the digital environment being used for a variety of purposes. The search functions allow for the use of the database as a research tool, for the retrieval of information.  The “Statistic” functions allow for the visualization of the information.  The background historical sections can be used to contextualize the information. The resource section is didactic, using the project both for teaching about the past, about research, about the project, and about the digital humanities. While the site does contain some interpretations, particularly in the context section, it is largely a tool for the creation of interpretation.

Railroaded by Richard White, in partnership with the Stanford’s Spatial History Project,  does an excellent job of using visualizations for the interpretation, creation, and presentation of the narrative to create new histories.[2] This interactive project web site works in tandem with print book, to tell the story on the development of the trans-continental railroad. The site includes over twenty different visualizations and more than 2,000 interactive footnotes to accompany the book. [3] Some of the visualizations are static, such as the How to Run a Transcontentitial Railroad that is a digital storybook with cut paper slides while others are interactive such as the Hart Photo interactive, which allows you to digital compare a tour on the railroad from 1869 and 2001, as well as explore the photographs spatially.[4] Each visualization relies, to varying degrees on the knowledge of the viewer, but there is an explanatory section for each graph.  The strength of this project, as opposed to others cited by John Theibault, “Visualizations and Historical Arguments,” is that the analog narrative and the digital visualizations can stand on their own, but together have a synergetic effect of strengthening the narrative. This unique approach has lead to White’s new interpretation of the development of the railroad, which he would have been able to, he has argued, come to without the digital data analysis. I am convinced, but the many historians disagree with the methodology and conclusions. [5]

This is a project of the Stanford University Spacial history Project. They have created a geo-database, which we call the “Western Railroads Geodatabase,”  that “serves as a container that helps us organize, access, and analyze primary source data. It also bridges spatial and nonspatial temporal data to allow for analyses of discrete and seemingly unrelated primary sources, such as historic maps and railroad freight tables.”  This important and innovative way to bridge the axis of historical inquiry, across space time and source, may hold the secret   “to control how researchers and the general public access our data and to maintain quality control.[6] The project sponsors also hope that his book will serve as a hybrid publishing model. [7]


[1] Tim Hitchcock, “Confronting the Digital: Or How Academic History Writing Lost the Plot” Cultural and Social History, Volume 10, Number 1, March 2013 , pp. 9-23(15)

[3] I originally ran across this site in relationship to the book, but it is mentioned in John Theibault, “Visualizations and Historical Arguments” in Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (Spring 2012).

[4] This interactive is based in google earth and is essentially the same idea as our walking tour, with an increased level of complexity.

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