Like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, I often think of myself as a writer who stumbled into the digital world. I have always expressed myself best with my writing, but I have discovered that sometimes words will not do. In the first semester of graduate school, I started forming my idea for my master’s thesis. I pondered writing about the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) and their discoveries pertaining to Florida folk music during the Depression. I originally assumed that my thesis would be a traditional thesis, but it did not take long to realize that my ideas for my thesis should not be limited to the written word. I soon discovered that I would have to incorporate another medium into my thesis in order to successfully communicate my vision in the best way possible.
In my mind’s eye, I saw an interactive map of Florida. I also wanted the users to be able to guide themselves through individual folk collecting journeys that took place throughout the state in the 1930s and 1940s. It was important to me that people would be able to listen to the music and “meet” the song collectors and tradition bearers. Luckily, I found out that with digital platforms like VisualEyes5 I could turn my vision into a reality. Realizing that my ideas are not limited to paper makes me feel an unusual sense of freedom.
This week, I read a book that reiterated to me that I made the right decision to “break away” from traditional avenues in order to effectively communicate my ideas about Florida folk music and the FWP. David J. Staley’s Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past invites historians to take advantage of the opportunities that computers and visualization offer to their scholarship. Staley indicates that, while historians have been using the written word as their medium for more than two thousand years, they now have an alternative medium that they can utilize to present a historical argument or to organize their research. Staley’s book should be required reading for any historian, especially those who have ideas that are too complex to express in writing.
In his book, Staley defines a visualization as the “organization of meaningful information in two or three dimensional spatial form intended to further a systematic inquiry”. According to Staley, visualizations are sometimes preferable to textual approaches because visualizations allow the creator to convey “simultaneity, multidimensionality, pattern, and nonlinearity with a speed and efficiency that prose cannot capture.” However, throughout the book, Staley is careful to point out that visualization is not a superior form of communication. He only claims that it is an alternative for those historians who do not want to limit their vision to the written word. Staley’s book highlights the fact that language and writing are sequential while events and actions are often simultaneous. Therefore, the written word might not always be the best medium to convey certain types of thoughts or ideas.
Staley describes historians of the past as being trapped in their “medium of thought” and overly dependent upon writing about history in a linear way. Historians have long embraced the one dimensional textual medium, primarily because of tradition and habit. Interestingly, Staley’s book points out that humans do not perceive the world in a one dimensional way. Instead, as psychologist Rudolf Arnheim indicates, human awareness operates in a “four dimensional world of both sequence and spatial simultaneity.” For that reason, historians should consider utilizing visualizations to relay information.
Staley’s book is relevant to my work as a historian because I have had ideas for books or articles that I wanted to write but I could not seem to articulate them well with text. For instance, I once drew a sketch of an idea about a journey though America that highlights Bob Dylan’s musical inspirations from blues to country to folk music. I have a hard time even putting the idea into words, but I can see it in my head. The point is that I originally had this idea years ago, and now I know how to make it “come to life” through the use of visualizations. I am no longer limited to exploring historical topics in a one dimensional, sequential, linear way. In the Digital Age, I feel that historians are only confined by the limits of their imaginations (and by the availability of primary and secondary sources, of course). With visualizations, I can better communicate my ideas for my thesis project about music and place.
Staley, David. Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2014.