Using Technology to Visualize the Past

Hello everyone! For this week I covered readings 3 (part 1, part 2) and 5. In “Space, Nation and the Triumph of Region: A New View of the World from Houston” as well as its accompanying website, “Mining and Mapping the Production of Space”, Cameron Blevins explores history in relation to space and place. He demonstrates the importance of accompanying digital work with traditional readings to gain context in a more in-depth analysis. Blevins examines how the Houston Daily Post newspaper created an “imagined geography” from 1894 to 1901. Newspapers privileged certain places over others in their publications, which Blevins argues actively rather than passively “reinforced the structural power of capital” (136). Though Blevins’ methods for exploring this topic are what I think is most fascinating and important for class discussion. Blevins utilizes “distant reading” as a method. It would take too long to read all the newspaper articles, he estimated three years to do so. So instead allowing a computer to pull out keywords, like the number of times a place is named in newspaper articles, the time it takes to make a general analysis of the “imagined geography” created by the Houston Daily Post can be achieved under a shorter amount of time. This provides a better visualization, which is key for spatial history analysis. Though this paper reminds us in its conclusion that such a preliminary analysis rarely tells the whole story and it needs to be accompanied with “close reading” of traditional texts in order to get a better understanding of the context. For example what was discovered was that even though the preliminary search suggested that there was a national scale oriented towards New York and the Midwest as well as the dominant regional scale of Texas and its immediate orbit, this did not reflect most populous cities as assumed at first glance. Rather with further textual analysis and close reading, Blevins discovered that this newspaper’s focus centered on commercial content like cattle, wheat flow, cotton and finance. Moreover, the Houston Daily Post revealed “an unexpected prominence of regional space” (137). This, Blevins discovered was due in part to shifts in American journalism around that time. Newspapers were becoming highly commercialized entities targeting a mass-market of readers. As a result, The Houston Daily Post appealed to its most reachable audience within the local region. Another point made by Blevins was that the railroad networks seem to mirror the most common places named in the newspaper. This is also misleading because after further examination through close reading, how often a place was named was related to the flow of goods and capital as mentioned above rather than railroad hubs or large populations. Blevins’s accompanying website offers interactive maps of his findings that allows readers to further explore his methods and the importance of critical analysis. Distant reading is great to see an overarching trend but in order to make a claim about that trend further analysis is required. As he summarizes his work he notes how we need historians to be aware of the need for close reading and text analysis more than ever with our constant use of the internet. The easily available and potentially misinterpreted “distant reading” that is abundantly on the web calls for critical approaches to history and the addition of close reading to get the whole story.

            This theme of textual analysis and distant reading is carried over into Cameron Blevins’s other article, “Topic Modeling Martha Ballard’s Diary”. Blevins presents the difficulty of reading and analyzing an extensive diary, similar to the extensive newspaper articles. Through the use of MALLET, a computer software that attempts to find words that frequently appeared together in texts and group them together within clusters. This is called text mining or classifying words from text based on assumed sentiment, intent and topic. Moreover, topic modeling is a text mining tool used to pull out semantic structures from within a text. Blevins found that this program is actually very efficient at pulling out a handful of themes from this diary. Midwifery, church, death, gardening, shopping, and illness were the big themes that this program pulled out. Now how accurate is this? Well, Blevins tested it by examining some further close reading to determine if this overarching analysis was accurate. For example, the appearance of “gardening” and words that the program determined were used similarly or related to that word did follow the pattern of Maine’s seasonal cycles, which is where Ballard lived. Furthermore, the mention of housework increased over the course of Ballard’s life which correlated with changes in her history that are known like her children moving out as well as increased financial troubles which would definitely cause her to spend an increasing amount of time doing housework. Blevins further demonstrates the benefits of distant reading that MALLET can provide but it needs to be accompanied with close reading to get the better visualization of whole story. As usual context is everything. There are so many possibilities with topic modeling. Using it across languages or on social media and blog posts were particularly interesting questions and hopeful suggestions made by commenters. Rather than hesitation and suspicion though, Blevins tries to show that the possibilities are truly endless and these computer programs have opened up an entirely new world for history. But it’s important to remember that just because we have these programs doesn’t mean we can discard close readings but instead that they are key in supporting the evidence that these programs provide us.

            As practicing historians do you consider Blevins approach beneficial or ideal in the face of constantly advancing technology? We have no way of knowing how perfected these computer programs, or others, may become, but do you recognize the value in the method of combining close reading alongside distant reading?

Thanks everyone keep up the good work!

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Hello Everyone, I’m Claire!

I am a first year General History MA student and under the advisement of Dr. Gautham Rao. I’m 23 years old and just moved from California to DC for this program at American University. I received my Bachelors Degree majoring in History with a minor in French from San Diego State University in 2020. Over the years I have studied a wide variety of historical topics ranging from Ancient History to significant 20th century events like the Great Depression, the World Wars and the Cold War. That being said I haven’t had much of an opportunity yet to pinpoint my exact interests, as they constantly seem in flux as I take new courses. A common theme throughout, though, is social history, from family and marital relations to education and general social climate of various time periods. What I love most about history is being able to imagine being in a different time and everything that comes with that. It’s like reading a book and being transported to another world. That being said I love to read and watch period pieces from all sorts of time frames. The shows Outlander, Reign and The Crown are three of my favorites.

In regards to digital history, I think that I am most fascinated with how these digital tools aren’t only helpful for digitizing resources for better public access but that the process of creating a visual presentation of research can be a wonderful way to engage students and those hoping to learn something. Reading paper after paper can get boring very quickly but having a visual presentation, map or timeline can really deepen a learner’s understanding of the historical topic. The visual aspect gives a three-dimensional scope that is not as easily achieved, if at all, on paper.

I am hoping to learn a wide variety of history while in this grad program, while also fine-tuning my resource collecting skills. I also hope to make more friends who share my love for history. From this course specifically, I hope to broaden my experience with various digital tools that I could apply to future history projects and research. The digital and visual aspect adds a new element to history that appeals to the newer generations. I think digital history has the ability to make learning history fun! Not to say that it isn’t already fun, but I think we all can agree that those that aren’t interested in history dislike it because they think it’s boring or just about a lot of dead people and that can be true. But digital tools open history up to a world of creativity that could benefit learners and teachers. Applying history to modern technologies and exercises grabs the interest of the STEM students or the drama students who enjoy employing their own creative spin on things. I believe I want to be a history teacher and I would love to apply the digital history tool of research in a classroom with students who would appreciate that creativity.

Looking forward to getting to know you all!