At some point, “Distressing News from Ireland” will be available through ProQuest. Until then, here are some visualizations:
Bibliography word co-occurence network:
Adventures in History and Digital Humanities
It’s been a week plus since I defended, and while I’m very excited to have passed this particular milestone, I also sometimes feel like there’s a dissertation shaped hole in my life that needs filling. One of the major themes of the defense was how to take a series of narratives about discrete geographic spaces, and make them into a cohesive scholarly monograph, so much like when I began this project five years ago, I’m going back to the secondary literature to begin thinking about relating the research I’ve done to broader themes of stitial and imperial governance, and the moral authority that giving lent to donors who might not otherwise have the means – social or economic – to voice their opinions on how their governments were taking care of them.
I’m also using the next few months to learn more about the opportunities afforded by GIS. I was at a talk yesterday at NYU’s humanities initiative on deep mapping (like deep narrative) that raised a whole host of possibilities for creating a digital component of my dissertation research. In many ways (and despite William Cronon’s dispiriting story of undergraduates who were unable to tell the difference between books and websites in the most recent AHR) textual narratives are the best ways to tell stories about the political possibilities afforded by famine philanthropy, but some kind of visual aspect is needed, I think, to really give a sense of the extent of donations. I’m sure that static images would do this just fine, but I hope to really get into dynamic visualizations as another way to tell stories about nineteenth-century donors.
In my dream world, and with infinite resources, there are two projects here. The first would map participation in Irish famine relief projects, showing both from where, and in what amounts donations came, and the ways in which news of the famine spread over time. The second is somewhat more ambitious. Having spoken with other people who work on nineteenth-century philanthropy, I think that it would be really productive to have a collaborative, searchable online database of participants in nineteenth-century philanthropic projects. In a perfect world, anyone could upload both images of donor lists and enter donors’ names in a shared database, which would link multiple contributions to different organizations made by the same donor. This would require a platform like Zooniverse, or the NYPL’s digital menu project, but might – if enough people working on enough different philanthropic projects – produce a really robust source for studying historical philanthropy.
Having finished this dissertation project of mine, I’ve been thinking about the big picture view of my research, which has led me to explore mapping and GIS, which in turn has pointed me towards an episode of This American Life on mapping and cartography. All of this is to say that what I’m about to write about is sort of a stretch, but does actually come out of the dissertating process.
The TAL episode in question talks about a lot of different kinds of maps (odd spatial ones, aural, olifactory) and basically makes an argument that almost anything can work in map form. So today, as I was walking to the train post-Nemopocalypse, it occurred to me that the bands of unshoveled sidewalks between houses might be read as a map of contested property boundaries. Neither neighbor wants to shovel any more than they absolutely have to, so these unshoveled spaces seem to indicate divergent expectations about property lines.
Now, back to learning GIS.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to Strange Maps when writing about strange maps.
One of the secondary questions of my research has been what themes in famine reporting were dominant among all famine reports in different locales. What, for instance, was the most common framework for famine reporting in New York in 1847, and how did that differ from the frameworks employed in Britain, the American South or Indian Territory. I’ve tried a few really clunky ways of representing this, by tracking the number of iterations of certain themes by place and time. (I should say that these are themes I’ve assigned myself – they differ somewhat from place to place, with major overlaps – and include references to the availability of potato (coded as “potato”), appeals for aid (coded as “appeals”) and discussions of American obligation (coded as “American sympathy”). As a result, these themes are somewhat subjective – the next step in this visualization is to mine the text of all of the reports I’ve collected, but that’s for another day)
Anyway, as part of this IVMOOC I’m taking while biding time before my defense/trying to grapple with data in a more systematic way, I learned about “burst analysis.” Basically, this is a way of tracking increased incidences of certain words in articles/titles/subject headings/whatever over time. Jon Kleinberg, who developed this kind of analysis, describes it as a way of tracking “the appearance of a topic in a document stream [a]s signaled by a “burst of activity,” with certain features rising sharply in frequency as the topic emerges.” So basically, a topic “bursts” when it is discussed with greater and greater frequency (as determined by a set of key words) and the burst ends when that frequency dips. There’s a lot of math involved in figuring out the “burstiness” of any given theme, but the fabulous Sci2 tool thankfully does all that for me.
So, here’s my first attempt to map “bursts” in famine reporting themes:
I think there are a few interesting things about this visualization, which I’ve intuited but never really seen so clearly. The first is that the major themes I’ve highlighted in my dissertation “burst” at very different times. I suspect that this has to do with the speed at which news traveled in the mid-nineteenth century, but the fact that the newspapers of the urban South contained an uptick in discussions about immigration in 1849 is interesting as well. I also love the little blip of interest in nationalism in New York in the middle of 1847 – there’s a much more extended discussion of the problems facing the Irish nation in 1848, but perhaps later references to nationalism didn’t occur rapidly enough to constitute a “burst.”