HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

Visualizing History

Big question:

How can reading images, or working with visual outputs enhance our understanding of the past?

Learning outcomes

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


Historians spend a great deal of time working with words. We read written and printed documents. We write essays, books, and blogs. But, how do we read images? Or, better yet, how can we use visualizations of text to help us ask different questions about the past? 

This workshop is in THREE parts. The first part will introduce you to how to read images, in this case maps, as primary sources. You will take a closer look at one of the maps from an earlier lesson, consider its component parts, and formulate an analysis of the map as a source. The second part introduces you to what we can learn by closely reading the title pages of early modern texts.  You will have the opportunity to closely read the title page of John Stedman's Narrative, and formulate an argument regarding the texts contents based on what you see there. Finally, you will have the opportunity to experiment with Voyant Tools as a method of pre-reading a text using OCR (optical character recognition) software.

Does this mean that you need to create three posts and three responses? The short answer is no, but you should experiment with at least TWO parts of the workshop. So, you can work with Voyant Tools, and the Title page options, the Map and Title Page option, or the Map and Voyant Tools options. 

How to choose?

Well...Assignment Two requires that you either approach a text using the pre-reading and distant reading skills outlined here in Parts 2 and 3 OR to read and compare maps using the visual skills in part 1 of this workshop. So, consider this an opportunity to get your historical hands dirty and practice your skills before you apply them in your next assignment!

Part One: How to read a map!

This section of the workshop shifts your focus from finding digital ways to visualize texts to reading images, and in this particular case, maps as historical documents. 

Take a closer look at one or two of the following maps:
We will be using these maps to explore reading maps as historical sources, so keep them close at hand, and choose one, or at most two of them to analyze in the discussions. We are already familiar with the process of analyzing primary sources from our toolbox of Historical Thinking Skills, and for the purposes of this course, we can also consider many of the maps we have shown you to be primary sources. If so, then what are the questions we need to ask when we analyze maps?

A good starting place is to think through some the following questions:
Some of the answers to these questions will be quite evident from the maps themselves. Others may require that you sleuth a little to uncover the answers. A quick search for the cartographer will provide you with some basic biographical information that you may find useful. Try not to go overboard here! Remember, your focus should be the map itself

It is also important to understand the various parts of a map, as they can help you to better read the map, and use the appropriate vocabulary in your analyses. Check out the following blog by Matt Knutzen on the New York Public Library entitled, Elements of Cartography. Try to locate some of these elements on your map. You may find it helpful to take a screenshot, identify the elements on your image, and share it in the forums.

Your post for this section asks you to analyze your chosen map, or an aspect of it to keep your thoughts succinct, using the questions above to guide you. Remember to evaluate the map in historical context, rather than contemporary context! In most cases, you will not find a completely accurate geographical representation of the map based on our current knowledge, but we are more interested in what the maps say about the culture that produced them!

Don't forget to comment on one another's experiences. Did you read the same maps? Did you come up with different readings? Find ways to help one another explore the maps as historical sources.

Part Two: Reading a Frontispiece or Title Page

What can we learn about a book by reading its title page?

When reading Early Modern Texts, the frontispiece or title page provided readers with significant information about the book's content.  Let's take a look at the Title page for John Stedman's Narrative of Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam.

How do the visual elements at the beginning of this book catch the readers’ attention, shape their interpretation of the text, and perhaps make literary connections? Describe what you see on the title page. Are there hints in the title and subtitles that suggest the topics this book will outline? Are there any images on the title page? If so, do they provide any further useful information about the book's contents? Who is the publisher? When was it published? Does knowing the date and location of publication help you to establish historical context for the book? Does the title page contain any literary or biblical references? If so, how might that help us to understand author's point of view regarding the book's content? If we look at the table of contents, what does it suggest about the sequence of events, or topics discussed in the book?

You will notice that there is indeed a poem quoted on the title page. Who is the poet? What is the poem? Can you read it? Try typing the poem into Google Translate. Does that help you to understand its meaning?  You will be encountering other texts and images in languages other than English. While we do not expect any of you to be proficient in multiple languages, experimenting with the online tools available to you in order to help you better understand documents is often very helpful!

Take a look at the title pages displayed here, and choose one:

After thinking through all these questions, you are ready to write your post describing what you think this book is about, and why, just from the title page you chose! (and yes, Stedman is one of the options!)

Finally, comment on one another's experiences. What worked? What did you struggle with? What might you like to explore given more time?

Part Three: Pre-Reading and Distant Reading with Voyant Tools

Over the last several weeks we have worked together to transcribe a section of an eighteenth-century text describing European explorations in South America and the Slave Trade that ensued there. The resulting digital files are valuable for historical research because once these texts are in a digital format, they are machine-readable. This 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 sometimes "text mining") to describe the techniques of analyzing sources with computers.

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

Questions to consider, and learning activity

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

Step 1: Learning about Voyant Tools and Distant Reading

Start by exploring Alyssa Anderson's blog on "Using Voyant Tools for Text Analysis." This essay introduces you to a Rice University project to read over 2,500 runaway slave ads from the nineteenth-century US! Of course, that's far too many ads to expect you to read, 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?

Voyant Tools and other applications for distant reading allow just these kinds of possibilities. Anderson's essay not only tells you about the possibilities but it also allows you to play around with the huge file of runaway slave ads.

The following introduction by Stefan Sinclair will provide you with a brief introduction to Voyant Tools:

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, but this is not a requirement.)


Step 2: Creating Your Own Voyant Tools File

Now it is your turn to experiment with Voyant Tools! In this Part of the Workshop you will create an exportable visual output of a transcribed document from the list at the bottom of the page.

If you are experimenting with larger texts, 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.

Step 3: Experiment with Voyant Tools

For this week's discussion, we'd like to hear about your experiences "reading" texts using Voyant. Tell us a bit about your results (especially its subject!). Spend some time exploring at least 2 of the various tools Voyant has to offer, and explain your results. Tell us what tools you are working with. Describe what you see, and explain what it might say about your text. How helpful was the tool you chose? How might Voyant might help you to pre-read a document you have not, yet encountered. Take a screen shot showing the results of the tool you are using and share it in your discussion post so your reader can better visualize your explanation.

Finally, comment on one another's experiences. What worked? What did you struggle with? What might you like to explore given more time?

Hint: You will have the option to work with Voyant again in Assignment Two, and throughout next semester, so take your time to experiment now if this appeals to you!

Feel free to experiment with Voyant to read future texts you encounter in the course, and share your thoughts in the discussions as we move through the course!

Source options to experiment with Voyant


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