Distant Reading

During the two weeks of Doing Digital History, I have found some concepts more or less easy to assimilate into my work as a public historian and public history educator. I felt competent and confident when establishing a domain, playing with WordPress, experimenting with Omeka, dabbling with some tools for annotating images, and animating brief stories. I am less comfortable with mapping. In my effort to experiment with Map Warper, a tool that allows users to overlay old maps over recent maps, thereby observing changes in the landscape and re-discovering “lost” neighborhoods or features, I  discovered –much to my dismay– that I am a terrible map reader. I found it difficult to identify and mark similar sites on each map, a necessary step that allows the tool to overlay them correctly. That admitted, I am interested in beginning with some simple tools that will allow me and my students to situate historical narratives in both place and time. Starting with a relatively simple –and easier to use– tool like Story Map will serve as a point of entry, and allow me to work my way toward more complex mapping projects.

I more tentative about text mining and distant reading.  I’m still not sure I recognize its potential for my own research, and I suspect this is the digital realm I am least likely to put to use in the immediate future.

That said, I may play with Voyant in my fall public history practicum course. After playing with the technology a bit, I understand that text mining can help my students identify interpretive pathways for a public digital project about slavery and freedom on the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania. Mapping patterns of word use and syntax will encourage students to think more critically about the different uses of words in private contexts and in legal contexts, about the ways in which word use and meanings changed across state boundaries, and about the words chosen by free people to describe the experience of freedom in and near a border state. Encouraging my students to play will, I think, help me understand text mining and its value for research and analysis.