Data/Visualizing the Past

Maps, Graphs, Images, and Other Ways to Visualize the Past (Session 6)

This week, participants in HIS 5595 explored how historians use data and visuals to make sense of their research. Each table received visual explanations and participants discussed the relationships established by the data, which data is displayed (and which is absent), and the purpose and intended audience(s).

The first graphic – Minard’s 1869 map of Napoleon and his army’s march through Russia – provided an array of helpful information. The build-up to the Franco-Prussian War meant that Minard created this map as a warning for French audiences in 1869 to remember the follies of imperialistic ambitions. The graph packs a lot of data, which shows casualties in relation to temperatures, time, space, and geographic locations of importance.

The second image – Reebee Garofalo’s The Genealogy of Pop/Rock Music – is a somewhat subjective measurement of how earlier genres could birth new forms of rock music. As fascinating as these relationships seem to the casual viewer, participants largely agreed that that Garofalo’s use of record sales was not as well documented. Also, the diffusion of music is not very well explored, such as the effects of transistor radios, along with the home audio system becoming economical enough for the middle and lower classes. All of this leads to more sales, yet these technological advancement were not measured by the graph. That being said, her work is a fascinating look at how trends in music birth new sounds and styles.

The rest of the session dealt with a variety of graphics and images, including: an illustration that explains “Why the Potomac River Is So Dangerous,” which provided an excellent explanation of the dangers of navigating the Potomac (even to the point where text could be removed and still reach multiple cultures and languages with ease), another illustration that teaches viewers how to spot hidden handguns (presented by a former law enforcement officer ), and a historical graph that provides a beautiful representation of world empires and their offspring.

We also explored various mapping models (Mercator, Gall-Peters, etc.) and their inherent biases, GIF images that chart the history of slavery to the Americas and the loss of territories of indigenous peoples in North Americas, as well as the website Renewing Inequality, with a variety of visualizations detailing income inequality in the United States. This last website – Renewing Inequality: Family Displacement through Urban Renewal, 1950-66 – allows viewers to explore how people were displaced based on skin color, poverty, location, and type of displacement. It is an immersive experience, one matched by the website Foreign-Born Population: A Nation of Overlapping Diaspora, which allows users to explore immigration to the United States by county. It provides the number of immigrants and their country of origin.

Session 6 ended with some levity, of sorts, by looking at how Google Maps sparked a political conflict between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the London Underground map (and how the metro lines actually run on a physical map of the city), and filmmaker Errol Morris’ in-depth analysis of photo manipulation by Roger Fenton during the Crimean War in his photograph “Valley of the Shadow of Death.”

-Josh, Jeff, Kaitlyn, and Lydia

Content Management & Exhibits

Session 5 Recap

This week, we focused on Omeka and other ways to digitally archive (and present) research items. Two focus questions dominated our discussions.

  • Why create digital exhibits? 
  • Who benefits and has access through traditional vs. digital exhibits? (And what does that say about these exhibits?)

Group discussions mostly centered on diagramming/talking about potential architecture of individual Omeka sites, which included research topics such as: economic and food history; Myra Bradwell (or about Bradwell vs. Illinois court case); moonshine; popular music in politics; especially with presidential campaigns; American nurses in World War II; Letters from Union and Confederate veterans; History of the Appalachian Historical Association; and others.

As we progressed in our understanding of digitizing collections, one questions soon took over: What is the real purpose of an Omeka site? (Archival? Exhibition? Biography?) Other questions included:

Publishing on the Web

Session 3 Wrap Up: Blogging About the Past

— Contributors: Madeline Blythe, Shannon Furr, Jason McDaniel, and Jeanne Hoogbergen

This week, participants in App State’s Digital History course (HIS 5595) discussed online publishing, blogging, and academic writing in general as historians think about the digital possibilities.

Several themes emerged. One centered on the collaborative potential of writing about the past online. Sheila Brennan alludes to this as she acknowledges those whose helped her along the way as she wrote Stamping American History. To see that someone has walked the path before you is an empowering process, one that lets you know it can be done (especially for first-generation college students and academic professionals). Another consideration is that online writing can – depending on the format – allow for immediate feedback through comments. This fact raises many considerations, including: How do you have engaging conversation online? How do you decide on which post to comment? What constitutes an effective blog post? How permanent are your ideas when you write online?

Another theme dealt with the purpose behind writing online (as opposed to more traditional publishing). As Brennan and others suggest, one should consider various questions, such as: What has been your journey to (this current point)? What inspired you to write at this particular moment when your journey changes as interests and passions change? An interesting example centered on historian Kevin Kruse, who has earned notoriety on Twitter for responding to “flame throwers” that cherry pick, ignore, or misconstrue the past in order to score political points. When asked about why he engages with these “trolls,” Kruse argues that historians should lend their voices and help audiences see through the machinations of Twitter users who want to mislead the public by citing selective or false history narratives.

Publishing on the Web

On Blogging: The use, necessity and style thereof

Blogging is a skill and medium that has been gaining vast audiences in the past few years, but it is not something widely taught on a professional level. Everyone is left to find their own way in the world, figuring how to best transcribe their ideas from their brains to their audience. This takes on interesting forms in the modern world, full of social media and short attention spans. 

This has led to blogging, a new form of writing, creating conversations across the internet in a collection of paragraphs collected around a singular idea or topic. They are created in a more informal manner, using first person and addressing the readers, using bullet points and lists to get their ideas across, organizing their writing as they see fit and the theme allows, rather than as conventions demand. This is a great shift from more formal styles of writing, like articles and essays which require a great deal of text and citations. This creates very slow and long feedback loops, which generally appear in the form of another essay or article ripping apart the proceeding arguments. 

Blogging is not meant to be so slow, or as in depth. It works quicker, more in real time, expanding and growing in a multitude of ways. It can spread a great deal of information out into the internet, contained in smaller portions than an essay, and on a much more informal basis. This allows for a greater deal of input and response from readers and writers, communicating their ideas, understandings and opinions as quickly as they can form them and put them to word, with some editing of course.

This can, however, become a double edged sword. As blogs move so quickly, it can be difficult to keep up with and be able to form the best responses. Waiting too long will cause readers to lose interest. Too short will mean it would be read and forgotten. Too long, and the blogpost is not even read in its entirety, leaving the reader bored with a wall of text they skip through to the end, if the even gather the courage to continue reading. The lack of sources can mean that everything written is of questionable validity, held up by the writer’s reputation and the lack of outrage from the readers. 

No matter their strengths and weaknesses, blogs are here to stay and hold a very valuable place in media, spreading the words of the masses on various topics of interest. People need to learn how to take this tool and use it to the best of their abilities, in order to keep up the stream of information as the times change. 

Emily Ball