David Staley defines visualization as “any graphic that organizes meaningful information in multidimensional special form.” He gives us some examples of visualization which include: maps, diagrams, panoramas, schematics, charts, and time series graphs. (xi) To clarify, he mentions that no, visualizations should not be considered illustrations or even “decorations”; but the “main carrier” of meaningful information. In his introduction and most of the first part of his book, Computer, Visualization and History, Staley recognizes the fact that visualizations have often taken a back seat to the written word. He refers to historians as “word people” who associate anything serious with the written word. “Historians have written history for hundreds of years. Despite the allure or computer visualizations, we might find it difficult to break this institutional habit.” What I really like about Staley’s book is that it focuses on a variety of ways in which history can be represented through visualizations with and without the computer. Staley mentions that most historians see the computer as nothing more than a word processor and a email sender, being that for the most part, I feel uncomfortable using the computer for much else myself, I really enjoyed this reading.
At first glance it looks like Staley is putting the visualization on a pedestal and saying that it is the new frontier and we should it embrace it; but, as I continue to read, I noticed that he is making his case more for equating visualizations with the written word. In some ways, visualization can be more appropriate or maybe even more useful such as when the historian is trying to convey information that is not necessarily in linear order. I found it interesting the way Staley refers to writing history the same way someone would refer to writing prose or fiction. I had never considered writing style when writing history myself. He mentions “a historian’s linguistic choices may result in different accounts of the past,” which means that regardless of intent, the historian will make the conscience decision to either include or not include certain facets of the past and this alter the way we learn the information. When reading this, I thought of a quote from Abraham Lincoln that I like to use in discussing him. In writing to Horace Greeley, Lincoln says, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” Even in that instance, I had to pick and choose which section of the quote was enough and how much of it I needed to further emphasize Staley’s point. Typically if you have a historian/writer who is anti-Lincoln he could choose to use the quote this way: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it…” and be done with it. This is a direct quote from Lincoln regarding slavery and it has been used to assist the storyline that Lincoln was not interested in freeing any slaves. You could also take the same quote and use a different section of it to make the point that Lincoln has always been “The Great Emancipator” we all wish him to be. Of course there are better and more examples I could think of; but this seemed to be the simplest one. My point is (if it hasn’t been made clear already) is that in this way, I agree with Staley. Originally, this whole chapter caused me to become slightly irritated with him because you could absolutely do the same thing with a visualization. That was before I gave him the chance to further explain himself.
I had always been under the impression that if a little effort was put in, you could do what you can to recreate the past. Staley references Louis Mink’s quote: “The job of this historian is not to reduplicate the lost world of the past but to ask questions and answer them.” Staley spends a long time giving examples of things such as photographs, primary sources, videos even historical landmarks and asserting that, bless their heart, they could try all they want but they are never going to recreate the past. This struck a nerve with me as I thought about this one Civil War reenactor I remember reading about in Tony Horowitz’s book Confederates in the Attic who went through the most extreme conditions I have ever heard of to try and recreate the historical experience for viewers (and possibly himself). Now, I am not going to spend time going into detail about this man and what he did (or what his name was) because that would be getting off topic; but I had always thought that if anyone could make the past come alive it was people like him but then Staley dashes my hopes (again). He says essentially that we will never have the ability to recreate the past with words or images or anything because we don’t have a time machine. In this way he is putting visualizations and images on the same level. Both are biased, neither is better than the other and neither will ever tell us EVERYTHING about what happened. Only being there can accomplish that goal.
I also want to briefly talk a little more about my personal feelings. I have always been a visual learner. In fact, when I teach, I will never show a PowerPoint slide without an image and I love sharing videos with my students. I don’t mean that I make them sit through Ken Burns and Crash Course every day because I am lazy and want the video to do the work for me; I have trouble learning with nothing but text. As for the individual mentioned who referred to visualizations as a “distraction” he obviously has never tried to teach because I cannot imagine teaching without them. First of all, I would have the most difficult time talking about a battle with nothing but the written word. Sure, I could convey the information that way; but I think the true meaning would be lost. I am glad that Staley talked about film as a secondary source because I plan on using animated history maps and scenes from “Gettysburg” to help teach my students. Without a doubt. I remember being a student myself and listening to Dr. Gannon describe a battle in detail but not really understanding until I saw that animated map. There are a variety of things a visualization can do to help teach. It gives us an example of space and time, what it might have looked like, what the individuals involved in the event may have felt, etc.
I think I may have gotten off the topic of digital history in this blog post; but, I really enjoyed reading Staley interpretations on visualizations and applying to them to what I know and what I’ve experienced.