Category Archives: Digital Humanities

A Graph of Diplomatic Wrangling in Algiers

When the United States became independent after the American Revolution, it had to struggle to protect its seaborne commerce in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Americans had to rely on the goodwill of France, Portugal, and other European powers because the United States lacked the naval power necessary to protect its own shipping.

Historical Background 

Americans had to negotiate with the Barbary states to secure the release of hostages, taken by Barbary corsairs, and to decide how much tribute would guarantee the safety of American shipping. The United States quickly felt the bite of diplomatic and military impotence. American diplomats, who had little power of their own, had to rely on the good graces of many others with better connections to the Algerine court. Sometimes, those others helped the American cause; at other times, they weren’t all that helpful; and on a few occasions, they purposely derailed American negotiations.

Richard B. Parker writes about the United States’ relationship with Algiers in Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History, which details the complicated and sometimes absurd relationships of American diplomats, European diplomats and dignitaries, and the court of the Algerine dey. The story is quite complex, which makes it difficult to understand in a narrative, and Parker’s organization doesn’t help matters. (A quick shout-out to Jean Bauer, whose Early American Foreign Services Database was extremely helpful in elucidating the roles of some diplomats whom Parker does not adequately identity.)

The story of American-Barbary diplomacy is all about relationships. Naturally, a story about relationships suggests a network graph as a way to make the situation more intelligible.

Parameters and Characteristics of the Graph

To represent the American-Barbary diplomatic network, I created the graph in Gephi. I hate Gephi. I like Gephi. (You know what I mean.) This graph represents interactions from approximately 1785 to 1800. The last interaction I recorded was between the dey of Algiers and William Bainbridge in September 1800; this interaction was the first one in which the navy was directly involved (though it was a diplomatic interaction, not a military one). I decided to end my graph there because I’m most interested in how the navy changed things for U.S. relations with the Barbary states and with the European nations who had hitherto helped those relations.

The nodes are people who had a connection to Barbary diplomacy. The edges are letters and meetings that Parker writes about. I checked up on as many as I could using American State Papers, and I will continue to document the interactions more explicitly than Parker does in his bibliography (where he only records the collection, not the exact document, his source comes from). 

 Each node is color-coded by nationality; the next step is also to record where these people were actually living while they were engaged in Barbary negotiations. 

Green: Algiers
Red: United States
Purple: England
Light blue: Tripoli
Darker blue: France
Light purple: Spain
Yellow: Portugal
Orange: Sweden

The graph isn’t perfect (obviously). There’s a lot more to be done here. This graph is based solely on Parker’s book, which I’m not wholly convinced is accurate. In addition, Parker addresses only diplomatic relations with Algiers, not the other three Barbary states (Tripoli, Tunis, and Morocco). Furthermore, I haven’t attached dates to each edge, simply because Parker doesn’t provide dates for all of the interactions. A more dynamic timeline of the network changes would be most instructive. So there’s a lot more data that needs to be added to this graph. But I think it’s a good start toward understanding the global nature of American relations with the Barbary states, which culminated in the Barbary Wars of 1801-1805 and 1815.



Boston-Area Days of DH Wrap-up

[cross-posted to]

Now that it’s been almost a month since the Boston-Area Days of DH, I figured I’d better write a wrap-up of the conference. It was my very great pleasure to help Prof. Ryan Cordell organize the conference, and along the way I learned a lot about DH and about scholarly work in general (and about scheduling and organization and making sure the coffee gets to the right place…).

The Boston-Area Days of DH conference was sponsored by Northeastern University’s NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks. Originally, it was designed to coincide with the worldwide Day of DH, sponsored by CenterNet. It would do in a conference what Day of DH does online: highlight the work that Boston-area digital humanists are doing and start conversations based on that work. In addition, we tried to include sessions to help digital humanists do their work better.

Day 1 Breakdown

Our first session, the lightning talks, was designed to highlight as many projects as possible in a short amount of time. All the presentations were interesting, but I’d like to especially mention a couple. First, the Lexomics group from Wheaton College presented on their text analysis work on Old English texts. This group was unusual both for the work they did and also for their place in the field: all the presenters were undergraduates at Wheaton. I found it very heartening to see undergraduates doing serious scholarly work using digital humanities. Second, Siobhan Senier’s work on Native American literature was especially inspiring. I love how she is using digital tools to help expose and analyze literature of New England Native Americans. She’s using Omeka as a digital repository for Native American literature, much of which is not literature in words, but rather in art or handicraft (such as baskets). I think this is a perfect use for the Omeka platform.

After the lightning talks, we were able to run a set of workshops twice during the first day of the conference. The topics ranged from network analysis (taught by Jean Bauer), to text analysis (taught by David Smith), to historical GIS (taught by Ryan Cordell). I heard lots of good feedback about how helpful these workshops were, though I wasn’t able to attend any myself.

The keynote address has to rate as one of the most entertainingly educational talks I’ve ever heard. Matt Jockers, from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, sparred with Julia Flanders from Brown University in a mock debate over the relative merits of big data and small data. They’ve posted their whole talk, along with some post-talk comments on their respective blogs (Matt’s and Julia’s). The talk is certainly well worth the read, so rather than outlining or overviewing it here,  I’ll just entreat you to go to the source itself.

Day 2 Breakdown

On Day 2, we suffered an environmental crisis: a sudden snowstorm in the night on Monday night which made travel a much greater hassle than it already is in Boston. As a result, our numbers were greatly reduced, but we soldiered on, sans coffee and muffins.

Our first session was a series of featured talks about specific projects. Topics ranged from gaming, to GIS, to pedagogy, to large-scale text analysis. Augusta Rohrbach discussed how a game she’s working on, Trifles, incorporates elements of history and literature into a game environment to teach students about both history and literature, while engaging in questions about gender and social issues as well. Michael Hanrahan talked about how GIS can reframe questions about rebellions in England in 1381, and on a wider scale, how GIS can reframe questions of information dissemination. Shane Landrum talked about how he uses digital technology to teach at a large, public, urban university, and the challenges of doing DH in a place where computer access and time to “screw around” are real problems. And Ben Schmidt talked about doing textual analysis on large corpora using Bookworm, a tool created at the Harvard Cultural Observatory.

The final session of the conference was a grants workshop with Brett Bobley, director of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities. By staging a mock panel discussion such as might occur in a real review of grant proposals, Brett was able to instruct us about what the NEH-ODH is looking for in grant proposals, and how the grant-awarding process works. I found the issues that Brett raised about grant proposals to be helpful in thinking through all of my work: am I being specific about my objectives? about who this will reach? about how exactly it’s all going to get done? These questions ought to inform our practice not just for grants, but for all the work we do.


All in all, despite some environmental setbacks, I think the conference was a great success. A friend, upon seeing the program, remarked to me, “Wow, a digital humanities conference that’s not a THATCamp!” I’m all for THATCamps, but I do think that pairing this sort of conference with the THATCamp model allows us to talk about our work in different ways, all of which are valuable. So, with some trepidation, I will join those who have already called for this conference to become an annual event. (After all, with a year of experience under our belt, what could go wrong?)

Developing High- and Low-Tech Digital Competencies

Last week, Ben Schmidt gave a talk at Northeastern, part of which was about developing technical competency in digital methods. This semester, I’ve had the chance to develop my technical competency in working with data, mostly by jumping in with both feet and flailing around in all directions.

The task I was given in the NULab has allowed me to play with several different digital methods. The base project was this: turn strings such as these

10138 sn86071378/1854-12-14/ed-1 sn85038518/1854-12-07/ed-1
8744 sn83030213/1842-12-08/ed-1 sn86053954/1842-12-14/ed-1
8099 sn84028820/1860-01-05/ed-1 sn88061076/1859-12-23/ed-2
7819 sn85026050/1860-12-06/ed-1 sn83035143/1860-12-06/ed-1
7792 sn86063325/1850-01-03/ed-1 sn89066057/1849-12-31/ed-1

into a usable representation of a pair of newspapers who share a printed text. This snippet is 5 lines of a document of over 2 million lines, so obviously doing the substitutions by hand was not really an option.

David Smith, the computer science professor who wrote the algorithm that generated these pairs, suggested a Python program, using the dictionary data structure, for creating the usable list. That dictionary would draw its key from the text file provided by the Library of Congress for the Chronicling America newspapers. That was all fine, except that I had never even seen a Python script before.

I started very basic: The Programming Historian! Though that program was very helpful in learning the syntax and vocabulary, the brief discussion of dictionaries in The Programming Historian wasn’t sufficient for what I needed. So I turned to other sources of information: Python documentation (not that helpful) and my husband Lincoln (very helpful).

Through a lot of frustration, bother, and translating Ruby scripts into Python, Lincoln and I (95% Lincoln) were able to come up with a working program that generated a .csv file with lines of text that looked like this:

Democrat and sentinel. (Ebensburg, Pa.) 1853-1866 Nashville union and American. (Nashville, Tenn.) 1853-1862
New-York daily tribune. (New-York [N.Y.]) 1842-1866 Jeffersonian Republican. (Stroudsburg, Pa.) 1840-1853
Holmes County Republican. (Millersburg, Holmes County, Ohio) 1856-1865 Clarksville chronicle. (Clarksville, Tenn.) 1857-1865
Fremont journal. (Fremont, Sandusky County, [Ohio]) 1853-1866 Cleveland morning leader. (Cleveland [Ohio]) 1854-1865
Glasgow weekly times. (Glasgow, Mo.) 1848-1861 Democratic banner. (Bowling Green, Pike County, Mo.) 1845-1852
Belmont chronicle. (St. Clairsville, Ohio) 1855-1973 Clarksville chronicle. (Clarksville, Tenn.) 1857-1865

The next step was pulling out the dates of publication (for the shared texts) and adding them to the .csv file. To do so, I had to update my Python program. I wrote a regular expression that detected the dates by searching for fields that looked like ####/##/##. In order to accommodate the Atlantic Monthly, which didn’t do its dates the same way, I added a variation that found the string beginning with 18 and recorded the 18 plus the next 6 digits. (At some point, I’ll write a separate thing that will add in the hyphens, perhaps?)

Third, I used the command line to remove the parentheses and brackets in the master newspapers file, and tab delimit the fields so that the location was its own column. This command looks like this:

tr '()' '\t' < newspapers-edit.txt | tr ',' '\t' | tr '[]' '\t' > newspapers-edit-expanded.txt

However, I realized when I did this command that it messes up my newspaper dictionary (from step 1) because the LCCN number, which was the last field, is now in a non-fixed location depending on how many fields were created by moving the comma-separated information into new tab-separated fields. So I did the highest-tech thing I know: I opened the .txt file in LibreOffice Calc (the poor man’s MS Excel) and simply moved the LCCN column in the original newspapers-edit.txt file over so that it wouldn’t be affected when I ran the tab-separating command. Then I ran the command again.

The data set now looks like this:
Democrat and sentinel. (Ebensburg, Pa.) 1853-1866 1854-12-14 Nashville union and American. (Nashville, Tenn.) 1853-1862 1854-12-07
New-York daily tribune. (New-York [N.Y.]) 1842-1866 1842-12-08 Jeffersonian Republican. (Stroudsburg, Pa.) 1840-1853 1842-12-14
Holmes County Republican. (Millersburg, Holmes County, Ohio) 1856-1865 1860-01-05 Clarksville chronicle. (Clarksville, Tenn.) 1857-1865 1859-12-23
Fremont journal. (Fremont, Sandusky County, [Ohio]) 1853-1866 1860-12-06 Cleveland morning leader. (Cleveland [Ohio]) 1854-1865 1860-12-06
Glasgow weekly times. (Glasgow, Mo.) 1848-1861 1850-01-03 Democratic banner. (Bowling Green, Pike County, Mo.) 1845-1852 1849-12-31
Belmont chronicle. (St. Clairsville, Ohio) 1855-1973 1857-12-10 Clarksville chronicle. (Clarksville, Tenn.) 1857-1865 1857-12-14

My next task was figuring out how to write the dictionary to draw out the city/state as their own separate fields, which can then be geocoded in ArcGIS. I wrote the dictionary in a sort of stack: the LCCN calls the title; the title calls the city; the city calls the state. When I figured out how to set this up, I felt (for the first time) a major advancement in my understanding of Python syntax.

And this is how the data set has finally ended up looking:

Democrat and sentinel. Ebensburg Pennsylvania 1854-12-14 Nashville union and American. Nashville Tennessee 1854-12-07
New-York daily tribune. New-York New York 1842-12-08 Jeffersonian Republican. Stroudsburg Pennsylvania 1842-12-14
Holmes County Republican. Millersburg Ohio 1860-01-05 Clarksville chronicle. Clarksville Tennessee 1859-12-23
Fremont journal. Fremont Ohio 1860-12-06 Cleveland morning leader. Cleveland Ohio 1860-12-06
Glasgow weekly times. Glasgow Missouri 1850-01-03 Democratic banner. Bowling Green Missouri 1849-12-31
Belmont chronicle. St. Clairsville Ohio 1857-12-10 Clarksville chronicle. Clarksville Tennessee 1857-12-14

At the very beginning, I set up a shortened set (10 lines) of pairwise data to run my tests on, so I wouldn’t super-mess any of the big data up (or wait a really long time to discover that I’d done something wrong and the output wasn’t what I intended). This was a really helpful way to test my program without major consequences.

Each time, when it was time to replace the test file with the real one, I got all knock-kneed, fearful that something would go terribly awry. With the first program, something did go awry: we discovered that the test one worked but the big one didn’t because of mysterious empty lines in the big one. We solved that problem by (1) finding the blank lines and removing–don’t quite know how, to be honest, and (2) writing an exception that skipped over aberrant lines. Since that time, I fixed the aberrant line problem by adding the problem publication (the Atlantic Monthly) into the newspapers master list I’m pulling my dictionary keys from. So in the second iteration of the program, not only were there dates, but all the lines in the file were actually being identified. Troubleshooting these problems was quite beneficial in helping me learn exactly how Python works.

My first experiences with programming, though a very great frustration to me at times, have stretched me a lot in thinking about how data can be manipulated, and the best ways to get the job done. I look forward to continuing to flail around in all directions, both on this project and hopefully on some of my own.

Space Matters

[Originally posted to the course blog for Doing Digital Humanities, Prof. Ryan Cordell.]

In addition to our reading for class about mapping, several blog posts about mapping and GIS have been in my RSS feed reader this week. All these have combined to make me think more critically about space and its representations in historical research and presentation.

As Jo Guldi points out, the spatial turn in history occurred as early as the modern study of history. It seems almost self-evident that historical analysis has to include a discussion of space, at least to historians now. The history of people is inextricably linked to the history of those people’s space. And as historians focused more on national history, space obviously had to be considered. Guldi says, “Telling a history of nation rather than family required the writers to develop tools for privileging landscape over the portrait,” especially since the history of nations is almost always a history of their definitions of, representations of, and pursuit of geographical space.

(Imagined) Actual Space

Despite so much focus on spaces and maps, our spatial sense, both as historians and as people in general, is often deeply flawed. (I speak for myself here, but also more generally.) Imagined space, based on perceived importance, is often conflated with actual, physical space. Kelly Johnston demonstrates this principle with an amusing map of Texas, but he also draws attention to a less tongue-in-cheek blindness of many Americans to exactly how large other parts of the world are. I can’t speak for other people in the world, but it wouldn’t surprise me if people all over the world inflate their own geography’s size and importance.

Using Space in History

As Richard White points out, many historians share that general blindness to how space relates to the study of history. But it’s also hard to use simple space, or simple geography, to demonstrate a historical point. For instance, talking about how railroads expanded across the United States is not simply a geographical discussion, but also a social, political, and labor question. Geography alone does not usually make something historically interesting (though there are certainly examples to the contrary).

White discusses how space is more than just a geographical construct by relating it to the work of Henri Lefebvre:

Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space introduced a generation of historians to the idea that space is neither simply natural geography nor an empty container filled by history. It is rather something that human beings produce over time. Spatial relations shift and change. Space is itself historical. Lefebvre, who was a philosopher and not a geographer, organized his own work around three forms of space that he called spatial practice, representations of space, and representational space.

I think these distinctions about spatial practice (how space is used), representations of space (maps, architectural renderings, etc.), and representational space (“an attempt to conceive in order to shape what is lived and perceived” such as setting aside land for national parks in order to shape the idea of wilderness as important space?) are helpful if only for thinking through why space matters.

I don’t think most historians purposefully ignore space. More and more are adopting the spatial turn, for sure. But what sometimes happens is that previous historians’ assumptions about space are accepted and propagated without much thought about how those representations affect the story.

An example from my own research: As I was preparing for a lecture on the Barbary Wars, I suddenly realized that I had no idea why the United States was even interested in protecting their right to space in the Mediterranean Sea. So I went searching in all my books about the Barbary Wars, about early American trade, about naval history more generally…and I came up completely empty. Not one book I found mentioned why the United States was even in the Mediterranean at all. We all assume that it’s because of trade. But there are no numbers on how big of a trade it was. There are stories about commercial vessels being taken by the Barbary corsairs, of course, but no mention of what they were doing in the Mediterranean or what percentage of the volume of trade they represented. To me, this is a problem (one I intend to rectify as soon as possible, perhaps this summer). It’s not that the assumptions are wrong: they’re probably right. It’s that historians don’t account for American presence in that space in any meaningful way. (There probably are books out there that address this, but I haven’t seen them.)

How does GIS help?

It’s very easy to look at a lot of quantitative geographical data and draw broad conclusions from the data without pinning those data points to an actual map. Neither, in some cases, is there a need for such precision in data use. And before the availability of GIS, plotting large data sets onto maps was simply impractical–trying to account for hundreds of points of latitude/longitude, for example, might turn a simple hypothesis test into a life’s work!

But GIS enables the historian to easily make the connections between the specific data points and the larger assumptions. Mapping census data onto actual county maps may reveal some geographical or social features not obvious in the data charts. Or sometimes GIS can reveal a discrepancy between the historical facts and the historical assumptions. Such is the case in the research of my colleague John Dixon at Harvard, whose research involved using GIS to plot locations of commercial vessels on their routes using data from their ship’s logs. His research has demonstrated that the assumption of many historians, the existence of very narrow shipping lanes in the Atlantic Ocean, is simply not true, since ships actually traversed almost all of the northern Atlantic. This data has been available for decades, but GIS has allowed the data to confront the assumptions and, in this case, prove them mostly false.

Seth Long also suggests that digital maps (of one sort or another) can be used to mashup spatial and non-spatial data in a way that physical paper maps can’t. He says:

Too often, digital maps are treated like paper maps: they select one or two elements and then deflect everything else, which completely undermines the utility of these interfaces and the plethora of data available online. Mapping socio-economic factors shows us one thing; mapping presidential voting patterns shows us another; mapping proposition voting shows us something else. These just scratch the surface. Individually, digital maps are valuable, but together, they construct a much richer and more robust view of a place than they do individually.

These broader themes seem a good reason to start thinking about GIS.

Caveat Emptor

Despite the grand abilities of GIS, I still have a few concerns before buying in completely. GIS isn’t a panacea for all mapping problems; after all, at the end of the day, as J.B. Hartley said, “The map is not the territory.” Maps can’t represent everything about the spaces they depict. And even GIS, with its seeming objectivity, can’t create objective maps.

Maps are political, even GIS maps. Some critics of GIS have suggested that it stems from a positivist idea of objectivity (Bodenhammer 19), and that criticism seems relevant. More importantly, though, GIS maps are built on a Western spatial perspective, a scientific perspective. Non-Western mapping (or non-European) doesn’t necessarily privilege science as a measure of space. And who’s to say that Westerners are right and others aren’t? Why should science be the standard way of representing space, when in many instances it isn’t the standard way people actually consider it?

In addition, GIS’s impact is based on precision, or at least the illusion of precision. Mapping precise latitude and longitude can be very helpful, but the map is only as good as the data. In some instances, the data is sketchy or flat-out wrong. This is a problem my colleague John Dixon is working through: ship captains didn’t always record in their logs the position they believed themselves to be at. In addition, calculating longitude without a chronometer is a matter of guesswork at best. So these seemingly precise plot points are not that precise after all. And why is the data flawed? Perhaps it’s because those ship captains privileged a different conception of space.

There’s a lot more to say about GIS, I think–a lot more ramifications for how we research and how we think through our own assumptions, both about the historical record and about the tools we’re using to discover that record. In the meantime, this HASTAC forum, just posted, deals with some of these questions about mapping, in case you’re interested. It might be a good chance to see how other scholars approach these unique ways of looking at space.

Documenting Change over Time with Simile Timeline

The NULab project that I’m working on right now involves documenting connections between newspapers in the nineteenth-century United States. So far, my work has been researching the history of each individual newspaper. It’s been an enlightening and entertaining process. (If you’re interested in one of the most entertaining stories I discovered, check out my Omeka exhibit for my digital humanities class.)

We’re pulling data from the Chronicling America website at the Library of Congress. The newspapers we have range from 1836 to 1860. We don’t have all the newspapers from that range, though. We’re adding new papers all the time. The data I’m working with right now is from the first batch of data.

One of the difficulties I encountered early into the process of research was the astonishing number of name changes each paper went through during its lifetime. To get a better sense of how many times and how often these name changes occurred, I decided to plot the changes on a timeline.

Based on a suggestion from Chuck Rybak, and armed with an excellent basic tutorial by Brian Croxall, I built my timeline using MIT Simile Timeline. I found data entry very easy using the timeline interface. (I don’t think the CSS is particularly beautiful; as I have time, I may try to make it nicer-looking.)

For many of the newspapers, the exact date of some changes is uncertain. Various sources disagree on dates, and some information is just not out there for me to find. To compensate for that difficulty, I marked each uncertain date as starting on January 1 of the year and noted the uncertainty in the comment.

The current timeline has another drawback: it can’t filter by newspaper. For some newspapers, it’s easy to tell which names are connected (for instance, it’s pretty easy to tell that the Sunbury American is connected to the Sunbury American and Shamokin Journal). It’s not so easy to see the link between papers such as the Salt River Journal, The Radical, and The Democratic Banner. I’d like to be able to filter the timeline so these connections are self-evident without reading the comments.

Here’s the final result, though as newspapers get added to our dataset, they’ll get added here too. You’ll notice, too, that my timeline spans more than 1836-1860. Though many of the newspapers exist past 1860, I decided to stop my investigations there because it wouldn’t be that helpful to our project. However, I decided to trace each paper back to its origin, if possible, as a way to get at the characteristics of the paper. For that reason, the start date for some newspapers is well before 1836.

If anyone has suggestions for how to improve this timeline, I would welcome them! Please leave me a comment.


Witticism from the Holmes County Republican

As part of my work at the NULab, I’ve been researching newspapers from the mid-nineteenth century. This little tidbit from a newspaper in Millersburg, OH, caught my eye and I thought I’d share.

P.S. If you know anything about Millersburg in the 1850s, or the Holmes County Republican or Holmes County Farmer, please contact me. I would like to know more about this town’s news.

About Girls’ Names.

If you are a very precise man and wish to be certain of what you get, never marry a girl named Ann; for we have the authority of Lindley Murray, and others, that “an is an indefinite article.”[1. I’ve been listening to the Anne of Green Gables series on my commute to school, and this one seems to hold true, in that case at least.]

If you would like to have a wife who is “one of a thousand,” you should marry an Emily or an Emma, for any printer can tell you that “em’s” are always counted by thousands.

If you do not wish to have a bustling, fly-about wife, you should not marry one named Jenny; for every cotton spinner knows that jennies are always on the go.

If you marry one named Margaret, you may confidentially expect that she will end her days on the gallows; for all the world knows that “days” were made for hanging.[2. I must confess, I don’t understand this one at all. Someone please enlighten me? Update: Apparently this is a misprint. In every other newspaper in which this or a similar witticism appears, the word “days” is replaced by the word “Pegs,” which makes much more sense. What’s weird is that the “days”/”pegs” mistake looks a lot like an OCR problem. Did they have OCR problems in 1856?]

The most incessant writer in the world is he who is always bound to Ad-a-line.

You may adore your wife, but you will be surpassed, in love when your wife is a Dora.

Unless you would have the evil one for a father-inlaw, you should not marry a lady named Elizabeth, for the devil is the father of Lize– (lies.)

If you wish to succeed in life as a porter, you should marry a Caroline, and treat her very kindly, for so long as you continue to
do this, you will be good to Carry.

Many men of high moral principles, and who would not gamble for the world, still have not refused to take a Bet.

from the Holmes County Republican, August 21, 1856 (its inaugural issue under that name)

The Message of the Historical Medium

[This post was written for my graduate class, “Doing Digital Humanities,” and originally posted on that course’s blog.]

Literary scholars and creative writers spend quite a bit of time thinking about the medium in which they work. Historians tend to think about such things less, since literary theory often doesn’t work well with historical inquiry. Serious historical scholarship is almost always created in a standard medium: the monograph.

Reading Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium Is the Message” for class, I thought that a more careful examination of the historical medium might be in order.

Traditional Medium for Traditional History

The historical monograph has several salient features. First, it’s a fixed document. Once it’s published, it really can’t be changed. Second, it has clear structural organization (table of contents, preface, introduction, chapters 1-…, afterword, notes, bibliography). Third, only a few names, often only one, appears on its cover.

Perhaps these elements of a monograph are what make it so appealing to many historians. For many years, the typical historian focused on national history. He worked within a closed geographical boundary (the United States, let’s say), generally within a fairly rigid time frame (the early republic, let’s say). In many instances, the goal of his research was to standardize and/or streamline the nation’s history into a coherent narrative. The parts that didn’t fit the thesis were left out or marginalized. The monograph could just as easily have been written on a typewriter as a MacBook.

The method of doing history correlates fairly well to the medium in which it is displayed. A closed geographical area is written about in a fixed canonical document. A standard organization correlates well with a coherent national narrative. An individual listed author emphasizes the originality of the work. Though the connections of the work to the broader scholarly community are often emphasized, the collaborative efforts of archivists, researchers, and others are usually less noticeable. Many great historians of both past and present have expertly used their medium to tell a compelling narrative that explains many aspects of human history.

But not all.

New Methods, New Topics…New Media?

National history, in the last few decades, has fallen out of favor for many historians. Gender, class, race, and other themes that transcend the history of one nation have become more prevalent topics of study. These themes have often proved messy, unable to be fit into one coherent narrative. In a way that’s the beauty of this new way of thinking about history: it doesn’t have to be neat. It doesn’t have to work out in the end.

So we have to ask ourselves: is the monograph the medium suited to this message? Perhaps not. Instead, perhaps we should look for a medium that allows for multiple narratives to be investigated simultaneously, for massive amounts of data to be made comprehensible, for something that doesn’t tie history between two covers.

Cultural and social historians have long used large data sets, visual aids, and multiple narratives in their monographs. But these features often have the effect of confusing the issues or bogging down the reader instead of helping to bring clarity to complicated problems. (After all, who but the most dedicated of us actually reads all the sociological data charts or carefully scrutinizes every single map in a monograph?) Sometimes publishers do not even allow their authors to include their large data analyses in their published work.

These sorts of historical inquiries, then, would seem to invite a different type of medium, one that’s better suited to their message.

Perhaps digital humanities can help provide a new medium for the new message of history. Maps can be made interactive, better demonstrating real movements. Visualizations can be dynamic, showing in one setting what might take multiple confusing charts or graphs in a monograph. Large data sets can be published online, where users can manipulate them or filter them to match their interests. At its simplest, digital humanities can provide a way to simultaneously provide multiple equally weighted narratives, which the reader can choose to read however he or she wishes.

Digital humanities also provides a way to change the inequalities of credit for work on a project. Collaboration is at the heart of traditional historical writing no less than in the heart of digital humanities, but DH tends to be more open about equal credit for all collaborators (and is working toward a better model all the time). Perhaps, then, it fits well with history whose goal is to give all people of all types their part in the history of the world.

So maybe digital humanities is a way to control the messiness of these new ideas of history without losing their analytical coherence. It may be a different type of coherence than historians are used to, but these are different questions.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

Some historians wonder whether the digital humanities will change the way history is done. They worry that the message of the new medium does not fit well with the message of the entire historical discipline. They fear that the traditional practices of reading and writing will be jeopardized by the new modes of expression in the digital humanities. But historical analysis is still going on, even in new digital projects. Writing is still happening, and it’s being read. In fact, digital writing has the potential for a much larger readership. So the question isn’t whether reading and writing will disappear (I’m pretty confident that they won’t), but whether the specific medium in which historians like to work will have to make room for other media.

I’m a traditional historian. I like monographs. I like national histories. My field, naval history, is highly traditional in subject, methodology, and practitioners (male-dominated would be an understatement). But my field also has great potential for non-monographic treatment. What better field can you have for mapping than one whose entire existence is about movement across the globe? What better field can you have for networks than one whose highly stratified structure belies the tangled web of intense personal connections amongst a tight-knit group? What better field can you have for big data work than one that records practically everything about each of its denizens’ environments multiple times per day?

I don’t think monographs are going anywhere, not just yet anyway–nor do I want them to. But I do think it’s time for historians to exercise a little creativity in their choice of medium. As DH research changes the questions we ask, perhaps the message of our research requires a different medium to match it.

High Seas Trader: Games and Maritime History

Using video or computer games as pedagogical tools has always been a concept that I’ve harbored deep skepticism about. Perhaps it’s the old fogey in me that wants to say, “If it’s not hard work, it’s not learning!”

History is also more complicated than one person’s ability to control it. Thus, old games like Oregon Trail, though highly enjoyable for indoor recess, teach that when you’re faced with dysentery, for instance, your only two options are to (a) rest or (b) keep going. There’s no mention of the fact that you may be traveling in a wagon train with, say, a doctor, even if you’re not one yourself. But in real life, pioneers usually had other resources besides what was in their own wagons.

Historical video games on a larger scale, such as Age of Empires or Rise of Nations, though excellent fun, also teach a skewed view of history, most especially that war is always the way alliances and enmities are created. Don’t get me wrong–a game that involved long drawn-out diplomatic negotiations wouldn’t be that fun. But they don’t really teach an accurate view of how world politics and wars work.

So I’ve always been a little skeptical of the history people learn through computer games. But this past week as I sat in America and the Sea, I realized that much of the subject we were discussing–early exploration on the oceans–I had learned through a game.

High Seas Trader came out in the mid-1990s, I think. It’s a game in which you, the captain of a trading vessel, trade commodities across the known world, fight enemy nations and pirate ships, collect gold, and work toward promotion within the guild. It starts in 1650; you’ll die before the American colonies get their independence. You get to pick a nationality from several seafaring European nations: England, France, Holland, Spain, or Portugal.

There are certainly historical inaccuracies, and you definitely don’t learn anything about how to actually handle a ship. One major inaccuracy is that as a merchant vessel captain, you never have any contact with the navy of any nation, yours or another. (Especially if you’re British, this is a fiction. You definitely would have had contact with the navy, and not always a positive contact.) The ships you fight are always other merchant vessels or pirates.

But what you do learn is where commodities were cheapest (and most expensive), the historical names of a large number of ports, and how political alliances and territories changed throughout the course of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Here’s the intro to the game, compliments of YouTube.

I think this game is a worthy candidate for some updating and improving. It’s a great example of how gaming can enhance pedagogy digitally. Too bad in order to play it right now you have to play it in a DOS emulator. 🙂

Database of Officers of the Line

Becoming an officer of the line in the navy is a bit like getting on the tenure track in academia. Not all officers are created equal–officers such as pursers, sailing masters, and chaplains were classified as officers and received the preferential treatment given to officers. But they could never be captains–they were not in line for those sorts of promotions.


The Naval Historical Center has made lists available of the officers of the navy and Marine Corps from 1775 to 1900. This list is very useful, but it’s not in a format that makes it easy to see the data in the aggregate. It includes both warrant officers (non-tenure-track) and line officers (tenure-track).

I wanted to look at the promotion trends of line officers from the early republic. There was no way to isolate those records in the form the NHC provides. So I built a Google spreadsheet that tracks each line officer’s initial date of entry and his subsequent promotions.

Following my desire to track how social connections changed as the navy developed, I’ve divided the officers into 4 groups, or generations. I had initially planned to do 3 generations, but after doing all the data input, I realized that 4 was a more logical divide.

First generation officers entered the service before 1801, as a rank higher than midshipman.

Second generation officers entered the service before the Peace Establishment Act (or by the end of 1801), but as midshipman. Thus, they essentially became adults in the service, and they learned their craft from the first generation.

Third generation officers entered the service as midshipmen after the Peace Establishment Act but before the end of the War of 1812. Those officers in this generation who became captain rose to that rank in the 1830s and ’40s.

Fourth generation officers entered the service after the War of 1812 had ended. These officers saw almost no wartime service, and many of the ones who achieved captain found themselves having to decide whether to serve in the Union or the Confederacy during the Civil War.

I marked a few things that were interesting that weren’t specifically promotion-related. Though I didn’t record dates of exit from the service, if the officer was discharged under the Peace Establishment Act, I marked it in column G as “PEA.” I also marked records where the official record indicates that the officer was killed in a duel (an idle curiosity about whether duels were really as prevalent as most historians have claimed).


Promotions in the navy are a bit tricky because the system of ranks changed considerably from 1798 to 1849 (the end point I selected for my data). But there were four standard ranks that prevailed throughout that time period, so for consistency, I tracked only those four ranks: midshipman, lieutenant, master commandant (then commander, an equivalent rank), and captain. It took until the Civil War for ranks above captain (such as commodore and admiral) to be created, so I didn’t record those.

All told, there are 3441 line officers in the NHC database. I’m not interested in all 3441 of them, most of whom never made it past midshipman. Since my project involves social networks of influence, I’m mostly interested in those officers who stayed around long enough to have influence, generally those who made it at least to lieutenant. However, I put all the line officers into my spreadsheet in case someone else wants the data.

There are several specific limitations on my spreadsheet that anyone who wants to use it (all 2 of you in the world) should be aware of.

  1. There are a few rare instances in which an officer entered the service, resigned, and then re-entered later at the same rank or lower. In those instances, I did not mark the second entrance, but rather treated the officer as if he had never left the service.
  2. There are even rarer instances in which, during the late 1790s, officers were given the commission of captain in order to command galleys, but they were never subsequently given other commands. So I left them out of the record entirely.
  3. I noticed a few discrepancies in dates (promotion to lieutenant dated before promotion to midshipman, for instance). Where possible, I merely corrected the obvious typos. Otherwise, I highlighted the cell of the disputed date.


Merely recording all this data given me a better understanding of how the promotion system worked in the early navy. But I’d like to do some visualizations showing the relative speed of promotion, how batch promotions work, and a few smaller things. So far I haven’t found a visualization program that will do it. (Suggestions are welcome!)

I’m sure there are plenty of other uses for this data, as well. For myself, it will help me to see where promotions don’t follow the general pattern–these aberrant promotions may very well be indicative of an intervention by a social connection. But I hope other people will be able to use it as well.


2012: Year in Review

Today is my 27th birthday. This year has been a mixture of continuities and new things, sometimes both at once. I’d like to record just a few of the highlights of my year.

1. Starting my PhD at Northeastern University. It has been great to be back in school. I’ve been out of school for three years, so it felt a little strange at first, but I got over the awkward feelings pretty quickly.

Taking classes is, of course, nothing new. in fact, after the initial adjustment period, it felt a little like I’d never been away. (That’s actually a good feeling, I think.) Even though it takes more than emotional connections to accomplish something big like a PhD, the feelings of belonging and enjoyment certainly make me think I’ve chosen the right career path.

There were a few new things about the start of classes. For one, it’s the first time I’ve taken any classes not from my undergrad alma mater. And on the surface, the contrasts between that institution and Northeastern are striking, to say the least. Nevertheless, my upper-level undergrad classes were more than adequate preparation for the courses I took this semester. And the values of hard work, integrity, and preparedness were the same here in Boston as they had been in South Carolina.

The bigger difference this time was additional responsibilities at home, namely, my daughter. She certainly makes school different from my BA and MA studies. (The general topic of having children while in grad school is one I will save for another blog post, perhaps.) But I think I did OK in managing my time so that she never felt neglected. Getting to spend lots of extra time with Daddy was probably a bonus in her mind, anyway. 🙂

2. Introduction to digital humanities. Getting involved in digital humanities has definitely been a highlight of this year. Again, here, there are continuities and new things. I had a backdoor entrance into some DH ideas because of my husband’s connections to the DH world, but I wasn’t really interested until I realized how it could work with my own ideas about history.

My newfound interest in DH has opened up more opportunities than I ever imagined. Of primary importance for me is the incredible community I now feel at least a minor part of. My initial forays into the DH community through HASTAC blossomed into other more valuable connections I gained through THATCamp New England and (mostly) through Twitter.

Twitter has proved to be my primary path into the DH community. I was assured early in the semester that the community is very welcoming, and that claim has been substantiated many times over. From getting simple technical support for silly questions, to involvement in DigiWriMo, to having a voice in discussions about the future of higher education, Twitter contacts have enriched my academic life in ways unique and unexpected. I hope that I have managed to provide at least a little enrichment of the same kind to my Twitter followers.

3. Watching M grow. OK, I know I already mentioned her, but I love that little girl, and watching her grow from a 4-month-old into a very intelligent, very sweet 16-month-old toddler has been nothing short of amazing. 🙂


As 2013 arrives, I’m anticipating that its highlight reel will look very similar to this year’s. I’m greatly looking forward to my courses this coming semester, not least because one of them is about DH. My TA assignments also split evenly between maritime history and DH, so I anticipate a lot of great work coming out of those two assignments. I’m hoping to attend another THATCamp in 2013, maybe two, as well as one or two naval history conferences, so I hope to continue to build and strengthen mutually beneficial connections with people in my fields.

So here’s to a great 2013!