Practicum: Word Clouds

What is a word cloud? In essence it is a way to visualize data, a word cloud works by analyzing text and displaying the most often used words in a “cloud” of text. The more frequently a word appears, the larger the word. Now that the concept is out of the way, how can digital historians use a word cloud to effectively. One of the more interesting ways that historians have used a word cloud is to compare similar text documents for this example I will be using 3 different museums “about us” page to demonstrate different values across institutions.

To begin clear your word cloud by hitting “new wordcloud” in the dropdown menu highlighted below. This same menu will allow you to import your text in numerous different ways.  (also avoid the large “start here” it’s a scam to catch people who have never pirated content before)

The first way to create a wordcloud is to simply copy and paste whatever text document you are using. This was the method used for the Cincinnati Museum Center, the word cloud it created is posted below.

You can also upload straight from URLs if your text has a linkable webpage. This was the method used for the Atomic Museum.

If you have a PDF of your document, for instance if you had scanned an archival document and wanted to generate a word cloud for it, you would simply upload that PDF to the website, while a bit of a roundabout way to create this last cloud for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, it is useful to know all of the methods of creating a word cloud.

Finally some helpful tips and tricks to getting the most out of the wordcloud generator. The task bar at the top of the screen allows you to edit the wordclouds in multiple ways. Firstly, under word list, you can edit the cloud to not include common words such as “and” and “the” as you can see on the examples without this edit the cloud can become cluttered with less than useful text. Secondly the scale icon allows you to adjust how the size of the words, when active the scale will adjust words like “and” and “the” to be present but not dominate the cloud. With it deactivated you can see the true scale of the document as exampled here.

Finally there are many aesthetic changes one can make in order to create a compelling visual example. Changing the font, color, design, and scale of the cloud can all be done to create a more unique and stylized cloud for whatever purposes you could need. Looking at the examples you can see the usefulness in comparing similar documents, we can see how each museum stresses its local communities, the nature of the museum such as Denver stressing science while the Atomic Museum focuses on more “explosive” aspects of their history. Yet they all share common words such as community and education. If you have any other questions or concerns the website has a useful FAQ and a forum for asking questions! Now go explore the wide world of word clouds!

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