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.

 

 

Harsh Words for a War (in 1812)

The War of 1812 had been going on for about six months when this list was published by the Federal Republican (reprinted in the Salem Gazette, December 29, 1812, which is where I found it). If this piece is no less vitriolic than some political rhetoric of the twenty-first century, at least it is much more succinct.

Reasons, not long, for believing the War will be Short.

1st. Because the army lacks men.
2d. Because the treasury lacks money.
3d. Men and money are the sinews of war.
4th. The navy lacks encouragement.
5th. Because the President lacks nerves.[1. James Madison]
6th. Because the secretary of state lacks head.[2. James Monroe]
7th. The secretary of the treasury lacks heart.[3. Albert Gallatin]
8th. The secretary of the navy lacks every thing.[4. Paul Hamilton. History has not been kind to Paul Hamilton, who is generally viewed as an incompetent and inefficient secretary.]
9th. Because the secretary of the war—is not.[5. This list was published in the two months during which James Monroe was acting as secretary of war, due to the resignation of William Eustis, who resigned in December 1812 after his lack of preparedness was blamed for the debacles with the army. The new secretary, appointed in February 1813, was no better than Eustis.]
10th. Because General Hull’s proclamation has failed.[6. In July 1812, General WIlliam Hull issued a proclamation to the residents of Upper Canada, assuming that they would side with the United States in this war and telling them that he did not need their assistance to defeat the British. Needless to say, this proclamation did not go over well, and Hull surrendered to the British at Detroit on August 16.]
11th. Because General Smyth’s two proclamations have failed.[7. General Alexander Smyth’s proclamations were to his own army, assuring them of their superiority and the ease with which the British army would be defeated. Unfortunately, Smyth did not adequately prepare his men or his materiel. These proclamations also gave the British advance knowledge of his planned attack.]
12th. Because both Hull and Smyth the fast friends of administration, the one is pronounced a traitor by his friends, and the other is known to be a recreant, and is denounced by his own army, who have offered a reward for his head.[8. Hull was the traitor, Smyth the recreant.]
13th. Because the people are too wise to pay taxes.
14th. Because administration is too weak and too cunning to lay them.
Lastly, and to conclude, because war requires men and money and brains and nerves and honesty—whence we conclude that either such an administration will rid us of the war, or the war soon rid us of such an administration.
Thus ends our war creed, and let all the people say
Amen.

Concord Hymn Glosa

The Minute Man, by JeromeG111 (from Flickr, CC-licensed)
The Minute Man, Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by JeromeG111

This Patriots’ Day week, we mourn for the victims of the explosions in Boston. I’m not a native Bostonian, but I’m a Bostonian now: my emotions have fluctuated between deep sorrow and deep anger that someone would do this to my city, to my fellow Bostonians. I’m so thankful for our police officers, firefighters, National Guard, and all the first responders.

To celebrate the patriots of Massachusetts, from minute men in 1775 to first responders in 2013, I offer this glosa on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn.”

 

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

Invention on a Concord Hymn

The barely risen sun hung reflected in the river,
Two lanterns in the still-silent gray of dawn.
The growing light showed spring burst from Winter—
A violent wrenching of color from snow, flower
From deadness; eager water shattering the panes of
Cold glass encasing the river; ice turned to mud
On its banks. There, where philosophy and letters
Gave way to contraband (though secreted away
Some days ago), delicate crocuses began to bud
By the rude bridge that arched the flood.

The night before, the bridge had shivered
As a horse beat down its planks, the rider
Crouched low on its flanks. At the Emerson Manse
He pulled up. Pounding on the reverend’s door,
He called, “The Regulars are coming out! Coming!”
He pounded again; then, without another word,
He rode to the next house, and the next, and the next.
By sunrise, the townships for twenty miles out
Heard the news; the minute men, in Concord,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled.

The men who came brought their muskets oiled,
Their cartouches full, and their lives ready,
To give them all—Death to Tyranny!
Some saw the flaws in politics, kings, and Acts;
Some thought only that goods cost more, and work
Paid less, because of England. Muster they would,
Here, where intrusions by Gage freshly stung,
Here, where they worked their farms with their sons,
Here, they’d keep freedoms by force if they could;
Here once the embattled farmers stood.

The news—“The Redcoats come from Lexington!”
Sent the minute men to the hill to watch them come.
They watched as Concord-town fell (it seemed)
To the Regulars. Said one Patriot, “I’m not afraid,”
So they advanced on the bridge, but did not fire.
The Redcoats, surprised, formed ranks, but one misheard
And fired his gun across the bridge. The others fired;
Two Patriots fell, but still they advanced on the bridge.
At last the Patriots stopped, at the captain’s word,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

Boston-Area Days of DH Wrap-up

[cross-posted to HASTAC.org]

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.