The Perks and Perils of Visualizing the Digital Past

Rand McNally Histomap of World History:  Image and descriptive text courtesy of DataVis.ca.

Rand McNally Histomap of World History: Image and descriptive text courtesy of DataVis.ca.

Historians have long recognized the utility of graphs, maps and tables in augmenting textually-driven studies with visualizations of the past. As John Theibault points out, “It is, after all, much easier and more informative to create a chart of lines of descent to the Kings of France than it is to describe the lineage in paragraphs of “begats.””[i] However, it is not enough to add these elements simply for show. Effective visual representations must be “transparent, accurate and information rich.”[ii] All three qualities are paramount in a field where our research resources offer increasingly vast amounts of data ripe for interpretation—far more than we could ever hope to personally engage with in several lifetimes. Given this abundance, I believe visually interpreting big data can make us more efficient and effective historical explorers, but as Eric Grossman rightly points out, this range of information is “useless until we have them organized into conceptual frameworks able to answer useful questions.”[ii] Throughout this semester, we have grappled with the need to engage in more “distant reading” to maintain a fuller perspective of the past on a grand scale without sacrificing historical context. In exploring several projects, I can see that this dream, while still a work in progress, is achievable.

In a previous post, I briefly explored the ways interpreting big data challenges blossoming historians to reconceptualize our relationship to our sources, our peers and our audiences. I wholeheartedly agree with those arguing for increased transparency of digital methodologies and support John Thiebault’s assertion that this is especially important when trying to visually represent and interpret big data. Letting the viewer know how and why we choose to visually represent the past precludes possible misinterpretations of the image’s message and fosters feelings of inclusiveness.[iii] This is important given that the public imbues graphs, maps and other visual aids with a greater weight of scientific objectivity, even though our field is characterized by ambiguity and interpretive uncertainty.[iv]

Indeed, attempting to visually represent the past forces us to grapple with many questions facing digital historians today. Innovative projects like the recurring Digging into Data Challenge, a interdisciplinary project devoted to building networks and pushing historians to think and collaborate in new ways, are already proving that big data is unique suited to visual representation and interpretation. A deep-seeded interest in Egyptology led me to focus on the IMPACT Radiological Mummy Database. As stated on their project homepage, this multi-institutional collaborative project is dedicated to studying “mummified remains and the mummification traditions that produced them, through non-destructive medical imaging technologies.” According to an interim report, this ongoing project seeks to move beyond simple case studies to look at the human body’s transformation into an artifact through tradition and ceremony and, through a collaborative effort with an array of archaeologists, Egyptologists, historians and even doctors, will create a “virtual mummy museum” that will allow the fragile remains to be studied digitally. Data gleamed from CT and other image scanning of the remains will allow for analysis of the prevalence of certain medical conditions in specimens, providing a valuable window into the lives of past peoples.

Constricting analysis to a digital environment through a PACS (Picture Archiving and Communication System) protects the fragile artifacts. More interesting, though, is the way this system addresses questions of access, data storage and the need to protect an individual creator’s intellectual property rights in an environment based on open access between partners—a big issue for today’s digital historians.[v] Using Clear-canvas, a thin-client web server, the project keeps the original scan in a secure server, letting the user see a graphical representation of it without downloading the original data. Not only does this protect the data and the intellectual property rights of the contributor, but it also bypasses the need for specialized visual software or the sacrifice of large amounts of a user’s storage space. It is very gratifying to see someone managing these issues of intellectual property rights without sacrificing a collaborative environment!

Exploring this project also informed my experience with Railroads and the Making of America and I’ll touch on a few of the most intriguing:

TokenX: This application allows users to search for the frequency of word usage in the speeches delivered by William Jennings Bryan during his 1896 Presidential campaign, conducted along several railways. This is particularly fascinating because it will combine the use of GIS imaging with lexical analysis, allowing us to track how his rhetoric and subject matter changed as he moved from stop to stop. This easily leads viewers to question how the social geography of his route affected the content of his speeches and how he tailored them for audiences.

Geographic/spatial analysis: This aspect underlines several different selections on the site, though I particularly enjoyed Strikes, Blacklists, and Dismissals–Railroad Workers’ Spatial History on the Great Plains and the Land Sales in Nebraska features. Taken together, these bits offer us the chance to view the railroad not only as a means of transportation, but also as a force of social change by showing how the ethnic demographics of migration patterns (and thus settlement, economics and local political demographics) changed with the prevalence of the railroads at the local and national level throughout the 1800s. Although I wish the interface in detailing the Strikes, Blackouts and Dismissals provided a bit more context, it is still an effective learning tool and push us to consider how the industrial built environment changes our society.

Exploring each of these projects has helped me grasp the potential for visual interpretation and manipulation of big data. Although optimistic, I am still cautious, for being effective in the digital realm means approaching our interpretations with the respectful dedication to historical contextualization expected of traditional monographic studies. This responsibility extends to the need for transparent digital methodologies in order to ensure that both the audience and our collaborators can get the most out of every project. And as we have seen, successful collaboration will require us to overcome some tough obstacles, with the need to protect individual intellectual property rights among the most difficult to crest. Difficult as this may be, historians must adapt, for globalization is breaking down traditional barriers to intellectual ownership and distribution of information. I am by no means suggesting that we should sacrifice claims to individual contributions for the betterment of a project, but issues of ownership should not overshadow our duty to provide historically authentic and meaningful interpretation—or keep us from collaborating at all. Such barriers are not insurmountable; it merely requires that we change our ways of thinking without sacrificing our fundamental duty to deep, contextual meaning.  After all, using images to explore big data may help us explore the past in new ways, but without the proper context, they can do more harm than good.


[i] John Theibault, “Visualizations and Historical Arguments” in Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (Spring 2012).

[ii] James Grossman, “‘Big Data’: An Opportunity for Historians?,” Perspectives on History (March 2012)

[iii] Theibault.

[iv] Data Visualization, Tooling Up, Stanford University.

[v] Michael Simeone, Jennifer Guiliano, Rob Kooper, Peter Bajcsy, “Digging into data using new collaborative infrastructures supporting humanities-based computer science research” First Monday, 16, no. 5 (2 May 2011).

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