American Panorama: Part II

This is the second half of a review of American Panorama (you can read Part I here). Together, the two posts are a follow-up to my earlier call for digital historians to more actively engage with the historical contributions of each other’s projects.

Part II. The Overland Trails, 1840-1860

Between 1840 and 1860 several hundred thousand people traveled westward across the United States, most of them ending up in California, Oregon, and Utah. Their migration has become a foundational element of American history, conjuring up visions of covered wagons and hardy pioneers. Or, if you grew up playing the educational computer game The Oregon Trail: floppy disks, pixelated oxen, and exciting new words like “dysentery.” The topic has been exhaustively studied by genealogists, historians, and millions of schoolchildren over the years. American Panorama attempts to break new ground on what is, like the trail itself, well-trodden soil.

The Overland Trails follows a similar visual layout as The Forced Migration of Enslaved People, with multiple panes showing a map, a timeline, aggregated data, and the expandable text from twenty-two trail diaries. Far more so than The Forced Migration of Enslaved People, however, it puts these written narratives into the spotlight. The visualization includes the full text of each diary rather than brief excerpts. Clicking on a specific diarist allows you to read all of their entries, with a linked footnote to the original source. As you scroll through the entries, clusters of dots track the progress of the emigrant’s journey on the map as they pass between landmarks like Courthouse Rock or Fort Laramie.


Two other panes provide context for that particular year: a short summary of trail activity and a small map breaking down the estimated annual migration to California, Oregon, and Utah. The timeline uses small multiples for each year that plot the seasonal progression of emigrant journeys on its x-axis and, somewhat confusingly, the (horizontal) longitude coordinates of these journeys on its vertical axis. Timeline aside, the overall reading experience is both intuitive and seamless. More importantly, the visualization strikes a balance between detail and context, weaving the full text of individual sources within a larger spatial and historical tapestry. In many ways, this is digital design at its best. But why does this elegant design matter? What is the historical payoff? The Overland Trails makes two contributions to the topic of westward migration – one archival and the other interpretive.

First, The Overland Trails gives us not just a new, but a better platform for reading and understanding the topic’s source base. The trail diary was a genre unto itself during the mid-nineteenth century. They were often written to serve as a kind of guide to help family or friends follow them westward, recording daily mileage, landmarks, trail quality, and the availability of water and grass. These details made the diaries immensely helpful for future emigrants, but immensely boring for future historians. Take an entry written by James Bennett on July 12th, 1850:

Friday 12th-After ten miles travel this day over a heavy, sandy and barren road, we reached Sweet Water river, where we took dinner. Here we found the grass very short and as our cattle were nearly exhausted by hard work and scant feed, we drove off the road five miles to the right, where we found excellent grass and a good spring.

Now imagine reading thousands of entries exactly like this one. You start to get hungry for anything that breaks the monotony of the trail: white-knuckled river crossings, exchanges with passing Indians, or fiery arguments about whether or not to travel on the Sabbath. Moreover, as a reader we often don’t care all that much about where these juicy episodes took place – does it really matter if they occurred in western Nebraska, northern Utah, or eastern Oregon? The nebulous space of “The Trail Experience” serves as a stand-in for specific geography of where things happened. But the loss of geographic context risks distorting the lived reality of nineteenth-century emigrants. For them, trail life was overwhelmingly defined by geography: boring, repetitive, grinding travel along an established trail itinerary, with mileage tallies or landmark notations acting as a means of marking their progress through that geography. American Panorama captures the experience of overland travel far more effectively than simply reading trail diaries on their own. As simple as it sounds, linking individual entries to their location on a map illustrates the small-scale, incremental geography that made up this massive, large-scale migration.

The second historical contribution of The Overland Trails involves a broader spatial reinterpretation of westward expansion. The phrase itself – “western expansion” conjures up the image of a wave of Anglo-American settlers washing over the continent. This was the geography embedded in Manifest Destiny iconography and Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous frontier thesis.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

American Panorama presents a much different geography. Western migration was not a wave; it was a narrow river. Hundreds of thousands of people may have traveled across the western interior between the 1840 and 1860, but they did so along a severely restricted corridor of travel. This might seem obvious; the Overland Trail was, after all, a trail. But the trail’s meaning has come to embody a certain idea of mobility, not just in terms of traveling westward to Oregon or California, but of experiencing and claiming the vast swath of land that lay in between. When mapped, however, the journeys of twenty-two emigrants resemble tightly braided cords that only gradually fray as they approach the Pacific Coast. Overland travelers operated in a tightly constrained space.


To take one example: although emigrants technically traversed from one side of Nebraska Territory to the other, most travelers didn’t see very much of it. The grinding necessity of daily travel kept them pinned along the Platte River. American Panorama illustrates just how narrow this pathway was and how infrequently emigrants deviated from it.


In the mid-nineteenth century, the interior of the western United States was seen as a region to pass through as quickly as possible, an area that had long been labeled “The Great American Desert,” or in historian Elliott West’s words, “a threatening void.” (The Contested Plains, 122) Much of the western interior was made up of territory that was ostensibly claimed by the United States but that remained largely ungoverned and unsettled by Anglo-Americans. American Panorama effectively recreates this geography through visual design: bright, sharp lines track the emigrants’ journeys along the trail, interspersed with landmarks and forts shown in equally bright colors. This tightly demarcated trail geography pops out from the map as it snakes across a minimalist base layer entirely devoid of the familiar political boundaries of states or territories. Instead, the underlying map consists of terrain, sparse water features, and the locations of Indian groups such as the Cheyenne in the central plains or the Goshute near Great Salt Lake. The Overland Trails manages to capture the experience of traversing a semi-arid, mountainous region still occupied by native people, one that was seen as largely off-limits for Anglo-American settlement.

The project’s cartographic achievement comes with a cost, however. The presence of native groups played a crucial role in shaping mid-century views of the interior. As historian Susan Schulten notes, “erasing Native Americans from both mental and actual maps” (29) was a central process in the eventual shift from seeing the western interior as an inviting area to settle rather than a forbidding area to traverse. To their credit, the designers of The Overland Trails put native people back on the map. The problem comes from the way in which they do so. The mapmakers label Indian groups using a muted gray color that is nearly identical to the map’s base terrain. Moreover, changing the zoom level causes some labels to shift locations or disappear entirely in order to avoid overlapping with the trail and its landmarks. The overall effect is to weave native groups into the natural landscape, making them visually analogous to the map’s rivers or mountains. This cartographic design ends up conflating native people and the environment – a deeply problematic notion that remains stubbornly lodged in the popular imagination. The visualization builds a marvelous stage for overland emigrants, but its set design turns Indians into a backdrop.


I don’t mean to quibble over (literal) shades of gray. After all, the map’s creators made a concerted effort to include Indian groups – the same can’t be said of other many other historical projects, digital or otherwise. But the project’s cartography highlights a common tension between digital design and historiography. From a design standpoint, the creators of The Overland Trails make all the right decisions. Brightly colored overland routes are foregrounded against a muted base map, including unobtrusive gray labels of Indian groups that give readers contextual information while keeping their attention firmly focused on the emigrant journeys themselves. When those same labels disappear or change locations depending on the zoom level, it helps avoid visual clutter. The problem is that effective digital design can run headlong into fraught historiographical issues, including the contentious idea of the “ecological Indian” and a longstanding cartographic tradition of using maps to marginalize and erase native claims to territory in the West.

Visual design is not the only sticking point for The Overland Trails and its place within western historiography. The visualization is, at its core, a digital archive of primary sources. As I’ve already noted, its interface contributes a new and fascinating way of reading and understanding these sources. What troubles me is the privileging of this particular archive. To be blunt: do we really need a new way of reading and understanding the experience of mostly white, mostly male pioneers whose stories already occupy such a central place in American mythology?

The historical commemoration of overland emigrants began almost as soon as their wagons reached the Pacific Coast. Western pioneer associations held annual conventions and published nostalgic reminiscences that romanticized their journeys. Historians, meanwhile, largely followed the blueprint of Frederick Jackson Turner, who immortalized the march of pioneer-farmers carrying the mantle of civilization westward. Nearly a century passed before historians began to reassess this framework, from uncovering the ways that gender shaped life on the trail to, more recently, interpreting overland migration as a “sonic conquest.” (to use Sarah Keyes’s formulation).

More often than not, however, historical treatments of the Overland Trail still tend to resemble book titles like Wagons West: The Epic Story of America’s Overland Trails, or quotes like, “An army of nearly half a million ragged, sunburned civilians marched up the Platte in the vanguard of empire…they emerge from their collective obscurity to illuminate a heroic age in American history.” (Merrill Mattes, Platte River Road Narratives, xiv) The Overland Trails doesn’t explicitly advance this viewpoint, but nor does it move away from it in any substantive way. The informational text accompanying the visualization’s timeline can, at times, read like a “greatest hits” of western lore: the Donner Party, the Gold Rush, Indian fighting, and the Pony Express (its freshest material centers on Mormon migration). The visualization’s space constraints leave precious little room for important historical nuance, leading to generalizations such as “White settlement in the West was disastrous for Indians everywhere.”

To reiterate a point I made in the first part of my review of American Panorama: prioritizing user exploration over authorial interpretation comes with risks. I don’t want to minimize the significance of The Overland Trails, because it contributes a truly valuable new interface for conceptualizing nineteenth-century historical geography and the experience of overland travel. But the project uses a novel framework to deliver largely tired content. My guess is that its selection of content was based on the fact that these particular diaries were already digitized. This kind of pragmatism is a necessary part of digital history. But explaining the interpretive implications of these decisions, not just the nitty-gritty methodological details, often requires a more robust and explicit authorial voice than many digital history projects seem willing to provide.

My hope is that The Overland Trails will serve as a prototype for visualizing other movement-driven sources. To that end, American Panorama has given outside researchers the ability to build on this framework by making the project’s source code available on Github.  The Github repository highlights the open-ended nature of the project, as its creators continue to improve its visualizations. In a similar vein, American Panorama‘s team has several new visualizations to come that examine redlining, urban renewal, and presidential voting.  I have high expectations, and I hope that other historians will join me in giving them the substantive engagement they deserve.


The Perpetual Sunrise of Methodology

[The following is the text of a talk I prepared for a panel discussion about authoring digital scholarship for history with Adeline Koh, Lauren Tilton, Yoni Appelbaum, and Ed Ayers at the 2015 American Historical Association Conference.]

I’d like to start with a blog post that was written almost seven years ago now, titled “Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology?” In it, Tom Scheinfeldt argued that the rise of digital history represented a disciplinary shift away from big ideas about ideology or theory and towards a focus on “forging new tools, methods, materials, techniques, and modes or work.” Tom’s post was a big reason why I applied to graduate school. I found this methodological turn thrilling – the idea that tools like GIS, text mining, and network analysis could revolutionize how we study history. Seven years later the digital turn has, in fact, revolutionized how we study history. Public history has unequivocally led the charge, using innovative approaches to archiving, exhibiting, and presenting the past in order to engage a wider public. Other historians have built powerful digital tools, explored alternative publication models, and generated online resources to use in the classroom.
But there is one area in which digital history has lagged behind: academic scholarship. To be clear: I’m intentionally using “academic scholarship” in its traditional, hidebound sense of marshaling evidence to make original, explicit arguments. This is an artificial distinction in obvious ways. One of digital history’s major contributions has, in fact, been to expand the disciplinary definition of scholarship to include things like databases, tools, and archival projects. The scholarship tent has gotten bigger, and that’s a good thing. Nevertheless there is still an important place inside that tent for using digital methods specifically to advance scholarly claims and arguments about the past.
In terms of argument-driven scholarship, digital history has over-promised and under-delivered. It’s not that historians aren’t using digital tools to make new arguments about the past. It’s that there is a fundamental imbalance between the proliferation of digital history workshops, courses, grants, institutes, centers, and labs over the past decade, and the impact this has had in terms of generating scholarly claims and interpretations. The digital wave has crashed headlong into many corners of the discipline. Argument-driven scholarship has largely not been one of them.
There are many reasons for this imbalance, including the desire to reach a wider audience beyond the academy, the investment in collection and curation needed for electronic sources, or the open-ended nature of big digital projects. All of these are laudable. But there is another, more problematic, reason for the comparative inattention to scholarly arguments: digital historians have a love affair with methodology. We are infatuated with the power of digital tools and techniques to do things that humans cannot, such as dynamically mapping thousands of geo-historical data points. The argumentative payoffs of these methodologies are always just over the horizon, floating in the tantalizing ether of potential and possibility. At times we exhibit more interest in developing new methods than in applying them, and in touting the promise of digital history scholarship rather than its results. 
What I’m going to do in the remaining time is to use two examples from my own work to try and concretize this imbalance between methods and results. The first example is a blog post I wrote in 2010. At the time I was analyzing the diary of an eighteenth-century Maine midwife named Martha Ballard, made famous by Laurel Ulrich’s prize-winning A Midwife’s Tale. The blog post described how I used a process called topic modeling to analyze about 10,000 diary entries written by Martha Ballard between 1785 and 1812. To grossly oversimplify, topic modeling is a technique that automatically generates groups of words more likely to appear with each other in the same documents (in this case, diary entries). So, for instance, the technique grouped the following words together:
gardin sett worked clear beens corn warm planted matters cucumbers gatherd potatoes plants ou sowd door squash wed seeds
As a human reader it’s pretty clear that these are words about gardeningOnce I generated this topic, I could track it across all 10,000 entries. When I mashed twenty-seven years together, it produced this beautiful thumbprint of a New England growing season.
Seasonal Presence of GARDENING topic in Martha Ballard’s Diary
Interest in topic modeling took off right around the time that I wrote this post, and pretty soon it started getting referenced again and again in digital humanities circles. Four and a half years later, it has been viewed more than ten thousand times and been assigned on the syllabi of at least twenty different courses. It’s gotten cited in books, journal articlesconference presentations, grant applications, government reports, white papers, and, of course, other blogs. It is, without a doubt, the single most widely read piece of historical writing I have ever produced. But guess what? Outside of the method, there isn’t anything new or revelatory in it. The post doesn’t make an original argument and it doesn’t further our understanding of women’s history, colonial New England, or the history of medicine. It largely shows us things we already know about the past – like the fact that people in Maine didn’t plant beans in January.
People seized on this blog post not because of its historical contributions, but because of its methodological contributions. It was like a magic trick, showing how topic modeling could ingest ten thousand diary entries and, in a matter of seconds, tell you what the major themes were in those entries and track them over time, all without knowing the meaning of a single word. The post made people excited for what topic modeling could do, not necessarily what it did do; the methodology’s potential, not its results.
About four years after I published my blog post on Martha Ballard, I published a very different piece of writing. This was an article that appeared in last June’s issue of the Journal of American History, the first digital history research article published by the journal. In many ways it was a traditional research article, one that followed the journal’s standard peer review process and advanced an original argument about American history. But the key distinction was that I made my argument using computational techniques. 
The starting premise for my argument was that the late nineteenth-century United States has typically been portrayed as a period of integration and incorporation. Think of the growth of railroad and telegraph networks, or the rise of massive corporations like Standard Oil. In nineteenth-century parlance: “the annihilation of time and space.” This existing interpretation of the period hinges on geography – the idea that the scale of locality and region were getting subsumed under the scale of nation and system. I was interested in how these integrative forces actually played out in the way people may have envisioned the geography of the nation. 
So I looked at a newspaper printed in Houston, Texas, during the 1890s and wrote a computer script that counted the number of times the paper mentioned different cities or states. In effect, how one newspaper crafted an imagined geography of the nation. What I found was that instead of creating a standardized, nationalized view of the world we might expect, the newspaper produced space in ways that centered on the scale of region far more than nation. It remained overwhelmingly focused on the immediate sphere of Texas, and even more surprisingly, on the American Midwest. Places like Kansas City, Chicago, and St. Louis were far more prevalent than I was expecting, and from this newspaper’s perspective Houston was more of a midwestern city than a southern one. 
Cameron Blevins, “Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston,” Journal of American History, 101, no. 1 (June 2014), 127.
I would have never seen these patterns without a computer. And in trying to account for this pattern I realized that, while historians might enjoy reading stuff like this…
…newspapers often look a lot more like this:
All of this really boring stuff – commodity prices, freight rates, railroad timetables, classified ads – made up a shockingly large percentage of content. Once you include the boring stuff, you get a much different view of the world from Houston in the 1890s. I ended up arguing that it was precisely this fragmentary, mundane, and overlooked content that explained the dominance of regional geography over national geography. I never would have been able to make this argument without a computer.
The article offers a new interpretation about the production of space and the relationship between region and nation. It issues a challenge to a long-standing historical narrative about integration and incorporation in the nineteenth-century United States. By publishing it in the Journal of American History, with all of the limitations of a traditional print journal, I was trying to reach a different audience from the one who read my blog post on topic modeling and Martha Ballard. I wanted to show a broader swath of historians that digital history was more than simply using technology for the sake of technology. Digital tools didn’t just have the potential to advance our understanding of American history – they actually did advance our understanding of American history.
To that end, I published an online component that charted the article’s digital approach and presented a series of interactive maps. But in emphasizing the methodology of my project I ended up shifting the focus away from its historical contributions. In the feedback and conversations I’ve had about the article since its publication, the vast majority of attention has focused on the method rather than the result: How did you select place-names? Why didn’t you differentiate between articles and advertisements? Can it be replicated for other sources? These are all important questions, but they skip right past the arguments that I’m making about the production of space in the late nineteenth century. In short: the method, not the result. 
I ended my article with a familiar clarion call:
Technology opens potentially transformative avenues for historical discovery, but without a stronger appetite for experimentation those opportunities will go unrealized. The future of the discipline rests in large part on integrating new methods with conventional ones to redefine the limits and possibilities of how we understand the past.
This is the rhetorical style of digital history. While reading through conference program I was struck by just how many abstracts about digital history used the words “potential,” “promise,” “possibilities,” or in the case of our own panel, “opportunities.” In some ways 2015 doesn’t feel that different from 2008, when Tom Scheinfeldt wrote about the sunrise of methodology and the Journal of American History published a roundtable titled “The Promise of Digital History.” I think this is telling. Academic scholarship’s engagement with digital history seems to operate in a perpetual future tense. I’ve spent a lot of my career talking about what digital methodology can do to advance scholarly arguments. It’s time to start talking in the present tense.

Postal Geography and the Golden West

I want to tell you a story. It’s a story about gold, the American West, and the way we narrate history. But first let me explain why I’m telling you this story. I’m in the midst of writing a dissertation about how the U.S. Post shaped development in the West. The project is a work of geography as much as history. It traces where and when the nation’s postal network expanded on its western periphery, and part of these efforts include collaborating on an interactive visualization that maps the opening and closing of more than 14,000 post offices in the West. The visualization reveals the skeleton of a “postal geography” that bound Americans into a vast communications network. It’s a powerful research tool to explore spatial patterns spread across fifty years, thousands of data points, and half of a continent. Visit the site and read more about the visualization. But first, I want to use this tool to tell you a story.

Cameron Blevins and Jason Heppler, Geography of the Post

In the beginning there was gold…

That’s usually how the story of the West starts: with a gold nugget pulled out of a California river in 1848. The discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills set off a global stampede to California and pulled the edges of American empire to the shores of the Pacific. 

Ensigns & Thayer, “Map of the Gold Regions of California” (1849)
David Rumsey Map Collection

The California Gold Rush casts such a dazzling light across western origin stories that it’s often hard to see past it. But there was more than just gold. Even as miners flocked to the Northern California, farmers were plowing fields up and down Oregon’s Willamette Valley. But whereas gold is exciting, farmers are boring. They’re pushed aside in gilded narratives about the West. When Oregon farmers do appear, they serve as an epilogue to a much more exciting story about covered wagons, dusty trails, and Indian attacks. As soon as overland emigrants traded in their covered wagons for seeds and ploughs they’re pushed to a dimly lit corner of western history. 

Henry Bryan Hall, “Emigrants Crossing the Plains” (1869)
Library of Congress

But these women and men nonetheless left their mark on the geography of the West. Even as they raised their barns and planted their fields they participated in a long-standing American tradition of demanding that the U.S. government bring them their mail. Each new Oregon town came with a new post office, and five years after the discovery of gold in California there were nearly as many post offices in Willamette Valley as there were in the mining region of the Sierras. In most historical accounts the blinding glitter of California gold has rendered these Oregon settlements all but invisible. Our story pulls them out of the shadows.

U.S. Post Offices, 1846-1853

Gold survived in stories about the West long after it ran dry in California’s mines. In May of 1869 a ceremonial golden railroad spike shimmered in the sun at Promontory Point, Utah. It was the “last spike” that would symbolically link the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, completing the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. The ceremony concluded six years of breakneck labor that laid down more than a thousand miles of wood, metal, and stone across the West. The golden spike at Promontory Point proved just as momentous as the gold flakes at Sutter’s Mill two decades before, inaugurating a new era of western settlement. And, just like the gold rush, the dramatic glare of the golden spike blinds us to other stories. 

The Last Spike (1869)
Cantor Arts Center

You can be forgiven for thinking that the rest of the West stood still while workers laid down transcontinental railroad tracks in the late 1860s. That is, after all, how stories of the West are often told. But the West wasn’t standing still. A simultaneous story was taking place in southwestern Montana, where the discovery of gold led to a new rush of Anglo settlement into the region. By 1870 this mineral-fueled migration had transformed western postal geography as much as the transcontinental railroad tracks that snaked through northern Nevada, Utah, and southern Wyoming. As miners and speculators streamed into Montana they dragged the nation’s postal network with them. Whether established at a Montana mining camp or a Nevada railroad depot, the post offices that appeared during these years reflected two stories occurring simultaneously, of a prospector shivering in a cold mountain stream and a railroad worker sweating in the desert sun. Yet we tend to separate their labor when we narrate the history of the West; the miner waits offstage for the railroad worker to finish laying down tracks before he wades into the Montana stream. Anchoring them to a larger spatial network recovers the simultaneity of their stories. 

Left: U.S. Post Offices, 1864-1865
Right: U.S. Post Offices, 1869-1870

Blank spaces are foundational for the stories we tell about the West. In the worst of them, white settlers carry the mantle of American civilization into an empty western wilderness. It’s a story that systematically writes out the presence of non-Anglo settlement. Using postal geography to narrate western history runs the risk of parroting this story. After all, post offices on a map resemble nothing so much as pinpricks of light filling in the region’s dark blank spaces. But those blank spaces also have the potential to tell a very different kind of story.

During the late 1860s miners in Montana and railroad workers in Nevada were joined by another migration into the region: soldiers marching into northern Wyoming and southern Montana to battle a coalition of Lakotas, Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho. After suffering repeated losses, the U.S. Army withdrew from Powder River Country and signed a peace treaty in 1868 that ceded control of the area. Unlike the miners and laborers, these soldiers left no trace on the U.S. postal network: the Powder River Country remained utterly devoid of post offices for the next decade. 

U.S. Post Offices, 1865-1877

Silence speaks volumes in the stories we tell. In our story the blank spaces in the postal network act as narrative silence, laden down with meaning. The map’s negative spaces have as much to tell us as its constellations of post offices. It is a story about the control of space. Post offices were a marker of governance, a kind of lowest common institutional denominator. The absence of a post office signaled the lack of a state presence. In this context, the yawning blank area in northern Wyoming and southern Montana reflected the tenuous position of the U.S. Government in the West. Through the late 1870s vast swathes of the West remained outside the boundaries of American territorial control and solidly within the sphere of native groups. The government’s inability to extend the U.S. Post into this region defined the geographic limits of westward expansion. Anglo-American settlement wasn’t inexorable and it didn’t unfurl in a single unimpeded wave. It occurred in fits and starts, in uneven forays and halting retreats. It’s a narrative whose boundaries were drawn by the supposedly blank spaces of the West and the people who lived in them. 

Our story ends where where it began: with gold. In 1874 an expedition led by George Armstrong Custer marched into the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota. Their announcement that they discovered gold touched off a frenzied rush into an area that was officially outside the control of the the United States government. Clashes between prospectors and Indians escalated over the following year, eventually erupting into all-out warfare between the U.S. Army and the Lakotas and Cheyennes in early 1876. Despite the 7th Cavalry’s dramatic defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn, the U.S. Army ultimately prevailed. The end of the campaign in 1877 and the dissolution of the Fort Laramie Treaty unleashed a flood of white emigrants into the gold fields of the Black Hills. A dense pocket of post offices appeared almost overnight to bring the mail to these gold-hungry settlers. 

Left: U.S. Post Offices, 1875-1877
Right: U.S. Post Offices, 1878-1880

The image of post offices twinkling into existence in the Black Hills says nothing about the violence that birthed them. Their appearance depended on a military campaign and the ultimate removal of people whose very presence had visibly defined the limits of American territory. But these post offices nevertheless help us to tell a different kind of story about the West. It’s a story that expands our vision to look beyond the glare of the California gold rush and towards the plowed fields of Oregon. It’s a story marked by simultaneity, a story about railroad workers swinging sledgehammers in northern Nevada even as prospectors panned for gold in southwestern Montana. And it’s a story about blank spaces and the people and meanings that filled them, a story about the control of space and the boundaries of western expansion.

Making Numbers Legible

What do you do with numbers? I mean this in the context of writing, not research. How do you incorporate quantitative evidence into your writing in a way that makes it legible for your readers? I’ve been thinking more and more about this as I write my dissertation, which examines the role of the nineteenth-century Post in the American West. Much like today, the Post was massive. Its sheer size was part of what made it so important. And I find myself using the size of the Post to help answer the curmudgeonly “so what?” question that stalks the mental corridors of graduate students. On a very basic level, the Post mattered because so many Americans sent so many letters through such a large network operated by so many people. Answering the “so what?” question means that I have to incorporate numbers into my writing. But numbers are tricky.

Let’s begin with the amount of mail that moved through the U.S. Post. In 1880 Americans sent 1,053,252,876 letters. That number is barely legible for most readers. I mean this in two ways. In a mechanical sense we HATE having to actually read so many digits. A more conceptual problem is that this big of a number doesn’t mean all that much. If I change 1,053,252,876 to 1,253,252,876, would it lead you, the reader, to a fundamentally different conclusion about the size of the U.S. Post? I doubt it, even though the difference of 200 million letters is a pretty substantial one. And if instead of adding 200 million letters I subtract 200 million letters – 1,053,252,876 down to 853,252,876 – the reader’s perception is more likely to change. But this is only because the number shed one of its digits and crossed the magic cognitive threshold from “billion” to “million.” It’s not because of an inherent understanding of what those huge numbers actually mean.

Actual and perceived differences between 853,252,876 vs. 1,053,252,876 vs. 1,253,252,876

One strategy to make a number like 1,053,252,876 legible is by reduction: to turn large numbers into much smaller ones. If we spread out those billion letters across the population over the age of ten, the average American sent roughly twenty-eight letters over the course of 1880, or one every thirteen days. A ten-digit monstrosity turns into something the reader can relate to. After all, it’s easier to picture writing a letter every two weeks than it is to picture a mountain of one billion letters. Numbers, especially big ones, are easier to digest when they’re reduced to a more personal scale.

1,053,252,876 letters / 36,761,607 Americans over the age of ten = 28.65 letters / person

A second way to make numbers legible is by comparison. The most direct corollary to the U.S. Post was the telegraph industry. Put simply, the telegraph is a lot sexier than the Post and both nineteenth-century Americans and modern historians alike lionized the technology. A typical account goes something like this: “News no longer traveled at the excruciatingly slow pace of ships, horses, feet, or trains. It now moved at 670 million miles per hour.” In essence, “the telegraph liberated information.” But the telegraph only liberated information if you could afford to pay for it. In 1880 the cost of sending a telegram through Western Union from San Francisco to New York was $2.50, or 125 times the price to mail a two-cent letter. Not surprisingly, Americans sent roughly 35 times the number of letters than telegrams. The enormous size of the Post was in part a product of how cheap it was to use.

Cost of Telegram vs. Letter, San Francisco to New York (1880)

This points to a third strategy to make numbers legible: visualization. In the above case the chart acts as a rhetorical device. I’m less concerned with the reader being able to precisely measure the difference between $2.50 and $0.02 than I am with driving home the point that the telegraph was really, really expensive and the U.S. Post was really, really cheap. A more substantive comparison can be made by looking at the size of the Post Office Department’s workforce. In 1880 it employed an army of 56,421 postmasters, clerks, and contractors to process and transport the mail. Just how large was this workforce? In fact, the “postal army” was more than twice the size of the actual U.S. Army. Fifteen years removed from the Civil War there were now more postmasters than soldiers in American society. Readers are a lot better at visually comparing different bars than they are at doing mental arithmetic with large, unwieldy numbers.


Almost as important as the sheer size of the U.S. Post was its geographic reach. Most postal employees worked in one of 43,012 post offices scattered across the United States. A liberal postal policy meant that almost any community could successfully petition the department for a new post office. Wherever people moved, a post office followed close on their heels. This resulted in a sprawling network that stretched from one corner of the country to the other. But what did the nation’s largest spatial network actually look like?


Mapping 43,012 post offices gives the reader an instant sense for both the size and scope of the U.S. Post. The map serves an illustrative purpose rather than an argumentative one. I’m not offering interpretations of the network or even pointing out particular patterns. It’s simply a way for the reader to wrap their minds around the basic geography of such a vast spatial system. But the map is also a useful cautionary tale about visualizing numbers. If anything, the map undersells the size and extent of the Post. It may seem like a whole lot of data, but it’s actually missing around ten thousand post offices, or 22% of the total number that existed in 1880. Some of those offices were so obscure or had such a short existence that I wasn’t able to automatically find their locations. And these missing post offices aren’t evenly distributed: about 99% of Oregon’s post offices appear on the map compared to only 47% of Alabama’s.

Disclaimers aside, compare the map to a sentence I wrote earlier: “Most postal employees worked in one of 43,012 post offices scattered across the United States.” In that context the specific number 43,012 doesn’t make much of a difference – it could just as well be 38,519 or 51,933 – and therefore doesn’t contribute all that much weight to my broader point that the Post was ubiquitous in the nineteenth-century United States. A map of 43,012 post offices is much more effective at demonstrating my point. The map also has one additional advantage: it beckons the reader to not only appreciate the size and extent of the network, but to ask questions about its clusters and lines and blank spaces.* A map can spark curiosity and act as an invitation to keep reading. This kind of active engagement is a hallmark of good writing and one that’s hard to achieve using numbers alone. The first step is to make numbers legible. The second is to make them interesting.

* Most obviously: what’s going on with Oklahoma? Two things. Mostly it’s a data artifact – the geolocating program I wrote doesn’t handle Oklahoma locations very well, so I was only able to locate 19 out of 95 post offices. I’m planning to fix this problem at some point. But even if every post office appeared on the map, Oklahoma would still look barren compared to its neighbors. This is because Oklahoma was still Indian Territory in 1880. Mail service didn’t necessarily stop at its borders but postal coverage effectively fell off a cliff; in 1880 Indian Territory had fewer post offices than any other state/territory besides Wyoming. The dearth of post offices is especially telling given the ubiquity of the U.S. Post in the rest of the country, showing how the administrative status of the territory and decades of federal Indian policy directly shaped communications geography.

A Dissertation’s Infancy: The Geography of the Post

A history PhD can be thought of as a collection of overlapping areas: coursework, teaching, qualifying exams, and the dissertation itself. The first three are fairly structured. You have syllabi, reading lists, papers, classes, deadlines. The fourth? Not so much. Once you’re advanced to candidacy there’s a sense of finally being cut loose. Go forth, conquer the archive, and return triumphantly to pen a groundbreaking dissertation. It’s exhilarating, empowering, and also terrifying as hell. I’ve been swimming through the initial research stage of the dissertation for the past several months and thought it would be a good time to articulate what, exactly, I’m trying to find. Note: if you are less interested in American history and more interested in maps and visualizations, I would skip to the end.

The Elevator Speech

I’m studying communications networks in the late nineteenth-century American West by mapping the geography of the U.S. postal system.*

The Elevator-Stuck-Between-Floors Speech

From the end of the Civil War until the end of the nineteenth century the US. Post steadily expanded into a vast communications network that spanned the continent. By the turn of the century the department was one of the largest organizational units in the world. More than 200,000 postmasters, clerks, and carriers were involved in shuttling billions of pounds of material between 75,000 offices at the cost of more than $100 million dollars a year. As a spatial network the post followed a particular geography. And nowhere was this more apparent than in the West, where the region’s miners, ranchers, settlers, and farmers led their lives on the network’s periphery. My dissertation aims to uncover the geography of the post on its western periphery: where it spread, how it operated, and its role in shaping the space and place of the region.

My project rests on the interplay between center and periphery. The postal network hinged on the relationship between its bureaucratic center in Washington, DC and the thousands of communities that constituted the nodes of that network. In the case of the West, this relationship was a contentious one. Departmental bureaucrats found themselves buffeted with demands to reign in ballooning deficits. Yet they were also required by law to provide service to every corner of the country, no matter how expensive. And few regions were costlier than the West, where a sparsely settled population scattered across a huge area was constantly rearranged by the boom-and-bust cycles of the late nineteenth century. From the top-down perspective of the network’s center, providing service in the West was a major headache. From the bottom-up perspective of westerners the post was one of the bedrocks of society. For most, it was the only affordable and accessible form of long-distance communication. In a region marked by transience and instability, local post offices were the main conduits for contact with the wider world. Western communities loudly petitioned their Congressmen and the department for more offices, better post roads, and speedier service. In doing so, they redefined the shape and contours of both the network and the wider geography of the region.

The post offers an important entry point into some of the major forces shaping American society in the late nineteenth century. First, it helped define the role of the federal government. On a day-to-day basis, for many Americans the post was the federal government. Articulating the geographic size and scale of the postal system will offer a corrective to persistent caricatures of the nineteenth-century federal government as weak and decentralized. More specifically, a generation of “New Western” historians have articulated the omnipresent role of the state in the West. Analyzing the relationship between center and periphery through the post’s geography provides a means of mapping the reach of federal power in the region. With the postal system as a proxy for state presence, I can begin to answer questions such as: where and how quickly did the state penetrate the West? How closely did it follow on the heels of settler migration, railroad development, or mining industries? Finally, the post was deeply enmeshed in a system of political patronage, with postmasterships disbursed as spoils of office. What was the relationship between a communications network and the geography of regional and national politics?

Second, the post rested on an often contentious marriage between the public and private spheres. Western agrarian groups upheld the post as a model public monopoly. Nevertheless, private hands guided the system’s day-to-day operations on its periphery. Payments to mail-carrying railroad companies became the department’s single largest expenditure, and it doled out millions of dollars each year to private contractors to carry the mail in rural areas. This private/public marriage came with costs – in the early 1880s, for instance, the department was rocked by corruption scandals when it discovered that rural private contractors had paid kickbacks to department officials in exchange for lavish carrying contracts. How did this uneasy alliance of public and private alter the geography of the network? And how did the department’s need to extend service in the rural West reframe wider debates over monopoly, competition, and the nation’s political economy?

Getting Off The History Elevator

That’s the idea, at least. Rather than delve into even greater detail on historiography or sources, I’ll skip to a topic probably more relevant for readers who aren’t U.S. historians: methodology. Digital tools will be the primary way in which I explore the themes outlined above. Most obviously, I’m going to map the postal network. This entails creating a spatial database of post offices, routes, and timetables. Unsurprisingly, that process will be incredibly labor intensive: scanning and georeferencing postal route maps, or transcribing handwritten microfilmed records into a database of thousands of geocoded offices. But once I’ve constructed the database, there are any number of ways to interrogate it.

To demonstrate, I’ll start with lower-hanging fruit. The Postmaster General issues an annual report providing (among other information) data on how many offices were established and discontinued in each state. These numbers are fairly straightforward to put into a table and throw onto a map. Doing so provides a top-down view of the system from the perspective of a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C. For instance, by looking at the number of post offices discontinued each year it’s possible to see the wrenching reverberations of the Civil War as the postal system struggled to reintegrate southern states into its network in 1867:

Post Offices Discontinued By State, 1867
(Source: Annual Report of the Postmaster General, 1867)

The West, meanwhile, was arguably the system’s most unstable region. As measured by the percentage of its total offices that were either established or discontinued each year, states such as New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana were continually building and dismantling new nodes in the network.

Post Offices Established or Discontinued as a Percentage of Total Post Offices in State, 1882
(Source: Annual Report of the Postmaster General, 1882)

Of course, the broad brush strokes of national, year-by-year data only provide a generalized snapshot of the system. I plan on drilling down to far more detail  by charting where and when specific post offices were established and discontinued. This will provide a much more fine-grained (both spatially and temporally) view of how the system evolved. Geographer Derek Watkins has employed exactly this approach:

Screenshot from Derek Watkins, “Posted: U.S. Growth Visualized Through Post Offices” (25 September 2011)

Derek’s map demonstrates the power of data visualization: it is compelling, interactive, and conveys an enormous amount of information far more effectively than text alone. Unfortunately, it also relies on an incomplete dataset. Derek scraped the USPS Postmaster Finder, which the USPS built as a tool for genealogists to look up postmaster ancestors. The USPS historian adds to it on an ad-hoc basis depending on specific requests by genealogists. In a conversation with me, she estimated that it encompasses only 10-15% of post offices, and there is no record of what has been completed and what remains to be done. Derek has, however, created a robust data visualization infrastructure. In a wonderful demonstration of generosity, he has sent me the code behind the visualization. Rather than spending hours duplicating Derek’s design work, I’ll be able to plug my own, more complete, post office data into a beautiful existing interface.

Derek’s generosity brings me back to my ongoing personal commitment to scholarly sharing. I plan on making the dissertation process as open as possible from start to finish. Specifically, the data and information I collect has broad potential for applications beyond my own project. As the backbone of the nation’s communications infrastructure, the postal system provides rich geographic context for any number of other historical inquiries. Cameron Ormsby, a researcher in Stanford’s Spatial History Lab, has already used post office data I collected as a proxy for measuring community development in order to analyze the impact of land speculation and railroad construction in Fresno and Tulare counties.

To kick things off, I’ve posted the state-level data I referenced above on my website as a series of CSV files. I also used Tableau Public to generate a quick-and-dirty way for people to interact with and explore the data in map form. This is an initial step in sharing data and I hope to refine the process as I go. Similarly, I plan on occasionally blogging about the project as it develops. Rather than narrowly focusing on the history of the U.S. Post, my goal (at least for now) is to use my topic as a launchpad to write about broader themes: research and writing advice, discussions of digital methodology, or data and visualization releases.

*By far the most common response I’ve received so far: “Like the Pony Express?” Interestingly, the Pony Express was a temporary experiment that only existed for about eighteen months in 1860-1861. In terms of mail carried, cost, and time in existence, it was a tiny blip within the postal department’s operations. Yet it has come to occupy a lofty position in America’s historical memory and encapsulates a remarkable number of the contradictions and mythologies of the West.

AAHC Recap (Morning)

Today I attended the American Association for Historical Computing‘s 2009 annual conference, hosted by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. For someone interested in the field of digital history, it was a phenomenal opportunity to meet fellow enthusiasts and explore a variety of topics within the field.

The first session, a presentation by Amanda French of NYU on “Basic Digital History Skills for Historians,” came from her experience in teaching courses in digital history, many geared towards archival and library studies. Of particular interest was a survey she administered to 25 students that measured their comfort and ability in a wide variety of digital skills – everything from using social media to knowledge of metadata systems. She spoke about the fact that there was a gap between the skills being taught to public historians and archivists, and those being taught to traditional historians. Namely, those in the former group usually gain a stronger digital literacy. One of the major action points she drew from the survey was the need to teach students in the following fields: website creation, metadata, and multimedia.

Besides being the first conference presentation that I’ve live-tweeted, it brought up some interesting questions. The biggest one (that recurred throughout the day) was the question of teaching students what I’ll term hard vs. soft skills in gaining digital literacy. Should teachers expect their college students to have a basic skill set (uploading videos onto YouTube, using RSS feed readers, etc.) already? Should you spend the majority of your time teaching the skills and habits that they can then adapt to specific platforms? Is it possible to impart broader concepts of digital history without a concrete base in technical proficiency? My first instinct was to come down on the side of a liberal-artsy instruction of soft skills and underlying “big-picture” principles. But the more I thought about the issue, the more I realized that for many people, the best way of learning these soft skills is by putting on your work gloves and diving into starting a blog, using Zotero, or generating a KML file.

The second session was Dave Lester‘s “Mobile Historical Landscapes: Exposing and Crowdsourcing Historical Landmarks.” Dave explained his ongoing project (History Plot) to create a means for people to contribute to a geolocated database. He compared it to Yelp, in that he dreams of a centralized platform through which people can look up historical landmarks and their metadata (primarily their location). In order to start seeding History Plot, Dave turned to 80,000 historic sites listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. Other resources could include Wikipedia, Flickr, and partnerships with local historical societies.

Dave’s enthusiasm was downright infectious, as he spoke about being able to walk down a city street, use your iPhone to locate a nearby historical building, look up information about it, then take a photograph of it and immediately upload it to the database. Possibly the most exciting aspect, for me, was his idea of leveraging community-based history volunteers (he calls them “street teams”) to crowdsource the project. I think this has tremendous potential. History remains one of the foremost fields for armchair enthusiasts, as legions of geneologists and Civil War re-enactors would provide an incredible resource for this kind of geo-based crowd sourcing. It’s easy to imagine groups of history buffs meeting up on the weekends to explore cities and sites, snapping pictures and contributing research tidbits. I’d love for this to get off the ground, and would jump at the chance to found a local chapter.

Dan Cohen brought up a good point at the end of Dave’s talk: that the issue is finding an incentive structure so that people will actually participate in the project. In particular, there’s a gap between the (usually) younger tech-savvy crowd that lacks a strong interest in local history, and the (usually) older, less tech-savvy crowd that could potentially be the strongest source for knowledge seeding. I think it’s a manageable problem, but one that increases the need for highly accessible mobile technology and platforms that makes the barriers to entry as low as possible, even if it has to come at the cost of losing some technical robustness.

The last session of the morning was “Teaching, History, and Digital Tools: A Roundtable Discussion,” by Jeremy Boggs, Jeff McClurken, and Josh Sternfeld. All of them brought different perspectives to the topic, although each of them came from the similar experience of having taught a digital history course. It was a similar presentation to the one given by Jeremy and Jeff at the AHA convention, and it reinforced a lot of the lessons they had previously given (chief among these is Jeff’s great refrain about trying to make students “uncomfortable but not paralyzed”). One point that it made me think about was the issue of how to value historical scholarship. I’ve been thinking a lot more about not only how the historical academy values research in digital history, but how it values teaching in digital history as well. Does listing “Creating History in New Media” on your C.V. as a course you taught carry more weight than listing an American history survey? Would a tenure review board be impressed with your tech-savvy literacy, or put off because they don’t understand it?

Scattered Links – 3/16/2009

I’ve been closely following the history blogging roundtable examining Judith Bennett’s History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism. Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar kicked things off with Should politics be historical? Should history be political? Then Historiann kept the ball rolling with Who indeed is afraid of the distant past (and who says it’s distant, anyway)? A call to arms. This week Claire Potter at Tenured Radical posted part three, Teach This Book!, with part four appearing soon at Blogenspiel. I’ve found the series instructive, given my embarrassing lack of knowledge of historiography in general, and feminist (not to mention medieval feminist) historiography in particular. A lively comment-debate about generational issues followed Notorious Ph.D.’s posting, which Historiann expounded upon in part two (and included an interesting suggestion of social history’s potential for comparative women’s studies). Tenured Radical delves into why feminist historians might gravitate towards more recent history, while championing queer history as a partial solution to some issues that Bennett raises. The history/academia blogosphere could benefit from more roundtables such as these.

Deviant Art supplies an amusing cartographic comic on the progression of World War II. My favorite part? “We talked about this before, mon ami.”

Lisa Spiro at Digital Scholarship in the Humanities gives a great two-part wrap-up of Digital Humanities developments in 2008. Part One sounds a triumphant note, including “Emergence of Digital Humanities” and “Community and collaboration,” while Part Two is more sobering, discussing continued resistance to open access and other new scholarly models, along with the erroneous and Grinch-like litigation by EndNote against Zotero.

Scientists compiled a clickstream map of “scientific activity” (along with other disciplines) that creates a visualization of how users moved from one academic journal to another. The visualization shows how different disciplines tend to cluster around one another, and I was impressed at the degree of interaction in the humanities and social sciences (although I would have loved to see more fluidity between humanities and more “hard” disciplines).

It reminded me of Sterling Fluharty’s insightful take on using quantitative methods to rank history journals based on citations, which the clickstream map avoided due to inconsistent nature of citations across disciplines.

Finally, the Economist’s Technology Quarterly profiles Brewster Kahle in “The Internet’s Librarian” and his quest to build “Alexandria 2.0,” a free digital archive of human knowledge.

Methodologies and the (Digital) History Major

Stanley N. Katz and James Grossman recently led a working group backed by the National History Center and the Teagle Foundation, and drafted a thought-provoking report titled, The History Major and Undergraduate Liberal Education. The paper got some decent play on the history and education blogosphere, and with good reason. It brought up a variety of interesting issues, but chief among, from my perspective, is one of methodology.

In the report, Katz and Grossman point out that the history academy tends to be moving away from traditional methodological categories – “political history, economic history, social history, intellectual history” – and towards categories of people and places. I would tend to agree, although the line between these two methodological approaches tends to be rather blurry and fluid (and I’m guessing the authors would not imply a distinctive break between them). It makes me wonder – are historians truly engaging in a large-scale shift in methodologies? Or is the academy coming up with new phrases to describe pre-existing approaches? A work such as Erskine Clark’s Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic, could be read as a traditional work of “social history,” or it could be read as (obviously) African-American history, family history, rural history, or some combination of all three. Do “traditional” methodologies simply imply broader, umbrella categories?

Instead, I would argue (with freely admitted bias) that an equally important shift will take, and is currently taking, place within the academy: the transformation of analog to digital scholarship on a methodological level. Tom Scheinfeldt wrote a particularly incisive blog post on this topic provocatively titled, “Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology?”: “I believe we are at a similar moment of change right now, that we are entering a new phase of scholarship that will be dominated not by ideas, but once again by organizing activities, both in terms of organizing knowledge and organizing ourselves and our work.”

Unfortunately, many in the academic blogosphere took the post as an attack on the validity of cherished theoretical “-isms” in the field. Too much focus rested on this aspect of the post, which Tom admitted in its comments was not the aim or intention. Instead, what gets lost is the bold assertion that the next big change in historical scholarship will come from the nuts-and-bolts of how we “do” history.

Katz and Grossman touch upon this change: “Liberal learning in the twenty-first century must include an emphasis on information sifting, the ability to work through massive quantities of data and references to identify what is useful and reliable.” While they offer a few other references to this new paradigm, they don’t spell out exactly how the skills of a history major relate to a liberal education in a specifically digital context (this is not the point of their paper).

I’d like to look at Katz and Grossman’s conclusions through a digital lens, and spell out specifically how I believe some of their observations and suggestions can be specifically linked to Tom’s “sunrise of methodology”:

– “History is thus inherently (though not necessarily for any individual historian) a multidisciplinary field and one in which inquiry begins with the problem and the historical context, not the discipline or dominant theory.”

Digital historians are necessarily engaging in interdisciplinary (or multidisciplinary) studies, as they not only need to know technical skills (programming, statistics, GIS, etc.) but also the broader issues prevalent in these fields. When creating maps for my history thesis in GIS, I not only had to learn how to import shapefiles, but also the background of coordinate projections, issues with small-scale vs. large-scale mapping, and basic tenets of cartographic design and layout. When utilizing a wide range of tools and techniques, a digital humanist is forced to learn not only “hard” skills, but their accompanying “soft” skills as well.

– “History places a premium on the capacity of synthesis.”

I couldn’t agree more. I feel that this will truly be one of the distinct advantages a history major might have over other scholars: the ability to efficiently and effectively sift through mountains of source material in order to extract content, recognize broader patterns, and evaluate their metadata (both traditional and digital). These skills form the basis of historical inquiry, and as our collections of digitized sources grow ever larger the proper utilization of these skills will be placed at a higher and higher premium, especially when paired with new media tools and techniques.

– “The single most important contribution that training in history can make to the liberal learning of undergraduates is to help students to contextualize knowledge, offering an antidote to naive presentism.”

One hallmark of the digital age is the ephemeral nature of information. Lacking the inherent stability and traditional gatekeeping of the analog era, it becomes more and more difficult to “pin down” knowledge. Without assurance that a website will exist tomorrow or next week or next year, knowledge and authority become much more fluid, and users will be even more inclinated towards presentism (whether naive or not). Historians will need to offer their skills in contextualizing and framing a constantly shifting corpus of information, at the very least in order to provide a sense of temporal perspective.

-“We need to be more thoughtful in locating history in relation to other disciplines, and in relating to the ‘historical turn’ in other humanities and social science disciplines.”

History has a lot to learn from other disciplines, and vice-versa. Just as digital humanists use a multidisciplinary toolbox, their utilization of these tools also tends to blur the traditional lines between disciplines. When a historian engages in complex statistical analysis using computer software to examine tax records, where does the line fall between economics and history? There needs to be a dialogue about how to most effectively employ and engage history within these other disciplines. In industry terms, the academy needs to figure out a “value-add” system of mutual benefit. And one key to this process (which Katz and Grossman describe) is that of cross-departmental collaboration, both in research and in teaching.

All in all, this is an excellent report that brings into focus far more important issues than I touched upon here. I would highly recommend it to anyone with an active interest in the current state and possible future of the field.

Towards a “History This” Command Line

Mozilla Labs recently released the 0.1 version of Ubiquity, a Firefox extension that allows the user to interact with and direct their browser through intuitive, written commands. Ubiquity has met with largely positive and excited reviews from the tech community, from folks at Lifehacker to Hackaday to Tools for Thought. The extension currently allows for a variety of commands. The common example that everyone likes to point to is the “map these” command, where you select text, hit the keystroke to bring up ubiquity and type “map these,” which brings up something like the following:

From there, you can do a variety of things with the map itself, including navigating and moving, or inserting it into a separate page. And of course you can also highlight text, and in Ubiquity type “email this to _____,” which then searches through your Gmail contacts and sends the highlighted text to them. The most common example I’ve read is if you are looking for a restaurant at which to eat with a friend. You can highlight or type in the restaurant name, map it, look for reviews on Yelp, check your calendar for conflicts, and email an invitation to your friend with all of this information included.

Ubiquity interacts with a wide variety of sites through APIs, including Youtube, Weather, Yelp, Twitter, and Flickr. In addition, you can translate and define words, run calculations, export events to your calendar, count words in an article, or convert units. In many ways, it seems to blur the earlier function of Hyperwords (which I covered in a previous post) with the intuitive command line structure of Quicksilver (for Mac users) or Launchy (for Windows).

I immediately thought of interesting commands someone could write for engaging in historical research. Developing a Ubiquity command set for historians would go a long way towards encouraging traditionalists to finally break into digital history. Instead of reading scary words like Python or machine learning, a researcher with little technological background could hit a couple of keystrokes and be off in running with relatively in-depth analysis of digitized archival material. In many ways, Ubiquity could potentially act as a “gateway drug” for digital history. Of course, this all hinges on at least two things:

1) Quality, standardized digitization of source materials combined with quality, standardized open API’s. Dan Cohen has great arguments for the importance of a digitized collection like Google Books not only having an API, but having a good one.

2) Someone in the digital humanities would have to develop these tailored commands for different archives (Bill Turkel, you know you’re interested…) There’s already a Mozilla Labs wiki for creating new commands that looks relatively straightforward, but would probably be above most members of the history community. I’m intrigued by the idea, but unfortunately my own forays into digital history programming have presently taken a backseat to applying to grad schools. Please let me know if anyone in the digital humanities is interested in this…

I feel that Ubiquity takes a substantial next step in the evolution of online interactivity. It’s admittedly buggy (although given its 0.1 version status, this will certainly get better), but it embodies so much of what is positive in today’s digital environment: namely open-source collaboration. Mozilla Labs actively encourages anyone and everyone to develop their own commands and to share them with others. This openness combines with an intuitive simplicity that makes it truly remarkable. As of right now, Ubiquity is a fantastic timesaver and cool trick, but it lacks depth. Almost anything you do in Ubiquity could be done before – just slower and with much less efficiency or ease of use. I have absolutely no doubt that as the open-source developer community jumps on board, this will change.

But for right now what Ubiquity does best is to begin to break down the barriers between computer geeks and laypeople. Some people are writing about the irony of returning to the infant state of the computer interface: the command line.  While interesting, these two instances are fundamentally different: not many people would know how to write even a simple program when faced with earlier command lines, but just about anyone I know can type “Map this” into Ubiquity and get far more complex results. Even as programmers find new ways to write more and more advanced commands, ordinary Firefox users will adopt the basics of Ubiquity in greater and greater numbers. What I foresee in Ubiquity is part of a broader movement that shifts common computing further down the Web 2.0-blazed path of heightened and evolving user participation, control, and access. Instead of having the website developer determine how and where you can go, suddenly you are at the controls of an increasingly powerful and easy-to-use command center for accessing and manipulating data. And I can only dream of the day a grad student will be able highlight some archival text, type “history this” into their command line, and have a fully-compiled dissertation written before their eyes.

Scattered Links – 8/21/2008

Lisa Spiro has posted a great recap of her presentation “Doing Digital Scholarship” at the Digital Humanities 2008 conference. The presentation “focuses on a project to practice digital scholarship by relying on electronic resources, experimenting with tools for analyzing and organizing digital information, and representing ideas through multimedia.” All in all, I think the blog post is a wonderful introduction to digital scholarship, both as an overview and a jumping off point for further ideas. Spiro really displays that crucial trait necessary for a digital humanist: a seemingly unlimited willingness to try new approaches.

Errol Morris has yet another interesting post about interpreting photography and identifying fakes, inspired by the faked photographs of Iran’s missile launch several weeks ago. Also, if you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend his three-part series “Which Came First,” which details his attempt to uncover the truth behind Robert Fenton’s famous “Valley of the Shadow of Death” photograph of the infamous Light Brigade skirmish. What I liked most about it was his microscopic attention to detail and an open willingness to crowdsource, as over a thousand people responded and lent advice, tips, and clues. He even did a recap of these comments, which shows a real embrace of the power of collective intelligence and digital media.

GOOD Magazine has put up an extremely sleek and user-friendly interactive graphic titled “Wanderlust: GOOD traces the most famous trips in history.” Included among these are not only the standard fare of Lewis and Clark, Charles Lindbergh, and Marco Polo, but also fictional accounts such as Pequod from Moby Dick, along with Journey to the Center of the Earth. Although I will point out that it’s phenomenally Euro/American-centric, I do applaud its interface and design. This rivals some of the NYTimes’ recent gold standard information graphics as far as usability, style, and depth.

Finally, if you’d like to get worked up and indignant, read Edward Luttwak’s “A Truman for our times.” His thesis is almost comical: “While anti-terrorist operations have been successful here and there in a patchy way, and the fate of Afghanistan remains in doubt, the far more important ideological war has ended with a spectacular global victory for President Bush.” But what makes me downright irate is his complete hijacking of history. In a characterization that smacks of imperialism, ignorance, and borderline racism, he breezily describes eight hundred years of Chinese history in this pithy statement:

“That describes everything that the Chinese are not, and have never been. The Chinese empire was aggressive and expansionist under the Yuan dynasty and again under the Qing. But one dynasty was established by horseriding Mongols, the other by horseriding Manchus, both the products of foreign warrior cultures. The Han Chinese prefer other pursuits. Perhaps they will change, as cultures sometimes do.

Historical determinism and unprofessionalism at its worst. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if he then pulled a Lawrence of Arabia and ended with “A little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous, and cruel.”