Online Musings of a Public Historian

Archive for March, 2014

There’s a Map for That: Spatial History in the Digital Age

For centuries, maps have been consistently viewed as valuable resources in performing historic studies.  Moving beyond the more traditional functions of tracing boundaries and locating specific sites or landmarks, practitioners of spatial history use maps and the information presented within them not as supplemental source material, but as a means of adding additional perspective in examining the past.

In his essay on Stanford University’s Spatial History Project, Richard White describes the basic premise of spatial history as

“the sense that changing spatial patterns…best explain the pattern of changes [within a given space] over time.”

This mindset regarding the study of history through examining the power of place has long existed within academia,  as illustrated by the works of 19th century engineer Charles Minard, particularly his map tracing the progress (and deterioration) of Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1861:

Charles Minard's Carte Figurative of Napoloeon's 1861 March on Russia

Charles Minard’s Carte Figurative of Napoloeon’s 1861 March on Russia.

In recent decades, technological advances and the increasing availability of digital tools have assisted in expanding the field’s capabilities.  Imaging software, GPS services, and countless other innovations allow spatial historians to examine a variety of sources, from the geography of the moon to the spread of McDonald’s restaurants throughout the United States.

Study of colors present on the moon's surface

Study of colors present on the moon’s surface.

The Contiguous United States, visualized by distance to the nearest McDonald's.

The Contiguous United States, visualized by distance to the nearest McDonald’s.

Spatial history certainly adds unique perspective to our understanding of the relationship between space and time.  Through studying maps, whether contemporary or historic, digital or traditional, we can gain incredible insight into the attitudes prominent in a given time period and the manner in which humans view and measure their surroundings.  Of course, spatial tools of study( (like all source materials) inevitably have their flaw, particularly  their potential for manipulation and inaccuracy.  As such, while clearly a useful and continuously advancing methodology, spatial studies are at their most effective when used in conjunction with other tools.

What do you think? What can we learn from maps that we cannot from solely looking at text? Does spatial history assist us in gaining a more accurate understanding of the past?

What in the Wordle?

A few posts ago, we examined the concept of culturomic analysis and explored the Google Ngram Viewer, a digital research tool that uses a document’s text patterns to link various lingual trends with specific historical periods.  Not the only word-based tool in the shed (so to speak), the Google Ngram Viewer is one among several similar culturomic platforms available on the web.

One such alternate tool is Wordle, a “word-cloud” generator derived from the input of text, giving “greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.” Whereas the Google Ngram tool matching lingual patterns in written documents with historical events and trends, Wordle serves more as a means of determining a specific document’s major themes and features.

To test the generator’s efficacy, I uploaded an old research paper of mine discussing the circumstances surrounding England’s 1605 “Gunpowder Plot” and subsequent annual Bonfire Night celebrations commemorating the event.

Behold, the visually-appealing result:


Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 4.20.22 AM

“Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot”
via Wordle.

On the whole, Wordle proved relatively successful in conveying the document’s key themes. Looking at the generated word cloud, we can get a general grasp on the individuals involved, with the two most prominently associated with the plot (Sir Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes) whose significance is accurately reflected through their placement as the two largest (most frequent) words. The plot’s religious connotations (along with those surrounding the ensuing holiday celebrations) are similarly highlighted.  Surprisingly absent, however, are any references to the Bonfire Night celebrations following the events of the plot, on which a significant portion of the document focuses.

Additionally, several very common words (“although,” “new,” “well”) are given precedence within the cloud, along with a fair number of common names (“Robert,” “Elizabeth,” “John”) and word variations (“Plot” vs. “plot,” “Catholics” vs. “Catholic“).

Despite these nuances, Wordle still serves as an effective means of tracking a document’s language patterns and highlighting its primary themes.  The platform’s personalization features add to its appeal, and include numerous options regarding font, cloud layout, and color scheme.

On the whole, the Wordle cloud-generator offers users an entertaining, personalized experience in obtaining a general representation of a document’s contents and main ideas. The application works best as more of a starting point in the research process, however, with users seeking a more in-depth analysis better served doing supplementary studies elsewhere.


Review: Library of Congress Digital Collections

Over the past few decades, various technological advances have allowed for significant expansion within the digital world in terms of both scope and accessibility.  Today, a few clicks of a mouse or swipes on a touchscreen offer users access to an abundance of digital content ranging from the intellectual to the bizarre.  In academia, the innovations brought about through this rising “Digital Age” continue to transform the research process as we know it with the introduction of new tools, methodologies, and platforms.  The advent of the online database, for example, revolutionized the traditional research process through storing and making widely available countless resources in various formats.  This increased accessibility of resource materials allows database users to locate in a matter of minutes information that traditionally required several days’ worth of planning (if not longer) a trip to an archive or institution.  Online databases additionally provide resource access to countless users of varying backgrounds and levels of academic experience, colossally widening the scope of research to reach multiple levels of society.

Today, numerous cultural institutions across the world curate their own online research databases.  One of the largest and most visited of these database sites is the Digital Collections and Services page hosted by the Library of Congress:

Library of Congress, Digital Collections and Services Homepage

Library of Congress, Digital Collections and Services Homepage.

Created in 1994, the Library of Congress Digital Collections database offers users access to

“a growing treasury of digitized photographs, manuscripts, maps, sound recordings, motion pictures, and books, as well as ‘born digital’ materials such as Web sites.”

These materials are categorized into eight “featured collections,” each covering  a specific medium (such as the Chronicling America historic newspaper database) and/or research topic (like the Veterans History Project), allowing database users to easily navigate their research efforts within the appropriate collection.  Hunting for relevant research sources becomes an increasingly simple task with the subdivision of several collections into specific categories and the ability to use a search tool to locate specific materials, as seen with the American Memory collection page:

American Memory from the Library of Congress

American Memory from the Library of Congress.

Additionally, the Library of Congress Digital Collections database offers the opportunity for users to increase their knowledge on the cultural significance of digital preservation through the inclusion of a page providing links providing further information regarding the preservation process and other online collection projects:

Digital Preservation: Digital Collections and Services, Library of Congress.

Digital Preservation: Digital Collections and Services, Library of Congress.

Unlike other leading research databases, such as JSTOR and EBSCO, which offer access to their materials only through paid membership or use through an academic institution, the Library of Congress Digital Collections site allows all members of the public to peruse the site, free of charge.  This high level of accessibility, coupled with the site’s easy-to-navigate format and educational features, makes the Library of Congress Digital Collections database an ideal starting point to gather  materials for use in the research process.

While undoubtedly a substantial tool of research, the Library of Congress Digital Collections system is not without limitations.  This is most clearly seen in regards to the collection’s overall size, which – while admittedly plentiful – does not completely encompass the Library of Congress’ holdings in their entirety.  As a result, a planned visit to the physical facility is often still a necessity, particularly for projects focusing on slightly more historically obscure topics.

That being said, the database is still an ongoing project with newly-digitzed materials regularly added to it.  As such, the database’s scope continues to expand, with the hopes that eventually the vast majority of the Library of Congress’ archival holdings will be available online.  Until that point, and even after, the Digital Collections and Services serves as a commendable, easy-to-use tool of research for historians at any level, both on its own and as a supplement to a more in-depth visit to the Library of Congress’ archival research facility itself.

Social Media as a Tool of Research

Growing up a short distance from Washington, D.C., my relationship with the iconic sites and structures of the nation’s capitol is markedly different than that experienced by the thousands of tourists who frequently flock there. For me, places like the Smithsonian museums and the monuments of the National Mall aren’t simply destinations on a travel itinerary. They are familiar figures, featuring prominently throughout each stage of my life so far.

I first became acquainted with D.C.’s heritage sites and cultural institutions in childhood, from a combination of school field trips and obligatory family outings whenever an out-of-town relative paid a visit. In high school, navigating the Metro system and venturing into the city without parental supervision was a common rite of passage.  The National Mall became not just an intellectual but a social destination, serving as the backdrop for prom pictures, first dates, and after-school outings with friends.

One of my first "grown up" group outings to Washington, D.C., taking in the view from the rear of the Lincoln Memorial. (Summer, 2007)

One of my first “grown up” group outings to Washington, D.C., taking in the view from the rear of the Lincoln Memorial. (Summer, 2007)

Reading Trevor Owens’ article on “using the social web to unpack the public meanings of cultural heritage site[s],” the different layers of meaning the D.C. sites hold for me instantly came to mind. Using TripAdvisor reviews of the commemorative statue of Albert Einsten (located in Washington, at the National Academy Sciences building) as an example, Owens examines the interpretive value of online social commentary in studying public relationships with cultural sites and institutions.

Undoubtedly, “traditional” source materials are necessary components of any research project. Knowledge of a site’s background — the motivations behind it, the message it conveys, its purpose in existing at all — is necessary for an accurate understanding of how (and why) the public interacts with that site. These can be found in any number of primary or secondary sources relating to a site, both online and off.

"History and Culture" page for the Lincoln Memorial, featured on the NPS National Mall website

“History and Culture” page for the Lincoln Memorial, featured on the NPS National Mall website.

While these materials certainly help historians in figuring out the why of a site, they only provide so much detail on how the public connects with it.  For this, Owens argues, we should look to the social web for assistance.  Visitor reviews, such as those featured on TripAdvisor, and social media posts can be incredibly helpful not only in discerning how the public views cultural heritage sites, but also in determining the types of interactions people engage in.

TripAdvisor reviews of the Lincoln Memorial.

TripAdvisor reviews of the Lincoln Memorial.

Some believe that sources drawn from the social web are not as “legitimate” as those taken from more traditional avenues.  Others feel that the experiences individuals describe via social media, such as the use of the National Mall  as a venue for prom pictures, are “disrespectful” or “irrelevant.”

Reflecting on my own experiences, both formal and informal, with the cultural sites of Washington, D.C., I feel that Owens’ piece makes a valid argument.  Part of the entire premise behind public history is an understanding of how the public connects with the past.  Whatever their nature, posts made on social platforms offer valuable insight into how people create these connections through interacting with such sites.

Cultural heritage sites carry a number of different meanings. Visiting these sites and interacting with them — whatever the context — allows people to develop their own relationships for them.  In doing so, these places become a part of their lives.

Zotero: The Digital Historian’s Best Friend

What could be a better asset in this digital age than an online platform where you can store all your research information in one place?! Zotero allows users to create an online library for both individual and group projects, where they can upload pdf documents, URL links, and all sorts of citation information.  Check out our group’s Zotero Library for our Resurrection City project here!