Visualizing Networks

It’s difficult to live in Boston and not have a preconceived notion of Paul Revere’s contributions to the American Revolution. Usually these notions are placed in two camps, those who love Longfellow’s poem and believe he was the sole rider and most important person during the night before Lexington and Concord or those who believe he is an overrated figure who doesn’t deserve the praise and notoriety brought to him through Longfellow’s work. Having worked as a state house tour guide for a year, I confronted many interpretations of Paul Revere’s ride through my daily interactions with the public. As a public historian, one is often put in this position, how do we navigate national memory, invented traditions and personal beliefs in the scope of conveying some sort of historical truth to our audience?

This networks of Paul Revere’s role during the Revolution to me helps to find a solution to this problem where words and other more “traditional” methods of history have thus far failed us. By placing data into these illustrations and charts, it becomes clear what Revere (and Warren’s) roles were in the Revolution. We find that the answer lies somewhere in between the two camps that are typically formed. As Dave states in his post, “these sorts of big data visualizations give us a way to demonstrate large-scale data in a more effective way than just numbers or prose.” We may not be talking about the large-scale data when it comes to Paul Revere, but the same idea applies. Visualizations are not only a way to accompany a scholarly work, but they can standalone as quite effectively as well. To me this does what Winterer discusses in Where is America in the Republic of Letters, “like a satellite hovering above the Earth, visualization can help us to see the big picture amid bewildering complexity and to detect new patterns over time and space.”

Winterer’s work is different than that of Shin-Kap Han who is working with physical data and membership information, while Winterer uses letters that are difficult to digitize and categorize. Winterer demonstrates how they can be used to show globalization trends and to examine data across national borders as well as within them.  From both articles we see that networks serve as a valuable way to examine the past from a new perspective.

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