Current Research in Digital History


Volume 1 (2018)

Synthesis and Large-Scale Textual Corpora: A Nested Topic Model of Britain’s Debates over Landed Property in the Nineteenth Century

Jo Guldi and Benjamin Williams
Scholars need tools that will allow them to generalize about the fit of themes, events, and rhetorical styles represented in a body of texts. In this article, we introduce the concept of “nested topics,” an approach to topic modeling large-scale textual corpora that highlights implicit ontologies and relationships within the texts themselves. This tool exploits the fact that topic modeling can be used to generalize about topics on an aggregate level as well as a fine-grained level, an approach that has the consequences of revealing overarching themes that appear across all texts as well as more idosyncratic events and rehtorical styles that adhere to only a few documents. The tool’s effectiveness is tested by modeling discussions of property in British parliamentary debates in the nineteenth century. Nested topics help the authors to locate the rhetorical styles engaged in by Irish parliamentarians as they defended tenant rights in the 1880s.

Digitally Analyzing the Uneven Ground: Language Borrowing Among Indian Treaties

Joshua Catalano
Despite a growing body of literature focusing on the importance of Native American treaties and the treaty making process itself, the nearly four hundred separate documents have yet to be analyzed using the methods of digital history. By digitally detecting text reuse, this article recreates the patterns of language borrowing found among treaties and locates these networks within the larger context of settler-colonialism. An examination of these patterns reveals that treaty authors frequently borrowed both content and language from previous documents but only rarely did this borrowing occur over long periods of time or across geographic regions. Most treaties borrowed from their immediate temporal predecessors and geographic neighbors. While borrowing was common, many treaties did not include any borrowed language. This absence of borrowing raises questions concerning indigenous agency and the supposed efficiency and strength of the growing bureaucratic American state. These patterns of language borrowing illustrate the inconsistency of federal Indian policy. The article concludes with two case studies that demonstrate how digitally detecting text reuse can complicate our understanding of the treaty making process.

Sites of Sovereignty: American Indian Earthwork and Burial Site Activism in the Midwest, 1917–1968

Mary Wise
This article examines earthwork activism in the Midwest at the turn of the twentieth century. The activism of Emma Big Bear Holt (Ho-Chunk) and the Conley sisters (Wyandot) in the early twentieth century are connected by the history of Indian removal. Earthwork and burial site activists used traditional knowledge, alliance building, family kinship networks, and civic activism. The Midwest is a site of Indian removal and earthwork and burial site activism which revises narratives of Indian removal that textually erased the Ho-Chunk, Miami, and Wyandot. Earthwork and burial site activism bear the marks of indigenous self-determinative action in the past and present. The activists’ history resists narratives of American Indian defeat. Rather it supports the idea that American Indian activism can be found even in the most oppressive periods of federal policy. Furthermore, their story demonstrates that “Indian Removal,” best known as the coerced relocation of the southeastern tribes to Indian Territory, affected many tribes, with devastating effect. Earthwork and burial site activism was self-determinative. The story of Indigenous activism at earthworks in the Midwest is not a simple one. Rather, this is a tale of continuous reform and activism that extends well into the twenty-first century.

Mining the ICC: Macroanalysis of the Indian Claims Commission

Peter Carr Jones
Conservative white politicians created the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) as part of a movement to terminate Indian tribes in the 1940s. Many indigenous studies scholars see the ill intent and certain unjust outcomes as proof of the ICC’s damage to tribal sovereignty. Using topic modeling to follow discourses in the decisions, this paper argues the Commission should be seen rather as a modest, symbolic step towards meeting federal promises. Topic modeling or macroanalysis allows researchers to read all of the legal decisions distantly. Viewed over time, the decisions categorize the changing relationship between Indian Country and the Federal Government from a policy of terminating tribes’ status to much greater tribal sovereignty. Text mining also highlighted certain types of decisions, driving analysis and allowing exploration of the corpus. The “accounting” topic and related decisions importantly required the Federal government to symbolically recognize their treaty obligations. The decisions mark a legal process and major events in the late 1960s and 1970s affected their changing discourse. The ICC itself subsequently affected the relationship between tribes and government. By directing an “accounting,” the decisions encouraged an additional step in the continuing process of political reconciliation.

Geo-Locating Census Micro-Data: Segregation, Clustering, and Residential Behaviours of Migrant Communities in London, 1881–1911

James Perry
The settlement of foreign-born migrant communities in London has received considerable scholarly attention. Using the recently released Integrated Census Microdata, this article contributes to the literature as it argues that individualised mapping processes can reveal distinct settlement patterns within migrant communities. Furthermore, it is demonstrated that migrants were highly mobile entities and that communities continuously underwent radical transformations. Two areas of East London are used as case studies to highlight the different behaviours exhibited by migrant groups during a period of intense arrival and settlement. These neighbourhoods were selected on account of the availability of geo-spatial and census data. After processing in a Geographic Information System, data is explored and mapped to illustrate the concentration and composition of individual properties. Ultimately, this article presents evidence of tight migrant clustering and the gradual spread of migrants as they eventually settle entire streets. The decennial changes highlight some form of interchange. As migrants left one subsection, they moved to another. Although the literature indicated and suggested strong tendencies of residential clustering, this research has demonstrated the complexities of this point and revealed a number of previously unexplored behaviours.

Mapping Mobility: Class and Spatial Mobility in the Wall Street Workforce, 1890–1914

Atiba Pertilla
This project melds archival salary data and demographic data to examine the lives of men and women working in a Wall Street investment bank in the early twentieth century. Linking online database records for the 1900 and 1910 U.S. Censuses, it traces workers’ moves over time and the emergence of a gendered landscape in the New York metropolitan area that prefigured trends in other cities. While male employees grew increasingly likely to live in or move to the suburbs, women employees tended to move to or remain in urban neighborhoods. Examining household data reveals that while women did not receive acknowledgement as family “breadwinners” in fact both male and female workers on Wall Street supported other relatives with the ample salaries they received. In addition, the data indicate female white-collar workers were likely to move considerable distances for employment, often accompanied by other family members rather than being solitary “women adrift.” Government records from other online databases reveal the forms of material and social support women workers provided each other as roommates, traveling companions, and recommenders. The findings illustrate the potential of using digital databases to examine middle-class lives and particularly working women’s lives.

“Attracted by the Khaki”: War Camps and Wayward Girls in Virginia, 1918–1920

Erin N. Bush
This article examines the reactions of Virginia’s public welfare reformers to fears about the rise of prostitution and sex delinquency near state military training facilities during World War I. By visualizing data derived from the admissions logs of Virginia’s two segregated female reformatories, this article argues that the war provided the needed rationale to fund the expansion of state institutions and their programs to reform delinquent girls. Additionally, maps of the data show that the social engineering that targeted delinquent girls in Virginia spread beyond both its war camps and its cities into the mountains and other rural areas of the state. Scholars studying the history of female delinquency have argued that the vast majority of girls targeted for behavioral rehabilitation in the early twentieth century were typically poor, urban-dwelling daughters of working-class or immigrant parents. Virginia’s predominantly rural setting complicates our understanding of female delinquency as a problem stemming primarily from the challenges of vast urbanization. The case of Virginia suggests that delinquency studies to date may have been too urban in their focus, failing to see that rural communities were also targeting girls for incarceration and reform.

Glitching History: Using Image Deformance to Rethink Agency and Authenticity in the 1960s American Folk Music Revival

Michael J. Kramer
Tactics of glitching and deformance, which alter existing digital data into new outputs through the manipulation of underlying code, offer untapped possibilities for historical inquiry. A photograph of musicians Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, and Sam Hinton at the 1964 Berkeley Folk Music Festival serves as a case study for discovering how glitching and deformance reveal previously undetected aspects of the historical record: when glitched, the photograph sparks a heightened awareness of how Hurt and Watson, forced to be carriers of a limiting racial and regional authenticity, also found ways to expand their freedom and agency within the constraints of early 1960s consensus liberalism in the United States. While most histories of the folk revival focus on its primarily white, middle-class audiences, if even to critique their actions, the glitched image aids us in accessing the experiences of Hurt and Watson more robustly. In this way, a digital distortion of a photograph paradoxically produces a more accurate interpretation of the history it captures, enabling a compelling intervention in historiographic debates about the folk revival and its post-World War II American context.

Revealing Political Bias: A Macroanalysis of 8,480 Herblock Cartoons

Simon Appleford
Better known by his nom de plume “Herblock,” Herbert Block was one of the most prominent voices of liberalism in the postwar era. In his role as political cartoonist for the Washington Post, he articulated the values of liberalism to a much broader national audience than was reached by the writings of other liberal writers and played a critical role in shaping public opinion across a wide-range of political and social issues. Yet traditional discussions of Block’s cartoons, in common with analysis of the work of other political cartoonists, rely on a close reading of a sample of hand-selected cartoons that are extrapolated to draw broad conclusions about the nature of his work. In contrast, this paper uses digital methods to analyze Block’s body of work from 1946 to 1976—a corpus of 8,500 political cartoons—in its entirety. Through a series of visualizations, it illuminates longer-scale trends in Block’s output that are otherwise obfuscated by the day-to-day nature of his working schedule and explores how Block’s political ideology was reflected through his cartoons.

(Re)Humanizing Data: Digitally Navigating the Bellevue Almshouse

Anelise Hanson Shrout
Fleeing poverty, disease and violence at home, thousands immigrated to New York City in the 1840s. In an unknown city, with little support, many became destitute. City officials responded by consigning immigrants to the Bellevue Hospital Almshouse. There they were diagnosed as “vagrant,” “destitute” and “recent emigrant” and incarcerated in New York’s nascent public health system. This paper uses computational methods to reconstruct the experiences of incarcerated immigrants. It demonstrates the (often archivally invisible) forces that structured immigrants’ lives. It also argues that, despite the violence they suffered at the hands of New York City, these men and women used the Almshouse to forge communities, demand medical care, and claim social support.

Mapping the Media Landscape in Old Regime France: Citation Practices and Social Reading in the Affiches, 1770–1788

Elizabeth Andrews Bond
In the decades preceding the French Revolution, newspapers in France published thousands of letters from their readers. Such letters are a rich source for studying the ways in which readers responded to print. This article explores how the practices that readers and publishers employed to reference print matter helped the reading public conceptualize connections between the text they were reading and the larger media landscape. Editors invited their readers to contribute their opinions, and readers responded to the editors and to one another. They referenced articles in the paper, books, or other publications that had inspired their response. Readers also reacted to a periodical other than the one to which they addressed their letter. Using network analysis, the publications that letter writers responded to were tracked across newspapers. Visualizing citations as a network reveals the relationship between literary or political publications and the provincial general information newspapers known as affiches. Readers consumed such disparate publications together. In fact, readers placed the periodicals in direct dialogue by responding to uncensored and international publications in their letters to the censored affiches. Parisian and international publications were read and discussed in provincial centers, even in the censored Old Regime press.

“The Two Diseases Are So Utterly Dissimilar”: Using Digital Humanities Tools to Advance Scholarship in the Global History of Medicine

E. Thomas Ewing
The Russian influenza, which first received broad attention in St. Petersburg in November 1889 and spread across Europe and into the Americas over the next two months, occurred at a critical moment in the development of mass journalism, medical knowledge, and information technology. In this context, the question of whether “influenza is the forerunner of cholera” was prompted by a single statement by Russian physician Nikolai Fedorovich Zdekauer, made during a scholarly meeting in St. Petersburg yet quickly disseminated globally through newspapers and medical journals. Tracing the reporting on Zdekauer’s statement reveals how quickly misinformation could be transmitted on a global scale at a time of heightened concern about the threat of widespread disease. Yet these same sources, including newspapers and medical journals, also demonstrate how quickly both the leading authorities in medical science and publications aimed at public audiences questioned these reports and presented authoritative alternatives based on reasoned analysis. Affirming the dissimilarity of influenza and cholera also served to affirm the value of a public sphere which allowed for measured discussion, thoughtful intervention, and the articulation of an emerging scientific consensus about disease etiology.

Growing Strong: The Institutional Expansion of Knowledge in the Early Republic

George D. Oberle III
This essay explores how social network graphs can be utilized to explore the relationships between people in civil societies. This study focuses on the membership data from a sample of learned societies as well as federal employees and U.S. Army officers during the early republic. Using software constructs a visualization which indicates the shared connections between groups. This offers opportunities to explore if memberships in civil societies mirrored political relationships or if civil societies offered a space to cross political boundaries. Network graphs can help us visualize many relationships and, if used with traditional sources, can offer a richer understanding of the past. This article provides early insights into an ongoing project which seeks to test Alexander de Tocqueville famous observation on the importance of civil societies to the expansion of democracy.

Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches to the Development of Darwin’s Origin of Species

Jaimie Murdock , Colin Allen and Simon DeDeo
From 1837, when he returned to England aboard the HMS Beagle, to 1860, just after publication of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin kept detailed notes of each book he read or wanted to read. His notes and manuscripts provide information about decades of individual scientific practice. Previously, we trained topic models on the full texts of each reading, and applied information-theoretic measures to detect that changes in his reading patterns coincided with the boundaries of his three major intellectual projects in the period 1837–1860. In this new work we apply the reading model to five additional documents, four of them by Darwin: the first edition of The Origin of Species, two private essays stating intermediate forms of his theory in 1842 and 1844, a third essay of disputed dating, and Alfred Russel Wallace’s essay, which Darwin received in 1858. We address three historical inquiries, previously treated qualitatively: (1) the mythology of “Darwin’s Delay,” that despite completing an extensive draft in 1844, Darwin waited until 1859 to publish The Origin of Species due to external pressures; (2) the relationship between Darwin and Wallace’s contemporaneous theories, especially in light of their joint presentation; and (3) dating of the “Outline and Draft” which was rediscovered in 1975 and postulated first as an 1839 draft preceding the Sketch of 1842, then as an interstitial draft between the 1842 and 1844 essays.

Notes on the Future of Virginia: Visualizing a 40-Year Conversation on Race and Slavery in the Correspondence of Jefferson and Short

Scot French
Between 1785, when the first English-language edition of Notes on the State of Virginia was published, and January 1826, less than six months before his death at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson and his Virginia-born friend and “adoptive son,” William Short, engaged in a remarkable conversation about the fate of blacks in Virginia’s post-emancipation future. From their respective posts in Europe and United States, they discussed issues of race, slavery, emancipation, agricultural reform, and alternative labor systems based on European models (villeinage, or serfdom, and metayage, or sharecropping). Both men observed the condition of Europe’s white laboring poor while serving there as diplomats in the 1780s; both recognized the dangers posed by slavery in the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s and Gabriel’s Rebellion of 1800; and both expressed a desire to experiment with new labor systems that could provide a way out of slavery while preserving the agricultural basis of Virginian and American society. Yet they differed pointedly on the racial destiny of African Americans and the best path to a post-emancipation society in Virginia. Short directly challenged Jefferson’s views on black inferiority and questioned his continuing support for the colonization/expatriation/expopulation of blacks as the only viable alternative to slavery.

Researching Genres in Agricultural Communities: The Role of the Farm Record Book

Marcy L. Galbreath and Amy L. Giroux
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, agriculture was not keeping pace with other areas of the U.S. economy, prompting the creation of institutions such as land-grant colleges, experiment stations, and the extension service. The modernizing trends underlying these institutions, intended to promote specialized education and standardized practices, arose out of the ideologies of progressivism and represented a response to rapidly changing social dynamics. Political acts directed at farming signaled the increasing role of a federal bureaucracy intent on managing the development of the agricultural sector, and the written communications, or genres, employed in the effort reveal the interactions between institutions and local communities. Farm and 4-H record books—extension service genres—had direct contact with, and effects upon, farming communities, and were thus able to influence farmers and future farmers by establishing progressive ideas of commerce, science, and technology. In this paper we argue that traces of these institutional knowledge transmission efforts can be charted through the promotion of the farm and 4-H record book in newspapers of the time, and that combining genre analysis with a targeted digital search interface can illuminate these traces and enhance other qualitative methods.

Talk-Back Boards and Text Mining: New Digital Approaches in Museum Visitor Studies

Josh Howard
A simple analog tool–the post-it or sticky note–alongside text mining methodologies can open up new information about museum visitors. Since the late 1970s, museums have sought visitor engagement through talk-back boards, essentially a blank museum space with a printed question and a method of public response within reach. Visitors typically respond with short responses of less than ten words. Digitally exploring talk-back boards provides museums with a new visitor studies approach that provides increased simplicity in implementation, mass data creation, and low cost. The only significant shortcomings are the absence of demographic data collection and that talk-back boards remain an under-researched and method. Talk-back boards offer insight into visitor sensibilities that are often privately held and divorced from the museum setting itself, an insight that compliments the findings of the most common visitor studies methods. This study analyzes results from this approach gathered at two museums: Seminary Ridge Museum in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York.