Visualise This

Historians have a tendency to be a literal minded people. They believe what they read or write and yet are preoccupied with what they cannot see: the past. They do not necessarily have to develop, or employ, the same kind of philosophical, or even literary, intelligence as other writers. This is because their professional preoccupation is with evidence. Like traditional archivists, who serve as keepers of government or business records, institutional provenance is important to historians. In recent times, public and private individuals and institutions alike are more inclined to ask questions such as “whose archives?” and “whose history?” when considering issues of provenance. For instance, if history proper is to be confined to the contents of government records, then the history of all other sections of, or interest groups in, society can become an irrelevance. As an illustration of this growing counterpoint, witness the growth of the public archives movement. All this is quite familiar to those who have identified the connection between “history” and that most basic human activity of storytelling, be it oral or written. This points to the reality that evidence is not merely evidence: it has to be interpreted. This requires a broad and flexible intelligence. In short, it requires that a historian be a humanist, not merely someone who can compile, through research, narratives of out of date politics and accept them literally at face value. That would be quite dumb.

Another way to conceive this same question is to focus on the question of presentation as much as interpretation. In other words, how can history be visualised? In recent times, digital humanities scholars have been of note for pursuing this line of reasoning in an experimental fashion through considering the value of digital tools: witness developments such as The Programming Historian and The Centre for History and New Media. Of course, tools are only as good as what use can be made of them. Be that as it may, the availability of freely available digital tools for processing information is certainly a novel development than could produce novel results in terms of the future presentation of historical research.

If one walks into a supermarket or any business today, it is quite likely that at a customer service desk one will see an illustration of a clear conceptual model of how the business in question operates. Business intelligence requires not only efficiency but also clearly demarcated lines of responsibility and, to this end, it is important that a clear conceptual model of how it operates can be visualised. Some digital historians have pursued this same line of reasoning. The relationship that existed between different historical actors is analysed visually by means of a relational database in much the same way as the relationship between different sections of a company are presented in a company chart. Such conceptual models combine clarity with accuracy and can also be easily transposed. For instance, a smartphone user could analyse such a chart, or database, with ease and process its information logically. By contrast, a smartphone user may be less inclined to read excessive amounts of text, which is the essential reason why blog entries like this one are not generally deemed as particularly “user friendly” by media savants. By contrast, an attempt to visualise the entire concepts of Wikipedia by means of a smartphone friendly data visualisation such as Wikiverse may be considered by many to be sufficiently “cool” to be of note, even if conceptual clarity is, in this instance, somewhat lacking.

To my mind, data visualisations are of note not merely because they place emphasis upon a visual rather than textual processing of information but because the exercise of attempting data visualisations does, in itself, demand that a question be raised that can also be asked of all traditional written, or even scriptural, humanities scholarship; namely, does the author have a clear picture in their mind of what they are actually writing about?

Very “early on” in my experience of being a historian, I was forced to ask this question repeatedly and to an “nth degree” of both my sources and myself. This was because a thesis I was writing was about a historic organisation that had left behind it no archive. Instead, almost every written source on the organisation stemmed from an opposing viewpoint: in this case, from police reports! In a strict literal sense, therefore, my thesis should probably have been a history of policing rather a history of the organisation being policed, but yet I decided to pursue an opposite course, like viewing the head of a coin to be its tail and vice versa in an attempt to see “the other side of the coin”. Apart from attempting to utilise a wide variety of disparate sources, this exercise necessitated constant self-assessment of how well I was succeeding, or could succeed, in acquiring a mental picture of the subject I was writing about, down to the level of understanding the motivations of each historic individual to whom I could possibly refer, year-by-year in their career.

Not long after I embarked on this line of reasoning, I found myself being more critical of other historical works. For instance, there was an exceptionally well-researched biography of a man who was also a key figure in my thesis, yet I found myself finding it very difficult to give credence to the picture of the man presented by the same biography. Why so? The answer is simple. There was essentially “no picture” of the man in question within the biography. Even though the book was crammed with historical details and the man’s name appeared on every page of the book, it was, nevertheless, but “a name on a page” in each instance. One could not see a living, breathing person, with motivations and vanities like all human beings, in the lines of the historian’s text, which seemed to me something of a failing in interpretation, like reading a “review of reviews with no original content” or a biographer of Shakespeare that referenced a hundred other biographies of Shakespeare without once ever actually offering a personal answer to the question of who actually was Shakespeare?

All this seems to me to be evidence that visualisation is actually a critical skill for any good historian. This may take the abstract form of a data visualisation, or it may take the more intuitive form of being able to convey living and breathing human beings in the pages of a book. Either way, the essential issue is the same. The historical imagination must be continually exercised. If we cannot visualise what we are attempting to communicate, no clear picture can emerge of that communication, be it presented graphically or by word. Before embarking on a new historical writing project, it is perhaps necessary for all historians to continually ask themselves that question. My own intuition is that if we do not do this, our framework for understanding will not fit the picture of what we are attempting to see or present. In this sense, contrary (perhaps) to a traditional academic custom, every good historical thesis actually begins with drawing a picture before looking for the best means to frame it, be that frame a piece of software or, indeed, a book. The art of being a historian is, in itself, partly an art of visualisation.

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