Data Visualizations and the Role of the Historian

In the past week, I was required to read an article entitled “Spatial History” by Richard White, in which he discussed the plotting of data against the background of a digital map, whether of a country, a city, or any other space specified by the researcher. In this article, white emphasizes the role of these data visualizations as “a means of doing research” (White, 6). He also argues that the visualizations should not be merely illustrations that illustrate concepts the researcher has developed through non-digital means. It is appropriate to emphasize the use of visualizations as an interpretive tool, I think. But it is incorrect to assume that these visualizations should be used solely as a means of interpretation.

Too often, I believe, the role of the historian has been emphasized as somebody whose prime responsibility is to read an interpret texts of the past. I believe this ignores another, equally important function of the historian. As much a part of the historian’s job as research (even though research might be the most time-consuming aspect of our job, though, to be sure, I am theorizing here, as I am merely training to become a professional historian), is the role of a public orator. Historians are not merely researchers; they are also instructors whose skills are intended to help upcoming generations think critically about society and human interaction (it’s hard to imagine a professor who hasn’t taught a class at some point!). I believe that data visualizations have the potential to synthesize data in a way that is more readily and easily interpreted by students, and therefore make historical data potentially more accessible and interesting (to the students whose major isn’t in the social sciences, for example).

For this reason, it was refreshing for me to read the article “Visualizations and Historical Arguments” by John Theibault and the book “Envisioning Information” by Edward Tufte. Theibault’s article discusses the power of visualizations in communicating “an argument or narrative beyond the meaning of the words.” He discusses the importance of balancing information density and its proper display. This was also a theme discussed heavily in “Envisioning Information.” Tufte, for his part, discusses the importance of making visual data legible by employing concepts such as “chart junk,” defined as the presence of unnecessary visual displays, and the “1+1 = 3 rule” which emphasizes the problem of constructing visualizations in a way that does not distract the viewer ¬†and thus obscures the meaning of the display.

I think that in discussing the potential of the digital humanities, it’s important that we consider it in terms of the historian’s role as an instructor and arbiter of knowledge as well as just a researcher. Conceptualizing humanities computing in this way might be a step forward, I think, in allowing us to reduce some of the ambiguity about its potential benefits over traditional methods.

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