Mining Old News For Fresh Historcal Insight

This week I had the honor of participating in the Library of Congress’ national strategy for digital news summit. The Library gathered together a diverse mix of corporate and public archivists, representatives from public and private foundations, and librarians to discuss the digital future of news. The conversations focused on both how to preserve born digital news and how to archive old news migrating into digital forms. I was honored to have a chance to bring in my perspective as a consumer of that archived news.

I gave a short presentation about some of the ways digitized historical news enables historians to ask different kinds of questions. I think the talk has some implications for both historians and digital archivists, so I thought I would share the gist of the talk here to continue the conversation we started at the meeting.

In my mind this contributes to ongoing discussions about the role that digital tools should play in re-framing conversations about historical methodology. Since the structure of the archive plays a significant role in the structure and character of the kinds of questions a historian can ask it’s crucial for historians to be involved in helping shape these archives.

A Use Case for Historical News: Marie Curie Visits America

On May 11, 1921, the world’s most famous female scientist disembarked from a long Atlantic voyage in New York City. For the ten weeks Marie Curie toured the United States, she was greeted as an international celebrity, according to the New York Times, the “biggest hit of any celebrity who has come to New York” for quite some time. Curie was greeted with speeches and fanfare in New York, Washington DC, Pittsburgh and Chicago, gracing major news papers several times a week. Less than a year after American women won the right to vote through the 19th Amendment, Marie Curie —the only noble laureate twice over and worlds most distinguished women of science— visited the United States. Last year I decided to explore how different periodicals reported on Curie’s visit. Analysis of coverage of her visit exposes divergent ideas about the place of women in American science, society and work emerging in the early twentieth century. For our purpouses, this case also exposes some of the transformational power  databases and digital tools present for  historical inquiry.

Asking A Database Historical Questions

Picture 1

It took me six seconds to find the 1512 references to Marie Curie in the entire history of the New York Times, the Atlanta Constitution, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal. Now this obviously saved me a ton of time, but the implications of this search are much deeper than this. Reading the entire history of these publications for mentions of Curie would not only be impractical, it would be impossible.

If I had wanted to explore press coverage of Curie in the pre-full-text search world, I would have selected a few key dates when I would expect her to have been mentioned, gone to the library, and rolled out the microfilm. I would have found many of these articles, but the time it takes to find them requires a larger upfront commitment to exactly what I intend to explore, and how I want to explore it. With search I have the ability to quickly get a feel for different questions in different queries while simultaneously uncovering mentions of Curie on editorial pages and in periods I would not have expected to find her mentioned.

Personal Archive Tools Exponentially Increase This Transformative Power

Repositories like Proquest historical News are powerful, and their ability to allow users to explore connections between items inside their collections has a powerful effect on the kinds of questions historians can ask about their contents, but that is just the surface of the potential these databases afford. With a tool like Zotero it is possible to aggregate materials from a variety of different sources and mine them in sophisticated ways for historical insights.

After I gathered the relevant items and fulltext PDFs from Proquest I pulled a similar search through Reader’s Guide Retrospective. While readers guide retrospective did not offer seamless integration with Zotero I was able to pull out structured data for hundreds of references, and with a few clicks had submitted inter-library loan requests for fulltext scans of the most relevant articles. When I received those PDFs I was able to simply drag and drop them into Zotero to store alongside the data. As I constructed my personal archive I was then able to turn Zotero’s search capabilities on the collection to explore interesting relationships between my data.

Zotero Library

Data fields carry unexpected potential

I created a variety of saved searches from criteria in my research data. Page numbers are included in this data for a specific reason, they are crucial for citation. Beyond that purpose, page numbers also represent an important statement about the objects in my collection. While all of the articles I discovered about Curie are relevant to my analysis articles on the frontpage of a newspaper are particularly relevant to questions about how Curie was presented to the public. This field in my database, the page on which each article can be found, was included to help people find the articles in citations, but it, like many other fields in my database, also communicates an historical significance.


Facets of that significance can expose historical insight

Once I had isolated the frontpage stories about Curie I had the opportunity to further explore this subset of thirty or so articles. Zotero’s ability to visualize the collection in a timeline allowed me to quickly visualize the chronology of Curie’s appearances on the front page. From there I could use the “highlight” function to further explore the data. Based on my experience with discussions of Curie’s visit to America I decided to highlight the mention of cancer in titles, finding the word in a plurality of the frontpage studies leads to a particular historical insight.

Marie Curie’s contributions to science are impressive, but the connection between her work and a cure or treatment for cancer is tenuous. While the word cancer does not appear, in any significant fashion, across all the hundreds of article titles about her visit, it does show up in a significantly larger portion of the front page story titles. This provides tentative support for the notion that Curie’s work, and importance, was misrepresented in feminine terms, framing in the feminine role of healer instead of the masculine role of a scientist.


Implications for history and digital archives

Implications for historical methods: While it is indeed possible to count these things out without these sort of tools, the ease at which I was able to mine a large set of documents for relevant information, and historical insight, has important ramifications. As far as I am concerned, the only way that historians can overcome the issues that arise from the problem of abundance of historical materials is to begin using tools for data analysis that allow for “distant readings” of texts. This can only be accomplished if some larger issues are observed in the creation and digitization of historical records and texts.

Implications for historical archives and databases: Exposing fulltext and coherent metadata is essential, building fancy repository specific visualizations and manipulations is extravagant.  What is going to matter to historians of the future is the ability to take your data, dump it onto a tool like Zotero, and use any number of analytical tools to explore that data in relation to information from other repositories. In that light, any fancy encoding and detailed levels of information you work into your resources is of limited use if that is not carried across into other spaces. We are not going to solve the problem of abundance by digging deeply into small sets of documents encoded in TEI, were going to get there with the metadata we have, dirty OCR and the emerging universe of entity extraction.

Darwin, History, and Visualizations

Two weeks ago our Creating History in New Media class had a great chance to chat with historian David Staley about his book Computers Visualization and History and Scott McCloud‘s book Understanding Comics. New media provides some exciting places to take conversations about visualizations in history, but one of my other take-a-ways from the conversation was that there are a lot of places to talk about historical visualizations in old media.

I know that I said it’s not about pictures, but for those of you interested in pictures there are some neat projects that you can look to. To (quite literally) illustrate the point, here are a few examples of some of some dead tree picture based visualizations.

Children’s Picture Books

Below is a shot from Peter Sis’ The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin. Each page of the book places the primary content of the story in the center circle and frames. The picture below isn’t the best example but it does a good job demonstrating the way the side stories leaf into the center image to express different parts of a related story. Over the last thirty years or so critics and artists have developed several different works that explore how picture books work. Folks interested visually communicating history might do well to borrow from their work.

Science Comics

The Sandwalk Adventures

As I mentioned, alongside Computers Visualization and History our class also read Understanding Comics. It is worth mentioning that comics themselves are becoming a compelling medium for visually communicating history. In my own area of interest, the History of Science, Jim Ottaviani and Jay Hosler have developed some fantastic examples of what you can do with comics. Below is a page from a great book about Darwin’s ear ticks by Hosler. 

Photos of Legos With Currency

Ok it doesn’t really fit, but it’s awesome-ness outweighed its misfit-ness, so here it is.

So, why have I pulled together these images? To demonstrate that there are already communities of comic and picture book artists interested in presenting historical information to young and old alike, many of who are doing a bang up job. There is enough material out there to just focus in on a single figure like darwin and see different examples from these fields. If historians want to think more about developing picture based visualizations they would do well to try folding in insights form these different communities.

Visualization and History: Hint, It's Not About Pictures

If your into history and computers, and looking for a mildly trippy read, break open a bottle of wine and spend three of four hours reading through David Staley’s Computers Visualization and History. Staley’s central, somewhat provocative, contention is that there is nothing natural or automatic about historians choice to communicate through writing. Like some scientists, historians could assemble evidence and communicate through visualizations. I think he is largely right about the value visualizations offer to historians, but I don’t think the most useful visualizations are going to be pictures or 3D models. In my opinion, the most promising places for visualization is visualizing texts.

[openbook booknumber=”0765610949″]

In the introduction Staley argues that “the impact of the computer has been as a graphics tool more than as a processor of words.” I think the real issue here is not about processing words or creating graphics. As far as I’m concerned the fundamental power of new media, computers first and foremost, is the manipulative leverage provided by databases. I don’t claim to take credit for this notion, at the moment I am thinking primarily of Lev Manovich’s book The Language of New Media.

If you have a chance to read both Manovich and Staley against each other I think you’ll see some interesting parallels in what they are excited about. Where Staley sees the liberating power of visualization,  Manovich sees the liberating potential of the database. Both graphic representation and databases offers a chance to escape the linearity of texts.

You don’t need to go much further than Wordle to see how powerful basic visualizations of texts can be. If your looking for something a bit more juicy and substantive take a look at Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, and Trees. Once you’ve seen Moretti graph the rise and fall of literary genres, and map out locations in stories to demonstrate megatrends in the history of British Literature, I am sure that you’ll be convinced of the largely untapped potential for these sorts of visualizations of texts. If you want to experiemnt yourself try doing some searches through Mark Davies Time Magizine Courpus and make some visualizations of them with Swivel.

Information technology allows us to manipulate linear texts, to search them, to parse them, to count frequency and relationships between words. In short, to take the linearity out of the text and stretch and visualize it for any number of reasons. At least at this point, that search and indexical stuff is something that really only works on texts.  I think Staly is right about visualization, but the funny part is that the most exciting vistas that historical visualization are probably going to be texts.