Visualizing Historical Data, And The Rise Of “Digital Humanities”

Stanford’s Spatial History Project uses databases, ArcGIS, and other technological bells and whistles to visualize history that can’t otherwise be easily told.

railroad freight tables


All historians encounter them, at some point in their careers: Vast troves of data that are undeniably useful to history–but too complex to make narratively interesting. For Stanford’s Richard White, an American historian, these were railroad freight tables. The reams of paper held a story about America, he knew. It just seemed impossible to tell it.

Impossible to tell in a traditional way, that is. White is the director of the Stanford University Spatial History Project, an interdisciplinary lab at the university that produces “creative visual analysis to further research in the field of history.” (The images in this post are taken from the project‘s many visualizations.) Recent announcements on the project site announce “source data now available” (openness is one of the project’s tenets) on such topics as “Mapping Rio,” “Land Speculation in Fresno County: 1860-1891,” and “When the Loss of a Finger is Considered a ‘Minor’ Injury.”

That last, bizarre, entry is part of the spatial history that White specializes in: railroads in the American West (the injury in question is part of a data set on railroad-related accidents in Colorado, 1884-1885). “Shaping the West,” as White dubs his project, is about “developing tools to represent and analyze visually how and to what
degree the railroads created new spatial patterns and experiences in the
19th-century American West.”

A more traditional historian setting out to write about railroads in America would spend years immersed in archives, assimilating data, but principally looking for the anecdotes, characters, and grand narratives that make the story tellable. There will always be a place for such history. But White’s approach uses novel methods to open up new ways of telling history. White and his assistants went to the same sources as a traditional historian would have–letters, freight tables, books, newspapers, accident reports, ledgers, and so on. Only, when something seemed too complex, he didn’t cast it aside. He entered it into a database, and georeferenced it with ArcGIS, geographic information system software.

“We use Geographic Information Systems (GIS), spatial analysis, and
visualization graphical representation algorithms to visually manipulate
maps and graphs,” the team reports on its site. And as a result, the team could ask questions that wouldn’t be possible with analog historical tools: “Which stretches of rail were the most dangerous? Was one railroad
profession more at risk of death or injury than another? How did the
railroads affect settlement in the counties immediately adjacent to the
railroads? What happens to these populations over time as more
transportation and irrigation options became available?”

White’s project is part of a larger trend in academia: The rise of the so-called “digital humanities”–bookish research that is in some way augmented or assisted by computers. Stanford will host a conference on the topic later this month, with White presenting. “Stanford has a long history of doing this work, but quietly, without
the fanfare digital humanities is getting now. Everyone has been off
doing their own entrepreneurial thing,” Matthew Jockers, an English lecturer and “academic technology specialist,” told Stanford Report. Soon, information technology may be so commonplace in humanists’ work that the term “digital humanities” becomes redundant.


[Images: Spatial History Project]

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.