Visual Literacy and Public History

One of issues evident in this week’s readings was the concept of visual rhetoric as a function of the knowledge a viewer already has. In “Visualizations and Historic Arguments”, Theibault summarized this concern succinctly: “…authors have to consider how much background information the readers bring to the visualization…complex visualizations has increased the gaps between expert and novice interpreters, which raises challenges for historians who seek the most effective visual approach”. This struck me as a particularly important consideration from the stand point of public history, which frequently has the opportunity to engage an audience with very diverse backgrounds and levels of education.

Familiarity with the theory and methods of scholarly inquiry and interpretation, and the assumptions that are made in the construction of a visualization, is much less relevant to the tourist playing with the light up map of the Freedom Trail in the Old State House or following a time line of Midde Eastern history in the Museum of Science’s Dead Sea Scroll exhibit. To this public, Johanna Drucker’s visualizations of temporality exceed casual understanding, even as they reflect important considerations regarding the interpretation and use of qualitative concepts in visualizations as a scholarly activity. Martyn Jessop notes this disparity: “years of school life, and many of adulthood, are spent mastering written language but the western education system places little effort, or value on, teaching visual literacy” (288). Jessop is also understanding visualizations as a scholarly activity, but his treatment is more inclusive due his broadly stated purpose (“discovery of new knowledge” (282)) and use (if it generates insights (287)), and this has more purchase in public history. At this point, in visual literacy, Drucker’s visualizations require substantial explanation, relating to another concept introduced by Tufte when he discusses “Layers and Separation”, “confusion and clutter are failures of design, not attributes of information” (53).

Also for use in public history, a viewer’s background factors into creating effective visualizations by appealing to a customized experience. In describing the use of courtroom graphics, Tufte acknowledges their appeal to a jury: “visual displays of information encourage a diversity of individual viewer styles and rates of editing, personalizing, reasoning, and understanding …simultaneously a wideband and a perceiver-controllable channel”(31). I like the courtroom scenario for the treatment of an audience, because there is no doubt regarding what the lawyer is trying to do. There is clearly a visual rhetoric intent on persuading the jury to a particular point of view and in order to appeal to the jury, the lowest common denominator of visual understanding has to be constructed. The “perceiver-controllable channel” is a method of achieving this commonality between diverse individuals, which is a guiding principle that could definitely be used to develop visualizations for public history.

Video Visualizations

Hey all. I just wanted to post a quick link to a really cool data visualization group’s site. They are called 422 South and do a lot of cinematic data visualizations (similar to my post a few weeks ago about data visualizations). A repository of their data visualization work is available here:

Here is a montage of some of their data visualizations as well:

I think this cinematic quality of data visualizations is something that seems to be underrepresented in the readings for this week. Much of Tufte’s work deals with creating and displaying static visualizations (for example, within the text of a monograph).   Jessop mentions that data visualizations require a a “visual literacy” that is related to how we look at:

  • “Galleries of images.
  • Museums and collections of objects,
  • Film, Television, and other moving images
  • Dramatic re-creations
  • Maps and atlases
  • Pictures of data…
  • …Single Images” (Jessop 286)

But Jessop’s focus is certainly focused on how we look at data visualizations as still images. His article purposefully glosses over the part on “film, television, and other moving images.” Theibault briefly mentions “cinematic mapping,” and Drucker does not talk about video, animation, or cinematic display at all in his piece.

Since I have become introduced to digital humanities and data visualizations (so the past year or so), I’ve noticed an increasing number of video visualizations, particularly on humanities projects. Videos are easier to create these days and videos allow us in the humanities to demonstrate change over time in a way that two-dimensional visualizations do not. Sure static visualizations have been effective at finding ways to incorporate a temporal component, but video and animation gives us the opportunity to manipulate an image over a set period of time (scaled and correlated to an actual interval of time). Check out this recent post on the Infectious Texts Project here at Northeastern: (

Most of the visualizations included in this article are video visualizations. Here is an example:

Even our professor, Ben Schmidt, utilizes video visualizations in his work on the whaling logs (

Or take a look at many of the videos at the Spatial History Project at Stanford such as Railroaded.

I mention all these video visualizations just to point out that I think this seems to be an under-theorized part of looking at, analyzing, and creating visualizations. It seems to me that although video visualizations are not a new phenomena, it has certainly become easier to make video visualizations and to make them available (youtube and other video hosting sites). I definitely do not have time to do this in a blog post, but I do think it is important that we theorize and provide critique for these video visualizations as something similar but distinct from static visualizations and graphs. Hopefully we can discuss this more tonight!

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.

Facing Challenges in Digital Visualization

These four readings, while they demonstrate the usefulness and importance of visualizations in historians work, particularly using new digital methods, also layout a series of challenges and difficulties facing the field in regards to their use. Most of these challenges lie in the deep-seated methodologies that have characterized the field and the need to become proactive rather than reactive to changing and improving technologies. If we were to zoom out on the challenges of digital visualizations in the humanities we would find that they are closely tied to the challenges facing the humanities as a whole, as we had discussed previously in the semester. Within the area of digital visualizations we find that not only do we have to educate on how to use digitalization in a way that will be effective and clear to the audience, but also we must educate the audience on how to understand digital works.

The use of graphics to represent information in the humanities is not new, in fact both Jessop and Tufte discuss ways in which graphics have and can be used throughout the study of the humanities. However, because of new technologies these can become much more effective by “escaping the flatland” of traditional methodologies. Tufte also discusses how various approaches to visualization can affect the way that the audience perceives the information provided. This is an idea that is discussed in Theibault’s article as well, regarding the need for greater transparency to aid understanding throughout the study of history, and how digital visualizations can be a solution to this problem. He sees that this is an area where the “hermeneutics of data” would come into play. Rather than hiding ones research methods, Theibault shows how digital visualizations can help solve the problem of, “balancing honesty in visual rhetoric and clarity and persuasiveness.” This is seen in the inclusion of helpful “how to read” sections that oftentimes accompany graphics to make these visualizations more accessible and understandable to a broader audience. Once again we find that historians must adapt to the new technologies and make themselves more literate in the digital visualizations.

Jessop also touches upon this need to make visualizations more accessible through the improvement of visual literacy education within the humanities. Visual literacy education would involve several levels, such as teaching students to understand digital visualizations better as well as teaching those in the humanities how to create more understandable digital visualizations through a multi-disciplinary approach, involving professional artists. We see in the potential solutions, once again, a connection to the needs of the humanities on a broader scale, such as the need for better collaboration between disciplines, as well as improving digital education to gain a wider acceptance in the field. In Drucker’s article, she discusses the ways in which these digital visualization tools can be used most effectively, showing that new methods of looking at data can help to make these visualizations more easily understood and accepted

Overall, these articles (and the book) help to demonstrate that, as with previous arguments we have seen, there is a great need within the practice of history, and the humanities as a whole, to improve methods of education regarding how to effectively use digital methods. In a side

Producing Space

Spatial history, especially regarding projects done on the scale of Stanford’s ORBIS project, appears to benefit from developing technologies and digital tools in a more fundamental manner than traditional and text based research and analysis. “Zooming out” from texts for big picture ideas is clearly facilitated by many of the tools we discussed earlier in the class, but it is still an extension of the concept of texts as an authority and researchers can still theoretically read for the information they are looking for. In order to get at some of the key information of spatial history, there is a certain extent to which the data cannot be accessed until it is visualized. These static representations, in order to reflect change over time, also have to contend with different variables and dimension, which often can be portrayed through interactivity. Walter Scheidel in “The Shape of the Roman World”, describes some the capabilities of the ORBIS project through previous attempts to understand space and history without the technology means now available. In his assessment of Fernand Braudel’s maps and “the human struggle against distance”, Scheidel notes: “ [Braudel’s] pioneering efforts were narrowly circumscribed by the resources available at the time” (2). Scheidel references the importance of the actual computing power require to deal with the various types of data that would have to come together to form an understanding of human movement through space.

This idea of movement and space is also heavily emphasized in Richard White’s article “What is Spacial History?” Space, including its constructions and its representations, has fairly consistently been understood to affect human behavior, especially in the wake of Henri Lefebvre’s historical theories. This brought to mind an example from another class, where the associations of behavior and space were explicitly rendered in architectural history. Robert Weyeneth, in “The Architecture of Racial Segregation”, summarizes the “spatial strategies of white supremacy”(12) and specifically the current legacy behind the idea that “the architecture of racial segregation represented an effort to design places that shaped the behavior of individuals (13)”. Referring to physical constructions such as separate drinking fountains, restrooms, ticket booths, theater seats, and a host of other segregated spaces, Weyeneth also describes some of the human behaviors elicited by these spaces. One notable reaction was his note that “one measure of the success of the civil rights struggle was the dismantling of segregated space” (38). While this instance of architectural history does not match the scale or technical demands of many spatial history projects, it models the effect of movement, which in this case is clearly institutionally manipulated. White makes the point that “we produce and reproduce space through our movements and the movements of goods that we ship and information that we exchange” (3). How exactly that space is produced and reproduced is the insight that visualizing trends in movements can help form, but are not always as obvious as signs on a fountain. The scale of projects like ORBIS, in bringing together an enormous amount of data in a very general way, shows the cumulative effects of elements like winds and ocean currents which are otherwise invisible, unlike the physical features of a building.  

History on the Head of a Pin

Richard White, in his article “What is Spatial History?” discusses the common lack of spatial analysis in historian’s explanations of change over time. While there is not always a lack of attention to space, the preferential analysis of chronology elicits criticism from geographers claiming that historians write history as if it occurred “on the head of a pin”. Of course he proceeds to show examples where that is not the case. I was struck by this criticism that I had not previously considered. Clearly, space is a very important consideration that must be made in historical research. I am considering some interesting spatial research questions concerning South Africa in the 1920s. First, natives who represented 90+% of the population where restricted to 13% of the land. I question the state of the land allocated to natives. Many historians have claimed that it was substandard land that was inaccessible to primary population and economic centers. Second, I am curious about population density maps and how they altered as South Africa transformed into an Apartheid state. Finally, I am curious about transportation between these spaces, similar to the research done by Stanford University’s project on the Roman Empire.

As we begin to think about the implications of space on change over time, a couple points that white points out beg some discussion. Absolute space, the measurement of distance in terms of miles or meters, I would argue is less important to historians than relational space, which interprets space in terms of cost, time or other changing factors. I think of extreme examples. South African natives during Apartheid may live merely a few miles from family or work and yet because of regulations and danger, these locations are inaccessible. While these factors are challenging to represent visually in absolute space, the ORBIS Project, The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World represents some of the possibilities of representing these factors. Cost analysis, both time and money, play a major factor in the connections made in this interactive map. Ironically to me, what does not play a major role in this spatial network is implications of time, specifically the change over time of these routes. In the nearly 500 years of the Roman Empire, transportation must have undergone some technological changes which alter route, cost and time, all of which are not represented as far as I could tell. It is as if the historians working on this project traded history on the head of a pin for history frozen in time.

Spatial History Creating New Avenues of Study

Space is an incredibly broad concept, and one Richard White states historians typically write as if it matters little. This comes as little surprise because of the many layers and factors that go into determining space. In doing this week’s readings and looking around the ORBIS website, we see that in looking at relational space through arcGIS, historians can open up entirely new avenues of thought and research that they had not been able to before. It also becomes abundantly clear that movement, especially in the ORBIS project, is a key ingredient in determining and visualizing spatial history, as per the argument in “What is Spatial History?”

We have spoke many times about textual history and other traditional modes as being confined to chronological accounts of the human experience. For me, this week’s readings shows the biggest break from the traditional. By layering together the different types of movement and factors that go into it, we are able to understand relational space in a way that historians had never been able to before. We often think of space in terms of distance in miles/kilometers/etc. but in looking at it in a different way, in relation to movement as with the ORBIS project, we see for instance the importance of time in determining how far away something appears to be. We also see that in determining distance and time we have to factor in mode of transportation, weather, and price. By taking all of these into account we can fully understand the meaning of space, in this case in ancient Rome.

While there is clearly a lot of research that goes into the production of these maps, White is also correct in his assessment that this is an open-ended project that actually produces more questions for historians rather than answers. By creating projects that take spatial history into account, we open up entire avenues as seen in the “Applying ORBIS” section of the website. For example, in reading ORBIS and the Ancient Itineraries: Preliminary Observations by Dan-el Padilla Peralta we see how, “For future researchers, ORBIS will be useful not only as a means for gaining purchase on the realities of mobility in the Roman Mediterranean, but as a tool for evaluating gradations in the nature and quality of the information furnished by the IA and other itineraries for road travel in the Empire’s various regions.” This is just one of the incredibly broad areas that has been and can be explored thanks to the work done on ORBIS. The opportunities provided to historians in mapping history are certainly much greater than what I had expected initially, and one can see why and how space had previously been overlooked in the more traditional and textual modes of studying history.

Experimenting with OCR

In my digital history class we recently discussed the OCR program, software that transcribes scanned images of texts. I was curious as to how to use this program, so I decided to give it a trial run.

I bought a copy of the Boston Globe one Friday, with the intention of scanning it and running it through OCR. I selected three articles to scan: two were local and one was national. I decided to focus on one article in particular for a sample transcription. It was about a strike between the union and top officials of Boston’s public transportation system. It might certainly be of interest one day to economic historians.

To scan the newspaper, I had to go to my school library. The interface was pretty simple. It allowed me to select the kind of file I wanted to save the scans as (I chose PDF format), and whether or not to scan them in color, greyscale, or black and white (I chose black and white at the advice of my professor). Conveniently, the library computer gave me the option of scanning the newspaper directly to an email attachment, so I was able to access the scans on my computer almost immediately.

One of the scanned pages

One of the scanned pages

The complete set of scans, in their designated folder

The complete set of scans, in their designated folder

After installing Tesseract, the OCR software, I had to move the scans into an isolated folder (labeled “pdfs”) and download a file that would make it possible to type in an appropriate command line and allow Tesseract to recognize the scans as an object to transcribe. I then typed in the command “cd” and dragged the folder from the Finder application (I use a Mac) into the command line, which made the complete command:

With this command entered, I could then command Tesseract to transcribe the scans. To do so, I typed in the command “sh” followed by the name of the “director” file and the name of the input file (the sh command is used to specify the input file):

All that was left to do was to hit “enter,” and Tesseract converted the pdf and transcribed it, with the following result:

The "images" and "texts" folders were created by Tesseract; the "Tesseract-1" file is the "director" file

The “images” and “texts” folders were created by Tesseract; the “Tesseract-1″ file is the “director” file

The sample article, transcribed

The sample article, transcribed

As the above picture shows, Tesseract did a fairly decent job transcribing the article accurately. It even reflected the newspaper’s text margin and was able to recognize separate articles, even though their print may have been horizontally aligned on the same page. The program did have difficulty in some areas though. Not surprisingly, the minor text at the top of the page, such as the letter identifying the section of the newspaper and the stock market indexes, were sloppily transcribed:

There were also some peculiar spelling errors:

"MBTA officials"

“MBTA officials”



A potentially more serious problem was that at one point, Tesseract “misread” an article and aligned the text of another article in the middle of my sample:

The Original

The Original

The (Incorrect) Transcription

The (Incorrect) Transcription

Nevertheless, I completed the transcription myself. Pretending that this would one day actually be used by historians, I rearranged the transcription into a more compact format, added the missing bits, and corrected spelling errors.

The Final Copy

The Final Copy

My results using OCR were mixed, but overall, it does expedite the process of transcription, and its errors can fairly easily be accounted for by a simple review. Frederick Gibbs and Trevor Owens have argued in their essay The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing that descriptions of the methods of the digital humanities needs to be included in the historical literature, so that potential inaccuracies may be spotted. As far as this very limited example, OCR, is concerned, I am not convinced of the need for historians to explicate the fact that they used digitally transcribed sources and the process this method of transcription entails, so long as the transcriptions are diligently checked for accuracy. What might be needed more so in this case is simply for the “bugs” of the software to be corrected; since software is not something static (there are many versions and updates), it seems like OCR has the potential to develop into a very powerful tool.


Communicating Data: Visualizations

One of the strongest features recommending data visualization is the opportunity for effectively streamlining communication based on the immediacy and intuitive nature of our sense of sight. In the tradition of “a picture is worth a thousand words” is the acknowledgment that the information we absorb visually can be far more efficiently presented than purely with text or numbers. This is evident in mapping networks of actors, where the influence of each defined in physical space draws out an automatic reaction. Shin-Kap Han’s analysis of Paul Revere’s ride and mobilization not only revealed the unique placement of Revere and Warren in the network of revolutionary actors, as well as a visual scope of their influence, but also served to communicate the basis for a “critical corrective” regarding the incentives of brokerage.

In a fortuitously timely conversation I had with a close friend and graphic designer, I was directed to the one of the earliest influential incarnations of deliberately designed graphic representations of information. Charles Joseph Minard released this depiction of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia (1812) in 1861:

This notorious military failure is given a shape that is more directly communicative than numbers, and simultaneously tracks multiple variables (direction, temperature, location) in a single presentation. The representation, done without the aid of technology available today, still compresses a significant amount of information mapping the relative influence of multiple factors on Napoleon’s army. The visual representation of the army’s decimation has a more immediate effect and comprehensive scope than a straight recounting of losses and environmental conditions.

Clearly there are ways in which these representations are then subject to manipulations and generate different conclusions due to the variability of interpretation. Caroline Winterer mentions geographic illusions that come up in mapping the correspondence of both Franklin and Voltaire: “depending on how we interpret the maps, we can call Franklin either more peripheral than Voltaire to the republic of letters (since much of his activity emerged from the colonial periphery), or more worldly than Voltaire (since his network reached across the Atlantic)” (Winterer, 611).The near instantaneously communication of the map plots do not contribute to forming an interpretation in either direction. It is still up to the scholar to understand the nature and content of these letters, or to adopt a perspective from which to derive insight from the newly visualized data.