HistoryWired…giving you a trip into the vault!

A trip to the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History is inspiring. But, if you’re like me, you look around and wonder: where else do they keep all of American History? Well, like any museum, they have a vast percentage of their collections in storage, protecting them from the elements, including visitors’ eyes. Much like the National Archives, a tiny percentage (less than 5%!) of their collection can ever be seen by us commoners. But the Smithsonian has found a way to let you peer into some of the treasures within the vaults. It’s a website called HistoryWired: a few of our favorite things.

When you visit the site a helpful second screen pops up with directions to help you navigate the site. The site map is divided into ten “squares” that are general topics for the objects. Once you click on one of those main squares, smaller squares representing individual objects appear. The Smithsonian has also built in tools to help you customize your trip through the vaults, even allowing you to rate your interest in the objects as well. There is also text version of the site, including a laundry list of the objects within the site. A couple members of the Smithsonian’s staff mentioned there have been technical difficulties with the site at times. As long as you make sure your computer, tablet, etc. has the proper applications, the site is fantastic.

While the site only has a limited portion of their collections, they point out specifically on the site that most of these objects are not on current display at the museum. Some scholars have asked if putting collections online or creating pseudo-digital museums is the best option for the future. Wouldn’t that cause a sharp drop in visitation to the Smithsonian to see their physical objects? Such a forum for objects, while it allows you rate an object, it doesn’t allow you to engage in a discussion with any museum staff about the object or an exhibit.

The Smithsonian seems to have struck a great balance. They have objects here in Washington people will make the pilgrimage to see. But they also built a platform to showcase their collections to people who don’t have the opportunity to visit Washington. For those who do have that chance, this site entices people to come and visit to see what other treasures they can see not through a screen, but glass instead. After several hours spent wondering through the SI’s collections, I also wondered if highly rated objects could transition to physical display in D.C. Do you think it would benefit curators and staff to consult these rantings when planning temporary exhibits? They have offered quizzes recently such as “Are you smarter than a curator,” maybe this would give people the chance to take a real shot at the job.


Have you ever found yourself wishing you could find a web-based text analysis program that was created to theorize text analysis tools and text analysis rhetoric?  If such a specific desire has ever burdened you, fret no more!!  Your wish has been answered by the collaborators of hermeneuti.ca with their creation of Voyeur!

How does Voyeur work?  Users paste a URL(s) or text into the “add text” box and click on “reveal” for the program to calculate frequency of words in the text.  The results are shown two ways: one is visual (like wordle) with the most frequent words appearing the largest in a word cloud, the other is shown in the “summary” or “words in the entire corpus” box.  Both of these list the most common words in descending order.

Once the data has been analyzed, users have several options of what to do with it.  One of them is exporting it.  There are several options of how and where to export the data to.  For a historian doing research on multiple documents, this tool is very valuable.  If a user is looking for the frequency of a particular word, they can type it into the “search” box under “words in the entire corpus.”  Double-clicking on a word brings up three more boxes of information: “word trends,” “keywords in context” and “words in documents.”  If there is a favorite word users want to store they can click on the heart with a plus sign in the “words in the entire corpus” box to save it.  These features work for foreign languages as well (they must be text, symbols are not recognized).

While Voyeur has many positive attributes, it also has its negatives.  The most frustrating of which is the limited data type it can analyze.  Hermeneuti.ca acknowledges the flaws of this website-in-progress but it claims the ability to break down a variety of web-based texts.  When I entered the URL for a JSTOR article, an error message appeared.  I also tried entering the URL for blogs and it would not analyze those either.  I was not able to test an e-book with Voyeur but I would be interested to see if it would break it down.  Another downside to this program is that it analyzes common words like “the, and, of, in” etc.  Wordle does not show these common phrases in the word clouds it creates.  This is not a terrible feature but if it could be eliminated to focus on more key words that would improve it.

How useful can this program be for historians when it lacks the ability to analyze a variety of documents?  It would not be my first choice for text analysis if there are more versatile programs available.  However, for the documents it can break down, it is useful in comparing multiple texts at one time, finding the most frequent words from the documents combined.  The ability to export the data and store favorite words makes it convenient for some types of historical research.

What do fellow historians think of this?  Can programs like Voyeur be useful even if they have a limited capability for analyzing documents?  What should we be looking for in text analysis programs?

(posted at 10:26 pm on 5/5)

Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity

Everyone knows that age-old expression, “A picture’s worth a thousand words,” right?  Martyn Jessop in “Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity,” expands this expression and argues that digital visualization is a way to not only transmit and teach those “thousand words”, but also a way to discover new knowledge from those underlying messages.  Jessop sets out to explain that digital visualization is a scholarly methodology, demonstrate that the use of visual methods and sources is not a new phenomenon in the humanities, and provide steps needed in order to further acceptance of digital visualization by the academic world.

Digital visualization is more than just an illustration and is a scholarly methodology.  Jessop states, “An illustration is intended merely to support a rhetorical device (usually textual) whereas a visualization is intended either to be the primary rhetorical device or serve as an alternative but parallel (rather than subordinate) rhetorical device.”[1]  Digital visualization is another medium where scholars can teach others as well as research and discover new knowledge.  He also explains that digital visualization is interactive and allows scholars to manipulate the visual and its data.

While the field of digital visualization is new, the use of visual tools in the humanities is not. Historians have used image galleries, museums and collections, film and television, reenactments, maps, and graphs to further their research and teach others.  Jessop explains that visualization, including the new field of digital visualization, has been used to portray many types of data, including spatial dimensions, quantitative data, text, time, and 3D visualization.  Jessop provides a plethora of examples where scholars have used digital visualization tools to portray these data types.  The Valley of the Shadow and Salem Witch Trials are visualization projects that showcase time, space, quantitative data, and qualitative data.  The British Library’s Turning the Pages displays text in its original form.  In addition, the Theatre of Pompey project is a neat 3D visualization. There are other examples I found of digital visualization.  Flickr can be considered a digital visualization tool where institutions, such as the Smithsonian, display a collection of images that tell a story. Amateurs and history buffs also dabble in digital visualization.  Maps of War is a great example.

Jessop finishes with a discussion on how humanists can set guidelines to ensure the value of digital visualization as a scholarly methodology.  He uses the London Charter, which lays out basic principles for the use of 3D visualization in scholarly research, as a jumping off point for objectives for the broader field of digital visualization.  The principles he highlights are aims and methods, sources, transparency requirements, and documentation.  Scholars should address why a certain method of digital visualization was used and which sources were considered.  There should be an explanation of the creator’s aims and use of methods so readers can discern for themselves if this creator’s approach was the best approach.  Finally, there should be documentation of the process of creating the visual.  Since digital visualization, according to Jessop, “[satisfies] the roles of the discovery, exchange, interpretation, and presentation of knowledge,” it is a scholarly methodology and as such should have rigorous scholarly guidelines.[2]

Is a picture worth a thousand words? Will digital visualization ever reach a place of equality to that of the written word in historical practice? Does digital visualization achieve the same outcomes as the written word?  A visual is a great teaching tool for people not immersed in the field of history, but can digital visualizations, in comparison to full explanations through written work, further learning for academics?


[1] Martyn Jessop, “Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 23, no. 3 (2008): 283.

[2] Ibid., 289.

On the Potential Benefits of “Many Eyes”

In 2007 IBM launched the site Many Eyes, which allows users to upload data sets, try out various ways of visualizing them, and most importantly, discuss those visualizations with anyone who sets up a (free) account on Many Eyes.  As professor Ben Shneiderman says, paraphrased in the New York Times review of Many Eyes, “sites like Many Eyes are helping to democratize the tools of visualization.”  Instead of leaving visualizations to highly trained academians, anyone can make then and discuss them on Many Eyes, which is a pretty neat idea.

Many Eyes allows viewers to upload data sets and then create visualizations of them.  Many Eyes offers users the ability to visualize data in 17 different ways, ranging from the wordle type of word cloud, to maps, pie charts, bubble graphs, and network diagrams, just to name a few.  There are other sites or programs that will allow users to create charts in some of these ways, Microsoft Excel for example, but Many Eyes offers the advantage of multiple types of visualizations all in one place.

Additionally,  people in disparate locations can talk about the data sets and visualizations through comments.  The comment feature even allows for the “highlighting” of the specific portion of a visualization you might be referencing. The coolest feature of Many Eyes is that anyone can access and play with data uploaded by anyone else, in the hopes that “new eyes” will lead to surprising and unexpected conclusions regarding that data.

If you create an account on Many Eyes, you can access their list of “Topic Centers”, where people who are interested in data sets and visualizations relating to specific topics, can interact and comment with one another, as well as link related data sets and visualizations.  However, a quick perusal of the topic centers show that the vast majority of topics are being followed by only one user.  The few topics that have more than one user seem to be pre-established groups with specific projects in mind.

Unfortunately, it appears that a crowdsourcing mentality, where people who don’t know each other collaborate to understand and interpret data, hasn’t really materialized.  In this IBM research article, the authors even hint at how Many Eyes “is not so much an online community as a ‘community component’ which users insert into pre-existing online social systems.”  Part of the difficulty in realizing the democratizing aspect of Many Eyes might be a simple design problem in that the data sets, visualizations, and topic centers display based on what was most recently created, rather than by what is most frequently tagged or talked about.  This clutters the results with posts in other languages or tests that aren’t interesting to a broader audience.  Many Eyes developers might adopt a more curatorial method where they link to their top picks for the day on the front page in order to sponsor interest in certain universal topics.  But maybe the problem might be more profound; what do you think?

Ultimately, I’m not sure how relevant Many Eyes is to historians.  It seems that asking for a democratized collection of strangers to collaborate on visualizing your data seems unlikely based on the usage history of the site.  However, groups of researchers who already have a data set to visualize and discuss might be able to make use of this site for cliometrics-style research.  Classrooms and course projects in particular can benefit from this site, since it’s relatively easy for people with a low-skill level to use.  What do you think?  What other applications do you see Many Eyes having?  How relevant will it be for your work in the digital humanities?

Sequential Art as Historical Narrative

Images have  always been used as aids in presenting historical narratives. They enliven texts, preserve memory, and incite emotional reactions. But how often have images alone told a substantive story? Daniel J. Staley of Heidelberg College attempts to convey how visual culture itself can provide a historical narrative without being supplemental to written accounts.

As Staley argues, placing certain images within a sequential order can create a meaningful and expressive account of history. Images should no longer be limited to complementing textbooks and museum exhibits. Staley believes that images, when arranged in an appropriate design, can stand alone as serious historical narratives. He terms this visual arrangement “sequential art,” illustrated through his own example of German history. Just as written narratives are told by arranging patterns of evidence into a structural format, so too can images be arranged to express an equally compelling narrative.

The key to “reading” sequential art is in the interpretation of the arrangement. Staley argues that sequential art only works when visual connections between images are discernible. The act of filling in the space (or “gutter”) between two images is called “closure.” Closure allows the viewer to interpret the connection between two images, establishing the context of the images within a storyline. Staley compares this to the transitional sentence between two paragraphs in a written account. If the two images are placed in a different sequence, the narrative changes.

So, does Staley’s visual representation of German history hit the mark? As mentioned in the article (or written supplement, as is stated), Staley’s visual concept would not suffice if each image were isolated, just as a written essay would not suffice with a single paragraph. His ordering of images presents a narrative that begins with Nazi Germany and concludes with efforts to revive the nation during the period of postwar reconstruction. He uses not just historic photographs but drawings and advertisements. Going through this visual narrative before reading the written supplement, I immediately understood the connection between the images as modes of transportation (trains, planes and automobiles!) and how these are represented within each image (comfort, mass transport, safety, speed, economic resurgence, etc). But how effectively does sequential art serve as historical narrative?

Questions to consider include: How prompted do you think professional historians will be to jump on the “sequential art” bandwagon? How effectively do images tell a story without the supplement of text? What happens to a visual narrative if certain images have been doctored? Do the images in Staley’s visual representation of German history speak “a thousand words?” And if so, what exactly is his “visual thesis?”

And finally, who can translate German??

Being a Public History student, I understand the importance of visual culture in telling history. Pictures do truly speak a thousand words. But for me, sequential art is not an equally viable alternative to written narratives. This should not undermine the importance of images – they are highly effective when engaging the historical imagination. But images cannot always speak for themselves, even within a visual sequence. Though, perhaps the merit in sequential art is in its nature to stimulate debate, as well as its endorsement for historical interpretation. What are your thoughts?