How Historians & Digital Humanists Use (and DO) Mapping

Sometime last fall the New York Times realized that some historians and humanities scholars are doing sophisticated and interesting things with mapping, data visualization and other digital tools for scholarly analysis. They were intrigued by what they called “an alliance of geeks and poets.” Of course, a large community of digital humanists (many using Twitter, Wikis, blogs and other online social media) had known about this for a long time. There are scholarly consortia like the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC, pronounced “haystack”), and there are university “think tanks” like HyperStudio (MIT), ScholarsLab (UVA) and the Center for History and New Media (George Mason U), and there are lots and lots of individual scholars mapping historical data in new (often technologically-assisted) ways.

In this post and for our class discussion on Thursday 3/31, I wanted to highlight just some of the projects such scholars are working on, and places you can go to learn more about how digital technologies can help historians make maps (of all kinds) about the past.

One of the projects mentioned in the NYT article is the digitalization of the Bayeux Tapestry (all 224-feet long of it), a project of a medieval scholar at Drew University, Martin K. Foys. A CD-ROM digital edition of the artifact can be purchased for about the cost of a textbook, but as one user notes… it’s also been installed in the virtual world of Second Life. (See also “Electronic Medievalia,” The Heroic Age, June 2005).

Another was the Stanford Mapping the Republic of Letters project from Dan Edelstein and Paula Findlen, tracing (and mapping) the trajectory of thousands of letters from the pens of European Enlightenment writers. Here’s a brief video explaining the project:

Other innovative projects work with recreating or layering historical maps, and creating digital environments of the past. Some examples include:

On Tuesday we spent some time fascinated by Alexander Chen’s mesmerizing art/programming/mapping mashup titled “Conductor,” which combined New York subway train schedules, HTML5 + Javascript + Flash programming, and some cool acoustic string sounds to show us the music of the subterranean cityscape. It’s a beautiful and creative way to display a complex system and visualize some highly technical data. Here are some other gorgeous & smart methods with which historians could experiment:

  • N-gram: visualization of the frequency of use of any word over time, searched across outrageously-many digitized old books
  • Name Voyager – top 1000 baby names over the last century in a dynamic, interactive graph format
  • Wordle: dump any text in (say, a presidential speech) and get lovely word clouds sized by word frequency
  • Making digital timelines
  • Using GIS (i.e. geospatial information systems): see here and here for some examples of historians using GIS
  • …and its close cousin: Geolocation, useful for tagging images with a location – which could have some interesting historical applications, e.g. HistoryPin

Some blogs, websites, or programs that map data in interesting, quirky or beautiful ways (HT on some of these to my brother, a programmer with an artist’s eye for these kind of things):

And two more, aggregating many different examples of compelling data visualization:

Here’s a way to spend a free afternoon: delving into some of these lists of tools, methods, and “toys” for digital humanities scholars. There’s enough here to happily occupy any computer-savvy historian for decades.

Finally, however… a caution. A map is only as good as its data; the scholarship you bring to the creation of a digital artifact is only as good as the questions you ask and the methods you use. “Lying with maps” can indeed happen. See, for a humorous example, “Passport Ownership Cures Diabetes” – which reminds us that correlation does not equal causality!!

(Image credit: Screencap from VisualComplexity‘s latest projects, taken 3/30/11).