Saturday, December 18, 2010

Visualizing Historiography

Dan Allosso

As a grad student preparing for Oral Exams, I spend a lot of time in a library carrel with piles of books. I’m trying to keep track of the connections between them, and simultaneously wondering how to think about historiography, for my particular project. Does it make more sense to trace the development of sub-disciplines like new social history? Or to group labor historians, regardless of the techniques they used? This question becomes even trickier, since the subject I’m exploring (American rural history) has much fuzzier edges than labor, or even than its own counterpart: urban history.

Nerd that I am, I naturally look to the computer for tools. I love Endnote, but it doesn’t really give me the note-taking and visual elements I want. So I’ve started using Tinderbox. It lets me extend the “post-it note on the plate-glass window” metaphor to extremes. But looking at the historiography visually has advantages.

I thought I’d draw American historiography as a tree (click image below to enlarge), so I’d be able to see how the different topics I’m tracing emerge like branches from a less differentiated body of earlier work. My reading list also includes a lot of iconic authors in the “trunk” area, but more single texts in the “leaves” area at the top. Time will tell, I suppose, which of the historians of the last three decades will emerge as “trunk” material. Or whether some of our current sub-disciplinary divisions will become permanent, leaving us without a single trunk at all.

The inclusion, placement, and arrangement of the authors and titles is completely arbitrary, of course, and represents my evolving ideas not only about how this material fits together, but about how it becomes meaningful to me. One of the interesting things I noticed, as I began building this list, was how much historiographies reflect the interests of their makers. The crowd of red on the left, for example, represents labor historians discussed in Francis G. Couvares, et. al., Interpretations of American History, which was one of my initial sources. I assume that, as I look at each of these authors, some will fall out of my tree. Similarly, as I continue reading environmental histories, I’ll be able to add more blue leaves to the tree, and make the appropriate connections between them.

The hidden advantage of Tinderbox is that all the content is XML, which means that it’s live and searchable. That means I can create agents that will sift all the pages behind these leaves, where I’ve attached my abstracts and reviews of these titles, ideas for my own writing, and even random notes. So it will be easy to see all the historians who’ve responded to Charles Beard or Frederick Jackson Turner, or all the books that discuss free banking or the agrarian myth.

The output side of this process is still a little sketchy in my mind. In the long run, I’d like to post something that would allow readers to navigate through the tree, and explore some of the material behind the leaves. But that’s several steps farther than I’ve gotten in exploring the software and refining my ideas. Thinking about output helps me grapple with the differences between learning this material myself, and communicating it to others--with taking what I’ve picked up on a personal journey through this material, and finding what’s relevant and interesting to other people.

9 comments:

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Thank you so much for sharing this! I am useless when it comes to software, but this inspired me to think about the ways technology can help clarify the genealogies of scholarship. We don't reinvent the wheel in our research and it is great to have a sense of why we categorize things the way we do and how our discipline has made new meanings of evidence over time. I'm sure I'll be coming back to this chart in the future and hope that you are able to grow it and make it even more widely available. I sure could have used something like this when studying for my orals...

Chris Beneke said...

Fascinating stuff, Dan. Where do you place Randall Stephens?

Randall said...

He should go into compost pile that is next to the tree.

hcr said...

This is wonderful, Dan, but if I were seeing this as a graduate student studying for comps, I'd be completely overwhelmed. As I recall, studying for comps was a big blur of stacks of books, most of which I only made sense of years later.

So for all of you graduate students out there thinking that everyone but you is as organized as Dan, relax! There's at least one practicing historian who would have greeted this chart with utter dismay. (Although it IS fascinating to see where different books appear... and it makes me want to start throwing different books up to see where they'll land.)

hcr said...

Randall:

Not the compost pile! But isn't that kind of the fun of it, to see where someone else thinks your work fits?

Re: the compost pile, though: I have often thought it would be fun to review my own books. Certainly, I know their weaknesses far better than any reviewer!

dan allosso said...

Thanks to all. I suppose I'll look back on this in a couple of years, and just shake my head. I've been reading Novick, Higham, Tyrell and Becker the last couple of days, so this stuff is sort-of bouncing around in my head. Not sure if I have the temerity to post about that here. Might keep that on my own blog for the time being...

dan allosso said...

Also, in case you keep track of cross-posts -- I sent Mark Bernstein (author of Tinderbox) a heads-up, and he mentioned the post and THS on his blog.

dan allosso said...

duh! It's http://www.markbernstein.org/

Jennifer Green said...

Dan, I am another grad student working through a similar process for comprehensive exams. I must be a fellow geek because your historiographic tree inspired me. Thanks for sharing your concept for organization!