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.

Reflections on Blogging

It’s now been over a year since I started history-ing and over a month since my last post, so I thought I’d ease back into writing by reflecting on a year in the blogosphere.

1. Intellectual stimulation

One of the most jarring changes going from a college lifestyle to the workforce was the lack of academic stimulation on a daily basis. and problem-solving transitioned from a classroom to the office. Having a blog gave me an impetus to really think about issues. It forced me to write (semi) regularly, to think about issues, to engage in at least a limited conversation on intellectual topics I cared about. Instead of being a passive consumer of ideas, posts, articles, essays, and books, I became an active one.

The knowledge that my writing would be open and available for anyone to read and judge made me think even harder to develop my own ideas and opinions. If you write a shitty paper in a college seminar, the professor gives you a shitty grade and you file it away. If you write a shitty post, it’s out there for anyone to read. Employers, colleagues, professors, admissions people – all of them now have a growing body of my writing to read, disagree with, and critique if they’re so inclined. For an unestablished scholar like myself, this provides some major motivation to really think and work at what I write.

2. Joining a community

Blogging also let me jump into a vibrant online community of digital historians and humanists. Instead of being something of a sideline observer, I laced up and joined the fray. Doing so not only exposed me to a wide range of new ideas and possibilities, but also introduced me to a number of fascinating and inspiring people – many of whom I met in person at the AAHC and THATCamp conferences. Especially for a younger scholar like myself, having a blog gave me confidence in my credentials and allowed me to participate in a wider dialogue.

Moving forward, the connections I’ve made through blogging (and on a noisier level, Twitter) will serve me for a long time to come. I’ve been lucky in that before I’ve even stepped foot inside a graduate classroom, I’ve have had the opportunity to interact with so many people who I (hope) will be my future colleagues and collaborators. In the insular world of traditional academics, this is a relative rarity.

3. Feedback

I’m a firm believer that there’s no point in writing into a void. While much of my blogging was “for myself,” in that I wrote about what interested me, the most rewarding part by far is the response I’ve received. There is certainly an egotistical and superficial element to checking  site-visit stats. But there is some validity to the point that my writing has already reached a larger audience in a year than all of my undergraduate writing put together. By a long shot. For example, my most popular post, by almost a 2:1 factor, is a rudimentary text analysis of Venture Smith’s narrative. As of today, it had been viewed over a thousand times. This metric might be a tiny drop in the blogosphere bucket, but it will certainly eclipse any audience I’ll have for my traditional academic research, at least in the near future.

One of the more rewarding episodes occurred recently, when a local Connecticut writer contacted me through my blog because she was interested in  Venture Smith. She had stumbled across my posts talking about my undergraduate research on Venture Smith, and had been inspired to do some truly remarkable research on her own. We met yesterday, and I was thrilled to find that not only had she uncovered a fascinating new development, but that it directly related to work I had done. I was humbled to hear that my blog had been an impetus for her to get involved in the Venture Smith community. It served as a great reminder of how blogs can increase transparency and lower barriers between academics and the wider public.

I’m not sure what the future will hold for history-ing. There are bad as well as good aspects of maintaining a blog, and it remains to be seen whether it will survive the time-drain of graduate school. Regardless, blogging at history-ing has been, and I hope will continue to be, an enriching experience.

Scattered Links – 10/26/2008 (Writing Edition)

“Why I Blog” by Andrew Sullivan is a great overview of one blogger’s story. I think he articulates a lot of viewpoints that I share. For one, he talks about the inherent risk of blogging, with the lack of a safety net and vulnerability that comes with voluntarily making your thoughts and words open to the world: “But blogging requires an embrace of such hazards, a willingness to fall off the trapeze rather than fail to make the leap.” I occasionally wonder whether mentioning my blog in grad school applications would be seen as a positive or a negative. Like it or not, there are still a lot of academics who mistrust blogging.

Happy two-year blogiversary to Claire Potter at Tenured Radical. In another “Why I Blog,” she recently posted a wonderful piece about the rewards and challenges of academic writing. One of my favorite excerpts:” Blogging also allows me to write short pieces, work on form, voice, and getting complex ideas across to an audience that I need to entice in order to keep them reading. I sometimes compare it to a pianist playing scales: to the extent that blogging is not, perhaps, the most serious scholarly form, to take it seriously is to become a better writer.” Although comparing blogging to playing scales certainly dampens the enjoyment of the process, it’s certainly encouraging to think that it’s actually good for me as well.

Ian Kershaw wrote a breezy article in the Washington Post musing about how he approaches writing history. He follows a very meticulous routine, which apparently allows him to produce around 2,000 words a day. Impressive stuff. The article also makes me wonder what percentage of academics are regular coffee drinkers. 90%? More than the population at large? Less? Coffee seems to be the true backbone of American higher education.

At Edge of the American West, Scott Kaufman has a great post detailing a talk he gave on a “Blogging and the Academy” panel. The post is noteworthy for both its strong content, but also his choice of posting the paper as he used it to give the talk. As such, it does not read as a typical academic paper: “when I write a talk, I write a talk. I don’t write an essay that just so happens to be read aloud.” Great words of advice, and ones that I wish more academics would take to heart.

Finally, at the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Thomas H. Benton’s “Yearning After Books” discusses academics’ increasing anxiety over the supposed disappearance of the written book. Benton articulates a common nostalgia for the tactility and tradition of a book, especially compared to increasing digitization efforts. At first I rolled my eyes at this antiquated notion, but then realized (after stopping at a used book sale and giddily leaving with four of them) that despite my best efforts, I haven’t yet eradicated the snobbish academic reverence for the bound volume.


A recurring theme of the historical field seems to be the perceived schism between popular and academic history. There are a lot of good articles out there discussing the issue, and I would recommend the following in particular:

Adam Hochschild wrote an article titled “Practicing History Without a License” in the March/April edition of Historically Speaking. It is an extremely well-written and creative piece, and the article is accompanied by reactions from a wide variety of historians, including John Demos, Joseph Ellis, and Felipe Fernández-Armesto. As a journalist and outsider to traditional academia, Hochschild really gives a great perspective on some of the problems he sees in this divide. In particular, I loved his idea for one kind of solution: teaming up academic historians with popular writers to produce works that fused exhaustive analysis with beautiful narrative (ex. David Brion Davis and Toni Morisson co-authoring a work on slavery).

David Greenberg wrote “That Barnes and Noble Dream” in a twopart article for Slate back in 2005. Greenberg offers a really great overview of the dichotemy, breaking down various divisions and pointing to both examples and exceptions. He also takes a harder stance against the “Barnes & Noble historian [who] seems to treat history as a pageant of larger-than-life events and people to be marveled at, rather than a set of social, political, and cultural problems to engage.” In order to solve this problem, he suggests striking a more balanced approach to the engagement of historiography – somewhere between the complete obliviousness of popular writers to the work that came before them, and the writing of the academic historian who is completely immersed in arcane, historiographical debate.

Finally, Jeremy Young of the Progressive Historians blog wrote for HNN a piece titled “Why Historians Should Write Books Ordinary People Want to Read.” Young argues forcefully against the validity of academic hand-wringing over the divide, pointing to booming history book sales as a positive trend and instead urging for a re-alignement of how the academy values historical writing: “We should reclaim that aspect of 1950’s academic culture that rewarded scholars, not penalized them, for engaging effectively with the general public through published works.  We should encourage historians to aggressively colonize and then conquer the popular historical market by producing well-researched, well-argued books on popular subjects.” My favorite aspect of Young’s piece is the fact that it garnered over 30 impassioned comments, proving just how relevant an issue this really is.

One of those experiences I find endlessly encouraging and frustrating is to walk through any bookstore and scan the shelves upon shelves of history books. It is incredibly encouraging to be entering a field with that kind of popular sway in the general public. How many people read about physics or finance or literary criticism as a hobby? Far fewer than those who read about history in their spare time. But it’s also endlessly frustrating because the rows of books are dominated by such a select subject area: military history, Revolutionary founding-fathers history, and the biographies of “great men.”

When skimming through a history book, I’ll immediately do the history nerd approach and read the acknowledgments, skim the footnotes, and breeze through the introduction. Doing that gives a decent impression for how the author wrote their book. And I’m continually stunned at the shoddy source evaluation of many popular writers, whose citations take up a sliver of pages and are filled with second-hand secondary source references. On the other hand, I will often read more academic prose, and be stunned at how dense and jargon-filled the prose can be.

What frustrates me, and which many others have highlighted, is that this doesn’t have to be an either-or scenario. There are plenty of exhaustive historical monographs with beautifully-crafted narrative prose. But on the academy side of the fence, the emphasis is almost exclusively on how to “do” history academically, instead of how to write well for a layperson. While I had a number of phenomenal teachers who helped my writing, no one ever had led a single class period devoted to how to write engagingly. The majority of instruction covered how to clearly present an argument, how to support it, how to contextualize it. I would have loved to take a a couple of hours with a creative writing professor and simply learned the basics of writing in a style that makes ordinary people want to read more. Apparently many graduate schools are requiring their students to take a semester-long writing class (I’ve heard rave reviews about Jill Lepore’s “The Art and Craft of Historical Writing” at Harvard), and I couldn’t agree with this more.

Unfortunately, even if history students are instructed and fully capable of writing engaging prose, the stodgy conventions of the academy actively discourage them to take chances, to write something fresh and fun. One solution I was thinking about the other day would be to have history students post weekly excerpts to a blog during the writing stage of their dissertations – it would allow them to take chances, get feedback, and transcend the suffocating traditionalism of writing a historical monograph. Although there is a scary vulnerability to making your draft writing so readily accessible to everyone, I feel that the rewards of openness and collaboration far outweigh the risks.

The entire historical profession needs to take the step of creating a more equitable stick-and-carrot system. Right now, it does a good job of railing against the sloppy history-ing of some popular writers. But for the majority of people out there, poor reviews by snooty academics are rarely read or valued. Consequently, I believe the carrot would be more effective: historians should more actively encourage and rewarde those works that manage to combine serious scholarship with a truly accessible and engaging writing style. Those authors and historians who manage to succeed both academically and among the public at large should be justly recognized as the profession’s most effective ambassadors and leaders.