Visualizations in Digital History

A data visualization is a graphic that meaningfully organizes data or information in systematic and multidimensional ways.1)David J. Staley, Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past, New York, M.E. Sharpe, 2003, 3 As Edward Tufte suggests in his 2006 book Beautiful Evidence, visualizations are not just a way of seeing, but of showing. I believe these two steps are crucial in the use of visualizations for digital history. As we pile up our digital sources, we must have a way of “reading” this data and efficient use of visualizations are one of the only ways to do so.

If we need to be an expert in mapping, text analysis, or networks in order to be a digital historian, we must at least be proficient in creating visualizations to “see” our work. It is impossible to “read” a 10,000 line database or even understand how 100 topics line up across 2,000 texts. Visualization helps digital historians to gain empirical understandings from and actually observe their data in meaningful ways.

Of course, a scholar “observing” a database is likely an expert in that field. Presumably, they can organize data patterns in ways that others may not understand. There is a big difference in “seeing” our work versus “showing” or arguing how our work impacts history. A visualization created for our own use need not be properly labeled, or contain dense but clear, data rich graphics which Tufte advocates. Yet to become commonly accepted evidence and advance an argument, a visualization must meet these higher requirements.

Where writing has been the traditional historians craft, the ability to organize data into rich and meaningful visualizations will become that of the digital historian. Historians must also be skilled in reading visualizations to interpret and evaluate their underlying arguments. By reading visualizations, we must analyze the appropriateness of the underlying data. Is it actually homogeneous and precise? Does the visualizations argument actually misread the data? Or might the argument be made more forcefully by a different form of visualization. More than many of the underlying analytical techniques, skill in creating and evaluating data visualizations may be the most crucial to budding digital historians.

References   [ + ]

1. David J. Staley, Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past, New York, M.E. Sharpe, 2003, 3

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