Category Archives: Naval History

Civil War Navies Bookworm

If you read my last post, you know that this semester I engaged in building a Bookworm using a government document collection. My professor challenged me to try my system for parsing the documents on a different, larger collection of government documents. The collection I chose to work with is the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies. My Barbary Bookworm took me all semester to build; this Civil War navies Bookworm took me less than a day. I learned things from making the first one!

This collection is significantly larger than the Barbary Wars collection—26 volumes, as opposed to 6. It encompasses roughly the same time span, but 13 times as many words. Though it is still technically feasible to read through all 26 volumes, this collection is perhaps a better candidate for distant reading than my first corpus.

The document collection is broken into geographical sections, the Atlantic Squadron, the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, and so on. Using the Bookworm allows us to look at the words in these documents sequentially by date instead of having to go back and forth between different volumes to get a sense of what was going on in the whole navy at any given time.

Looking at ship types over the course of the war, across all geographies.
Looking at ship types over the course of the war, across all geographies.

Process and Format

The format of this collection is mostly the same as the Barbary Wars collection. Each document starts with an explanatory header (“Letter to the secretary of the navy,” “Extract from a journal,” etc.). Unlike BW, there are no citations at the end of each document. So instead of using the closing citations as document breakers, I used the headers. Though there are many different kinds of documents, the headers are very formulaic, so the regular expressions to find them were not particularly difficult to write. 1

Further easing the pain of breaking the documents is the quality of the OCR. Where I fought the OCR every step of the way for Barbary Bookworm, the OCR is really quite good for this collection (a mercy, since spot-checking 26 volumes is no trivial task). Thus, I didn’t have to write multiple regular expressions to find each header; only a few small variants seemed to be sufficient.

New Features

The high quality OCR enabled me to write a date parser that I couldn’t make work in my Barbary Bookworm. The dates are written in a more consistent pattern, and the garbage around and in them is minimal, so it was easy enough to write a little function to pull out all parts. In the event that certain parts of the dates were illegible, or non-existent, I did make the function find each part of the date in turn and then compile them into one field, rather than trying to extract the dates wholesale. That way, if all I could extract was the year, the function would still return at least a partial date.

Another new feature of this Bookworm is that the full text of the document appears for each search term when you click on the line at a particular date. This function is slow, so if the interface seems to freeze or you don’t seem to be getting any results, give it a few minutes. It will come up. Most of the documents are short enough that it’s easy to scroll through them.

Testing the Bookworm

Some of the same reservations apply to this Bookworm as I detailed in my last post about Barbary Bookworm—they really apply to all text-analysis tools. Disambiguation of ship names and places continues to be a problem. But many of the other problems with Barbary Bookworm are solved with this Bookworm.

The next step that I need to work on is sectioning out the Confederate navy’s documents from the Union navy’s. Right now, you can get a sense of what was important to both navies, but not so easily get a sense of what was important to just one side or the other.

To be honest, I don’t really know enough about the navies of the Civil War to make any significant arguments based on my scrounging around with this tool. There are some very low-hanging fruit, of course.

Unsurprisingly, the terms "monitor" and "ironclad" become more prominent throughout the war.
Unsurprisingly, the terms “monitor” and “ironclad” become more prominent throughout the war.

The Bookworm is hosted online by Ben Schmidt (thanks, Ben!). The code for creating the files is up on GitHub. Please go play around with it!

Feedback

Particularly since I don’t do Civil War history, I’d welcome feedback on both the interface and the content here. What worked? What didn’t? What else would you like to see?

Feel free to send me questions/observations/interesting finds/results by commenting on this post (since there’s not a comment function on the Bookworm itself), by emailing me, or for small stuff, pinging me on Twitter (@abbymullen). I really am very interested in everyone’s feedback, so please scrub around and try to break it. I already know of a few things that are not quite working right, but I’m interested to see what you all come up with.

Notes:

  1. Ben had suggested that I do the even larger Civil War Armies document collection; however, that collection does not even have headers for the documents, much less citations, so the document breaking process would be exponentially more difficult. It’s not impossible, but I may have to rework my system—and I don’t care about the Civil War that much. :) However, other document collections, such as the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, have exactly the same format, so it may be worth figuring out.

Text Analysis on the Documents of the Barbary Wars

This past semester, I took a graduate seminar in Humanities Data Analysis, taught by Professor Ben Schmidt. This post describes my final project. Stay tuned for more fun Bookworm stuff in the next few days (part 2 on Civil War Navies Bookworm is here).


 

In the 1920s, the United States government decided to create document collections for several of its early naval wars: the Quasi-War with France, the Barbary Wars, and the Civil War (the War of 1812 did not come until much later, for some reason). These document collections, particularly for the Quasi-War and the Barbary Wars, have become the standard resource for any scholar doing work on these wars. My work on the Barbary Wars relies heavily on this document collection. The Barbary Wars collection includes correspondence, journals, official documents such as treaties, crew manifests, other miscellaneous documents, and a few summary documents put together in the 1820s. 1

It’s quite easy to get bogged down in the multiplicity of mundaneness in these documents—every single day’s record of where a ship is and what the weather is like, for instance. It’s also easy to lose sight of the true trajectory of the conflict in the midst of all this seeming banality. Because the documents in the collection are from many authors in conversation with each other, we can sometimes follow the path of these conversations. But there are many concurrent conversations, and often we do not have the full correspondence. How can we make sense of this jumble?

Continue reading Text Analysis on the Documents of the Barbary Wars

Notes:

  1. U.S. Office of Naval Records and Library, Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers (Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1939); digitized at http://www.ibiblio.org/anrs/barbary.html.

Named Entity Extraction: Productive Failure?

This past week in my Humanities Data Analysis class, we looked at mapping as data. We explored ggplot2’s map functions, as well as doing some work with ggmap’s geocoding and other things. One thing that we just barely explored was automatically extracting place names through named entity recognition. It is possible to do named entity recognition in R, though people say it’s probably not the best way. But in order to stay in R, I used a handy tutorial by the esteemed Lincoln Mullen, found here.

I was interested in extracting place names from the data I’ve been cleaning up for use in a Bookworm, the text of the 6-volume document collection, Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, published in the 1920s by the U.S. government. It’s a great primary source collection, and a good jumping-off point for any research into the Barbary Wars. The entire collection has been digitized by the American Naval Records Society, with OCR, but the OCRed text is not clean. The poor quality of the OCR has been problematic for almost all data analysis, and this extraction was no exception.

The tutorial on NER is quite easy to follow, so that wasn’t a problem at all. The problem I ran into very quickly was the memory limits on my machine–this process takes a TON of memory, apparently. I originally tried to use my semi-cleaned-up file that contained the text of all 6 volumes, but that was way too big. Even one volume proved much too big. I decided to break up the text into years, instead of just chunking the volumes by size, in order to facilitate a more useful comparison set. For the first 15 years (1785-1800), the file was small enough, and I even combined the earlier years into one file. But starting in 1802, the file was still too large even with only one year. So I chunked each year into 500kb files, and then ran the program exactly the way the tutorial suggested with multiple files. I then just pushed the results of each chunk back into one results file per year.

Once I got my results, I had to clean them up. I haven’t tested NER on any other type of document, but based on my results, I suspect that the particular genre of texts I am working with causes NER some significant problems. I started by just doing a bit of work with the list in OpenRefine in order to standardize the terrible spelling of 19th-century naval captains, plus OCR problems. That done, I took a hard look at what exactly was in my list.

List of named-entity-recognition results
An excerpt from the results (before passing through OpenRefine) that demonstrates some of the problems discussed here.

Here’s what I found:
1. The navy didn’t do NER any favors by naming many of their ships after American places. It’s almost certain that Essex and Chesapeake, for instance, refer to the USS Essex and USS Chesapeake. Less certain are places like Philadelphia, Boston, United States, and even Tripoli, which are all places that definitely appear in the text, but are also ship names. There’s absolutely no way to disambiguate these terms.
2. The term “Cape” proved to be particular problems. The difficulty here is that the abbreviation for “Captain” is often “Cap” or “Capt,” and often the OCR renders it “Cape” or “Ca.” Thus, people like Capt. Daniel McNeill turn up in a place-name list. Naval terms like “Anchorage” also cause some problems. I guarantee: Alaska does not enter the story at all.
3. The format of many of these documents is “To” someone “from” someone. I can’t be certain, but it seems like the NER process sometimes (though not always) saw those to and from statements as being locational, instead of relational. I also think that journal or logbook entries, with their formulaic descriptions of weather and location, sometimes get the NER process confused about which is the weather and which is the location.
4. To be honest, there are a large number of false hits that I really can’t explain. It seems like lists are particularly prone to being selected from, so I get one member of a crew list, or words like “salt beef,” “cheese,” or “coffee,” from provision lists. But there are other results as well that I just can’t really make out why they were selected as locations.

Because of all these foibles, each list requires hand-curation to throw out the false hits. Once I did that, I ran it through R again to geocode the locations using ggmap. Here we also had some problems (which I admittedly should have anticipated based on previous work doing geolocation of these texts). Of course, many of the places had to be thrown out because they were just too vague to be of any use: “harbor,” “island,” and other such terms didn’t make the cut.

When I ran the geocoder for the first time, it threw a bunch of errors because of unrecognizable place names. Then I remembered: this is why I’ve used historical maps of the area in the past–to try to track down these place names that are not used today. Examples include “Cape Spartel,” “Cape DeGatt,” and “Cape Ferina.” (I’m not sure why they were all capes.) I discovered that if you run the “more” option on the geocode, the warnings don’t result in a failed geocode, plus all the information is useful to get a better sense of the granularity of the geocode, and what exact identifier the geocoder was using to determine the locations.

This extra information proved helpful when the geocoded map revealed oddities such as the Mediterranean Sea showing up in the Philippines, or Tunis Bay showing up in Canada. Turns out, the geocoder doesn’t necessarily pick the most logical choice for ambiguous terms: there is, in fact, an Australasian sea sometimes known as the Mediterranean Sea. These seemingly arbitrary choices by the geocoder mean that the map looks more than a little strange.

Map of named entities before cleaning
Just to see what would happen, I ran the geocoder on the raw results (no cleaning done). It turned out entertaining, at least.
A slightly more sensible map: This is one created with the clean data.
A slightly more sensible map: This is one created with the clean data. You can see from the outliers, though, that some of these locations are not correct. Given how far off some important terms are (like “Mediterranean Sea”), the text plotting made more sense for understanding than simply plotting symbols. Text plotting does obscure the places that are close to other places, leaving the outliers as the easily visible points. Those points seem the most likely to be incorrect.

So what’s the result here? I can see the potential for named-entity extraction, but for my particular project, it just doesn’t seem logical or useful. There’s not really anything more I can do with this data, except try to clean up my original documents even more. But even so, it was a useful exercise, and it was good practice in working with maps and data in R.

McMullen Naval History Symposium Recap

This weekend, I had the privilege of presenting a paper at the McMullen Naval History Symposium. It was my second time at the U.S. Naval Academy, and I have had a great time.

Our Panel

I organized a panel titled “Politics of the Sea in the Early Republic,” in which the panelists looked at how the navy and maritime concerns influenced political discourse (and vice versa). Bill Leeman argued that Thomas Jefferson’s approach to the navy in the Barbary Wars was more pragmatic than idealistic. The question of who could declare war–was it the president or the Congress?–was a live one in the early republic. What were the president’s powers when a foreign country declared war first? These are the questions that Jefferson had to grapple with as he sent the navy to deal with the threat of the Barbary States.

My paper picked up the political question in the War of 1812. Titled “Naval Honor and Partisan Politics: The Naval War of 1812 in the Public Sphere,” the paper investigated how partisan newspapers approached the naval war, using exactly the same events to make exactly opposite political points. Interestingly, both political parties also used the same imagery and rhetoric. They both used the concept of honor in order to castigate the other party. I’ll be posting an edited version of the paper on the blog soon, so you’ll just have to wait to read the exciting conclusion.

Steve Park addressed how the Hartford Convention, held at the end of the War of 1812, addressed–or rather, didn’t address–the concerns of Federalists. Since the Federalists had traditionally been strongly in favor of naval buildup and the end of impressment, it was highly surprising that the delegates did not really mention these concerns at all in their convention resolutions. Nevertheless, they were not secessionist, but instead sought a constitutional solution to their perceived grievances.

We were very fortunate to have a premier naval historian, Craig Symonds, as our chair, and an excellent younger scholar, David Head, as our commentator. The audience was involved in the themes of our panel, and they asked great questions and pushed each of our ideas in fruitful directions. Even after the session was over, we continued to field questions informally, and I had some profitable conversations about the paper even afterwards during the reception.

New Connections

The historians that attend the naval history symposium are members of the community I want to be a part of. Senior scholars in the field of naval history attend every year, including many historians whose work has been integral to my research. This year, I met several of those historians. Two were particularly special, as they are essentially responsible for my desire to do naval history. Frederick Leiner, who is a historian of the early American navy only as a side interest, wrote Millions for Defense: The Subscription Warships of 1798 and The End of Barbary Terror: America’s 1815 War Against the Pirates of North Africa. Millions for Defense was the book that set me on the path to studying the Barbary Wars. And Christopher McKee wrote the seminal work on the naval officer corps of the early republic, A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession, which has shown me the breadth and depth of the stories in the naval officer corps. These stories will undoubtedly keep me busy for a lifetime. (I also would love to make that book into a digital project, but that’s a task for another time.)

Almost as exciting as meeting a few of my history heroes, I also met some young scholars, working on their PhDs or just finished with their degrees. Several of them were women, also doing naval history. These meetings gave me so much hope for the future–for my own career and for the field at large. I can’t wait to keep up with these scholars, and perhaps even forge some meaningful relationship and collaborations with them. I also met some young scholars who are doing digital history. In light of my previous blog post about the intersection of DH and MH, I’m very excited to learn that the field is not quite as barren as it seems. Again,  I hope to establish some meaningful connections and build up a community of digital naval historians.

The symposium left me with lots of new ideas, new avenues of exploration, and new professional connections. So now I’m looking forward to jumping back into my work!

 

Reading List: Atlantic World

At the moment, I’m in the process of determining my PhD exam fields for a degree in world history. The “world” part is important: it means that my exams and my dissertation will have a global focus. One of the requirements is a world-history-focused field. For my world history field, I’ve chosen to do Atlantic World, since that seems most relevant to a study of the American navy.

I came up with my list based on this seminar website, as well as other books I’ve heard of, plus a few that my professor suggested. This semester I’ll be doing a directed reading of about 1/3 of the books on my list, and the rest will be for me to read before exam time.

I’ve often lamented that more graduate students don’t put their reading lists up for others to be inspired by. So it would be remiss of me not to put my own up. I’ve added it to the menu bar of this website, but here’s a link as well.

Lessons from From Enemies to Allies: Changing Scale in American Naval History

In the plenary session at From Enemies to Allies: An International Conference about the War of 1812 and Its Aftermath, several senior scholars addressed (among other things) the direction scholarship on the War of 1812 should go. One major theme that emerged was the need to study the War of 1812 in a global context. American historians of the war often treat it as if it were the only thing going on in the United States and in Britain between 1812 and 1815, when in fact it wasn’t the only thing going on in either place.

This interest in globalizing the study of the War of 1812 correlates with a session I attended at THATCamp about how changing the scale of your research can open up new lines of inquiry. The initial example in the session was a literal change in scale: blowing up a literary text to being a poster size instead of a normal book size. But we also talked about how changing the scale on a more intellectual level can also be a good thing.

Two of the keynote speakers at FETA addressed scale as they talked about the context in which the War of 1812 occurred. Andrew Lambert explored how the War of 1812 fit into the much larger story of the Napoleonic Wars, and Alan Taylor explained how the war fit into a larger context of changing borders within the United States, not just with Canada or Britain but with the Indians as well. Looking at the War of 1812 on the scale of the Napoleonic Wars, or on the scale of U.S.-Indian relations, can drastically change how one understands why the Royal Navy did certain things or why certain U.S. policies seemed counter-intuitive for fighting a war with the British alone.

Taylor advocated a change in the temporal scale as well as the geographical one, suggesting that we should think of the war as spanning 1810 to 1819, rather than 1812 to 1815. This change in temporal scale highlights the border disputes that Taylor discussed in his talk, and it certainly makes one think differently about the chronology of the war (including the oft-quoted myth that the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war was over, a fact that isn’t true whether you subscribe to the 1819 end date or the 1815 one).

These changes of scale bring new life to what some people, even historians, view as “stagnant” history. (Bill Pencek, the organizer of the conference, told us of a person who believed that naval history was “already settled.”) They allow us to ask new questions about the history of the United States, Britain, and Canada, and they allow us to approach the standard questions (such as the causes of the war) with fresh perspectives that may provide better answers.

Though the War of 1812 is not going to be my own main research focus, I think these ideas of scale can be easily applied to any conflict. I’m particularly excited about applying them to my own topic, the Barbary Wars. If any part of American naval history could benefit from a change in scale, I think it’s the story of the Barbary Wars, which is often written as though the United States was the only nation dealing with the Barbary States, ever. But if we change the scale, look at the more global picture of the Barbary Wars, and perhaps even change the temporal scale as well, this minor conflict in the Mediterranean may help us understand a lot more about the navy, diplomacy, foreign relations, and politics in the early republic of the United States.

 

Digital History and Naval History: Ships in the Night

 

Ships that pass in the night and speak each other in passing;
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.
—Henry Wadworth Longfellow

This month I attended two very different professional conferences. The first, THATCamp CHNM (aka THATCamp Prime), is so unlike normal conferences that it’s billed as an “unconference.”[1. If you want to know exactly what an unconference is, read the THATCamp About page.] It brings together people from a wide swath of academic disciplines to talk about digital humanities. Sessions ranged from talking about programming languages to teaching digital history to talking about size and scale in academic research. Many of the people in attendance were relatively young; many hold “alt-ac” jobs.

The other conference could not have been more different. Even its title, “From Enemies to Allies: An International Conference on the War of 1812 and its Aftermath,” fits it into a tight disciplinary mold. Though it drew scholars from the United States, the UK, and Canada, all the scholars were primarily historians of the 19th century, and a large proportion were military historians. My fellow panelists and I were among the youngest there by a fair margin; very few of the attendees were graduate students or young scholars. A surprising number of panelists were independent scholars. It was very much a traditional conference, with concurrent panels and two (great) keynote addresses.

I’ll write more about each conference later. For now, I want to talk about where I hope the fields of digital history and naval history may go, based on these two conferences. It has long been my impression that digital humanities and naval history (and military history more generally) are a bit like ships passing in the night. Every once in a while, they graze each other, but they quickly separate again and carry on without much change to either field. Conversations with people at both conferences confirmed this suspicion. When I asked some people at the War of 1812 conference if they’d ever thought about using digital mapping tools or creating online exhibits, the response was generally “I don’t really do computers.” But they were drawing digital maps—in PowerPoint. Similarly, I don’t know anyone who self-identifies as a DHer whose primary academic discipline is military history—at least no one I met at THATCamp CHNM. (Big huge disclaimer here: obviously, I don’t know all the DHers in the world. If you work on military history and do DH, we need to talk. Please email me.) But military history comes up—witness one of the models for Omeka’s Neatline exhibits: the battle of Chancellorsville.

So I found it somewhat amusing that in both conferences, the most interesting outcome for me was related to the other discipline. At THATCamp, I won third place in the Maker Challenge (along with my partner in crime Lincoln Mullen) for creating an argument about promotions of naval officers from 1798-1849, which actually came in handy while I was talking to scholars at FETA. And at FETA, the best contact I made was with a scholar who wants me to help him build a database about engagements during the War of 1812 not unlike the Early American Foreign Service Database. He’s one of those who “doesn’t do computers,” but he understands the values of accessibility and openness that THATCampers hold dear.

Going to the two conferences almost back-to-back highlighted for me how much each field might enrich the other. These connections give me hope that someday soon, digital historians can “speak” naval historians with greater success. And then, not all will be darkness and silence between the two.

Who’s with me? 

Another Look at Our Diplomatic Graph

I wrote yesterday about my network graph about U.S.-Barbary diplomatic relations. The graph I showed was color-coded by nationality. That code was hand-inputted by me, no computation or algorithm necessary.

A perhaps more interesting, and enigmatic, color-coding is the result of running a modularity algorithm in Gephi. This algorithm creates sub-communities from the large network graph. I will not lie: I do not understand the math behind the result. But the communities created by the algorithm are quite interesting.

I find a few things interesting about these communities:

  • James Leander Cathcart and Hasan, dey of Algiers, are in two different communities. This is interesting because Cathcart is probably the person with the most access to Hasan in the entire graph. He was an American captive who worked his way up the ranks into Hasan’s household and became a fairly high-ranking official in the court of the dey. I have two theories for why these communities formed this way. (1) Cathcart’s relationship with the dey was largely informal, not something that got memorialized in writing or official documents. Thus, the “paper trail” on their relationship might be thin. (2) Cathcart did talk a lot to the dey. We know that. But it’s possible that his major contributions to the diplomatic situation in Algiers were not his communications with the dey, but his communications with the outside world. 
  • Many of the European diplomats who were assisting from the outside fall into the same community, which they share with Thomas Jefferson (then-secretary of state). All, or nearly all, of the people in that community were never in Algiers. It makes sense that they would be placed together. The other interesting person in that community is John Lamb, the first American sent to negotiate with Algiers. I’m wondering whether he is in that community because he had much better success dealing with the Europeans than with the dey.

DNAlgiers_communities

 

 

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. 

DNAlgiers
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.

 

 

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.