A map from Cameron Blevins’ online supplement to the essay, “Mining and Mapping the Production of Space: A View of the World From Houston”.
This week, my History in the Digital Age class explored the emergence of the methods essay, or the “metagraph,” as a supplement to print articles with a digital component. The publication of a metagraph promotes transparency because of its focus on methodological accountability. Due to the the increased prominence of digital history, the issue of transparency and openness in historical scholarship only becomes more important as time goes on.
In their 2012 article, “The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing,” Frederick W. Gibbs and Trevor Owens argue for methodological transparency in historical writing. Gibbs and Owens claim that openness is an ethos of the humanities. For that reason, the methodology must be clearly explained. While humanists are often wary of data manipulation, the authors explain, “One way of reducing hostility to data and its manipulation is to lay bare whatever manipulations have led to some historical insight.”
Historian Cameron Blevins took on the challenge of Owens and Gibbs to “publicly experiment with ways of presenting their methodologies, procedures, and experiences with historical data”. In a June 2014 article called “Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston,” Blevins indicates how newspapers in Houston, Texas (The Houston Daily Post and the Telegraph and Texas Register) created an imagined geography in Texas and beyond during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. By comparing the two newspapers, Blevins shows how new technologies can help historians understand the historical production of space and place. The online supplement to the essay, “Mining and Mapping the Production of Space: A View of the World From Houston,” is included in a Journal of American History series called “Metagraph” that reviews books and original JAH articles with digital components. In the online supplement to his essay, Blevins describes his project’s methodology. Additionally, Blevins uses the metagraph to address his issues, such as working with flawed digital newspapers, sources Blevins describes as “inherently messy”. Blevins further explains in his metagraph that newspapers “often resemble a jumbled bag of mistake-ridden words as much as neatly segmented columns of text.” Alas, drawing meaning from flawed sources is what historians must often do. In the metagraph, Blevins undertakes the sort of “methodological transparency” Gibbs and Owens promote.
After pondering the review of the Stephen Robertson’s Digital Harlem by Joshua Sternfeld from the February 2016 volume of the America Historical Review, it seems that a “metagraph” approach could have been a useful addition to the Digital Harlem project. Had Robertson and the Digital Harlem team published an online supplement like Blevins, they could have clarified some of the project’s goals, methods, and outcomes. That transparency might have enabled them to avoid some of the criticisms and misunderstandings concerning the project.
Digital history projects benefit greatly from reviews. The sort of feedback they provide is necessary in order for digital projects to be taken seriously as scholarly works. At the same time, digital historians seek accountability and deserve a chance to either deflect or address critical reviews of their work. The benefits of such an approach outweigh the costs. If reviewers explore the online supplement to an essay or project before submitting a review, they gain a better understanding of a project’s methodology and objectives. That, in turn, enables authors to provide more helpful and accurate feedback in their reviews.
Cameron Blevins, “Mining and Mapping the Production of Space: A View of the World From Houston,” (Links to an external site.) an online supplement to “Space, Nation and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World of Houston,” Journal of American History, Volume 101 (June 2014): 122-147.
Frederick W. Gibbs and Trevor Owens, “The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing,” (Links to an external site.) in Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, eds. Writing History in the Digital Age. University of Michigan Press. Trinity College (CT) web-book edition, Spring 2012, http://WritingHistory.trincoll.edu