Where We Are, Where We’ve Been

Yesterday #hist5702x met for our last class before the reading week break. We’re halfway through this course. Halfway to our project deadline. It’s a bit nerve-racking, but our work is going in all sorts of interesting directions, and I’m still very excited about the work happening in this course.

This week we took a look at data mining, and used Voyant Tools to comb through a the Terms of Use of the various software applicable to our project.

Given that we’re halfway through, I thought it might be an apt time for a post that looks back at where we’ve come from in this course. I’ve taken every blog post written by our class this semester and plugged them into Voyant. Incidentally, we’ve written just about 30,000 words. That’s about 53 single-space pages.

Word clouds are just glorified bar charts, but such visualizations can help one to quickly process vast amounts of content. And they add colour to a blog post. Ergo,


Not surprisingly, “digital” and “history” are the big winners here. But the cloud is also suggestive of the variety of elements we’ve had to consider for our current project: “space” and “time,” “public” and “experience” “time” and “story.” Don’t let the course name fool you — Digital History” demands reflection on the same kinds issues that historians and curators have dealt with for some time.

Analyzing our course content over time also leads down some interesting roads. Voyant’s “word trends” function allows you to chart the frequency of certain words over time. This is a great way to see how certain words relate — or not.

One of the recurring concerns we’ve struggled with in this course is whether 3D and AR technologies might distract public historians from the “history” itself. Are the bells and whistles distracting us from the substance of our work?

I created a word trend graph to chart our use of the word “history” against our use of “AR” and “3D.” Here’s what it looks like:


Interestingly, these words have tended (by and large) to correlate in our posts. With the major exceptions of the first and most recent posts (numbers 1-2 and 9-10, respectively), we have tended to discuss 3D and AR alongside history rather than in its place.

Interesting, no? But there is also a problem of interpretation here. There are plenty of potential stand-in words here that may suggest alternate readings.

As another way of tackling the issue, I charted “history” alongside “project.” I wanted a glimpse of how focusing on our project might affect our focus on wider historical issues. Here’s the result:


Not correlated. In fact, the two words are almost at odds with one another. Crossing “project” with “historians” creates an even more dramatic graph:


So. “AR” and “3D” seem quite compatible with “history,” but the same can’t be said of “project” and “history.” How to square the circle?

One last chart might be useful here. One key element I haven’t looked at yet is how our discussions have connected back to our public audience. To do so I charted “project” against “public,” with this result:


It’s clear that we talk about our public more frequently, if more sporadically, than we do our project. And yet, once more, these terms are fairly closely related. The movements of each line correspond strongly to the movements of the other — number 9 is the only notable exception here. If the “history” in public history tends to fall back in project discussions, “public” steps forward.

When it comes to talking about specific technologies, history is right there with them. However, when it comes time to talk about our project, consideration of our audience seems to be more important.

I’m not sure I can untangle these threads, but I’m not sure I want to, either. Herein are the dilemmas that public and digital historians face on a day-to-day basis. How do we convey the history without losing the public? How do we employ technology without losing the history? How can we use technology in the service of the public and the history, without sacrificing the one or the other?

Clearly, it’s a question #hist5702x is continuing to wrestle with. It’s a good thing we’re only half way through!


Jesse Robertson / @jesseroberts0n

P.S. Check out #hist5702x on Voyant Tools for yourself! Click here. (Remember to edit out the stop words — “the,” “of,” “and,” etc — by clicking the gears in the top right corner of each window.