HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World


Important Technical Notes for This Workshop

Big question

How can historians use software to help read textual sources?


Over the last several weeks we have worked together in this course to transcribe several eighteenth-century texts about slavery. These will soon be ready for you to work with. The resulting digital files will be valuable for historical research, because once these texts are in a digital format, they are machine-readable. This machine-readable format allows you (and other historians that we might share our files with) several powerful options for text analysis. Scholars sometimes use the term "distant reading" (or "text mining") to describe the techniques of analyzing sources with computer software.

In this Workshop you will learn about one program for distant reading: Voyant Tools. Two excellent ways to learn about these options are

  1. to read about and play with other researchers' projects online;
  2. and to build your own project.
In this Workshop you will do both. You should budget about an hour or two for both parts of the Workshop (or about 3-4 hours for the entire Workshop).

Learning outcomes

At the end of this week you should be able to:

  • Experiment with distant reading by exploring a collection of many hundreds of runaway slave ads from the early United States;
  • Create a shareable output of a Voyant Tools page that you upload to the Forum in Sakai.

Questions to consider, and learning activity

The learning activity for this week's workshop consists of two main parts.

PART 1: Learning about Voyant Tools and Distant Reading

This part of the Workshop requires you to read Alyssa Anderson's blog on "Using Voyant Tools for Text Analysis." The essay introduces you to a Rice University project to read over 2,500 (!) runaway slave ads from the nineteenth-century United States. Of course, those are far too many ads for you to read in a conventional way, even though they're short. But what if there was a way for you to "read" these in a few minutes and actually have a chance to make some useful hypotheses about them?

Voyant Tools and other applications for distant reading allow just these kinds of possibilities. The interactive graphic below is a collection of several tools for analyzing ALL the ads at once. Notice that in the frame below you can click on individual elements of the program (or even hover over them with your mouse) to find out more about the slave ads.

After you read Anderson's essay, come back to this window, or better still go to the fuller page view of it that is available by clicking this link. See if you can notice any potentially significant patterns in these data. When you search for patterns this way, you will be starting to think about the significance of the sources. This kind of reading is not a replacement for close reading, but it can help you improve your close reading by helping to train you to ask questions of an entire collection of sources, or about the entirety of one large source.

You should also budget about 6-10 minutes to watch Tom Lynch's introduction to using Voyant Tools. Lynch is an education professor at Pace University. His introduction focuses on "reading" Herman Melville's very long nineteenth-century novel, Moby Dick. (If you are not familiar with Moby Dick, you might look briefly at the the Wikipedia page on the novel.)

NOTE: In Anderson's blog and Lynch's video an older version of Voyant Tools is on feature. You will learn to use the latest version of Voyant. It looks a little different than the original version, but the basic principles of its use are the same.

PART 2: Creating Your Own Voyant Tools File

In this Part of the Workshop you will create an exportable analysis of a Wikipedia page. Please note: You will NOT pick which page to analyze. Rather, you will use the page that we provide for you. Follow these instructions:

Make sure you are connected to the web. Voyant Tools can work off-line, but making that possible involves many steps.

  1. Find the Wikipedia page associated with your name on THE LIST PROVIDED IN SAKAI MESSAGES (20 Nov. 2019); you will use this page as an object for analysis in this Workshop.
  2. Open up the Voyant Tools page at http://voyant-tools.org/.
  3. Open your assigned Wikipedia page; then highlight and copy its contents.
    • Make sure you only copy the main text of the article. In other words, be careful to avoid copying the bibliography, notes, or menu material in the left-hand margin. The reason is that this "tertiary" material will skew the results in Voyant. We don't want the program to "read" these extra data.
  4. Go to the Voyant window in your browser. Paste the article into the "Add Texts" window of Voyant.
  5. Click the "Reveal" button in the "Add Texts" window.
  6. Once Voyant has generated an initial analysis of your Wikipedia article, you will notice a word cloud (aka cirrus) in the top-left frame. When you move your cursor to the top-right of that small word cloud frame, several icons will appear. The first one on the left is a box with an arrow in it. Click on it.
  7. In the "Export" window that appears, choose the option "Export View (Tools and Data)".
  8. Then choose the option "an HTML snippet for embedding this view in another web page" ... and then click "Export". A window will pop up.
  9. Copy the text that appears in the window.
  10. Go to the Forum in Sakai and "Start a New Conversation".
  11. Add a title for your post (e.g., "Word cloud of Wikipedia entry on ..."), and then click on the "Source" option in the text frame (it should be on the top left). Once you've selected "Source," paste the details (i.e., the HTML snippet points 8 and 9) from Voyant there. Then click "post". This will embed your Voyant output in Sakai; if you do not see a Voyant word cloud display of your Wikipedia article, then you have missed something. The deadline for this first post is the end of the day on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019 (dates are now updated).
  12. Finally, write a post before Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, with your first impressions of the opportunities and challenges of using Voyant Tools to analyze texts. You should make sure that you have looked at the Voyant outputs and read the reflective posts of all the previous students in your Forum BEFORE you post a second time. Therefore, early posters have less to read -- but the early posters are encouraged to go back to read the ongoing conversation!

We'd like to hear about your experiences "reading" texts using Voyant. Tell us a bit about your results (especially their subject!). Have a look at your classmates' results. Do you see similarities? Differences?

Try using Voyant to read other texts: for example, something that you have written, or perhaps a long novel that you find in digital format in Gutenberg.org (a repository of famous literature). Share your thoughts in the Forum.


  • Alyssa Anderson, "Using Voyant Tools for Text Analysis," Digital History Methods, Rice University.
  • A Wikipedia page that is assigned to you (see Sakai Messages for 20 Nov. 2019).

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