Digital History is giving me frown lines


So as part of my final project for my Digital History class I created a short video/reflection/un-essay on the project. The video is a compilation of web cam and screen videos showing the evolution of the project. Putting this all together made me reflect on why I had taken the class, what I had learned from collaborating with others, and the potential of projects like this. It also informed me that I have huge frown lines.

Shout out to my amazing project partner, Laurel, who appears often in this.

If you’re intrigued by the video, play the game we made!



Why am I taking this class: revisited

Why am I taking this class:  What I learned from this class

This post is going take a look at the first blog post I did for this class.  I thought it would be useful to look back, reflect on some of the things I learned, the challenges etcetera.

I’m interested in taking this class because I’m hoping to learn more about Digital History. While this seems like a generic answer, I’m interested in the issues that are being discussed. On our first day Dr. Graham raised a good point, which was that historians often get so excited about the digital that they forget to look at it like any other source.

This lesson has definitely stayed with me throughout the course. We’ve worked with a lot of interesting and innovative tools, and I think with the majority of them there was an excitement over the things they could do, and how it could impact our research. It was easy to get caught up in this excitement, and forget that each fulfills a specific purpose, one that is never objective or impartial.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should ignore them. Instead, the products of these tools (whether a word jumble or a graph) need to be evaluated the same as we would a primary source document, considering the context, objectives of the creators, function etcetera.

Not only am I guilty of this, I can see parallels in my own research of performance history. Often an audience forgets that costumes, lighting, casting etc., is done deliberately, designed to present the events in a particular way, whether it is to make it more dramatic, relatable, etc. A helpful example is looking at the most recent adaptation of Macbeth. The three witches (classic and memorable characters in the story) rather than looking like this:

V0025894 Macbeth meets the three witches; scene from Shakespeare's 'M

V0025894 Macbeth meets the three witches; scene from Shakespeare’s ‘M Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Macbeth meets the three witches; scene from Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’. Wood engraving, 19th century. after: William ShakespearePublished: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Look more like this:

This isn’t because the director thought himself better than Shakespeare, but because creepy children provide the contemporary audience with the same cringe factor that witches provided Shakespeare’s audience.

I’m also interested in learning more about Digital History for future career opportunities. Just from going over the syllabus, I can see many ways in which the skills I’ll be learning could help my work as a historical researcher. The most obvious is a better learning about SNA, something we use a lot in our genealogy work.

This has also proven true. Consistently over the course I’ve been sending emails to my employer telling them about some of the tools I’m learning about (wget, Palladio, SNA programs, voyant) and how they could be used for our research. One of these actually got put to use on a project we are working on, as a direct result of my email. This was wget, which I talked about in this post, and which I had to talk about as part of my seminar leadership in the class.  

Part of me still slips into the thinking that this is a “wonder tool”, forgetting again that there are implications from its use. For our project it had positive implications, including that we were able to access and download primary source documents really quickly. However, we did encounter problems with it, such as realizing the image size was compressed (meaning the image was pixelated and blurry), and we had to stop and use some creative group problem solving.

This creative group problem solving is probably the second most important thing I’ve picked up from the course. There were a lot of instances (especially at the beginning) when I was really frustrated. In some cases this was because I hadn’t taken the time to read a tutorial properly, too accustomed to speed reading, and in other cases this was because a tutorial was may have been written using overly-complex language, and relied on previous knowledge (which I talked about here). This frustration at times was very isolating. While in the real world group work is a necessity, we don’t often do this in university. Until I started reaching out to my classmates (who to my surprise were often struggling with the same things I was), I felt very isolated. The old saying two heads is better than one held true in these cases. And even if we weren’t able to figure it out, there was a comfort knowing that it wasn’t “just me.”

Sitting down to think about my experience with Digital History, I actually have a bit more experience than I gave myself credit for (not that this is a lot.) My lovely and forward thinking parents enrolled me in Virtual Ventures (a summer camp run by the Faculty of Engineering and Design at Carleton University), and I remember learning how to create my own website using html (complete with garish colours, and images.) It seems I couldn’t escape html, as I later had to deal with it in high school when I was enrolled in a special course where we created things like photographic essays using PowerPoint, built websites using html etc.

It surprises me, looking back on this last paragraph how much my writing came full circle. I started off giving myself some credit for the experience I did have, and ended up writing this post towards the end on a similar subject. I think somewhere in the middle I lost a lot of this confidence, especially when I felt frustrated, but it makes me feel sort of proud that Emily 12 weeks ago, believed in herself.

Other than those two examples, my experience is relatively small. I am the go to “tech” person at my office, which generally means I am in charge of fixing the printer, and setting up laptops. I also manage the company’s online presence, including running the Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts.

I’d like to come away from the course having a better understanding of the nitty-gritty behind Digital History, and how these tools and programs can help my research. I can tell already that this can be done, and that the more I put in the more I will get out.

Coming away from the course, I think accomplished most of these things. I can’t say I always understood how the tools I was learning might help my research, but when I did I was really excited. And while I can’t say either that I have a full understanding of the nitty-gritty of Digital History, I think I have at least an ankle deep understanding. I understand that the field is large, but it isn’t as complex as I had feared. There are a lot of assumptions that go on about Digital History, and within the field, especially on things like gender. Rather than look at “digital” as something scary and unknowable, (something like this):


I see it more as a toolbox.


Flipping the Stage: show me more ugly

Earlier this week, Dr. Shawn Graham forwarded me on this website and project, knowing about my interest in theatre. This post is going to talk about that project, and I’ll be using both my history/theatre and digital history hats!

St. Lawrence Performing Arts Program is undertaking something that to my knowledge, is pretty unique in the performing arts world. Their using social media platforms and tools, like Instagram, Tumblr, and Snapchat, to give the public and audience members a behind the scenes look at the making of “Ash Girl”, a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker. They’re calling it “Flipping the Stage.” Here’s an explanation of what they’re doing:

Typically a theatre production is experienced for a narrowly prescribed moment—the 2-2.5 hours of performance. “Flipping the Stage” looks to lengthen and broaden the theatrical experience for the students involved in the production as well as the broader PCA department and SLU campus population by offering in-depth exposure to the production via the cast, crew, and production team.

The program was developed through the Digital Initiatives Faculty Fellowship Program. Through Flipping the Stage, they showcase the production work that goes into a show. They’ve broken down their posts into different themes/categories, including “Mystery Monday” “Technical Tuesday” “Wisdom Wednesday” “Funday Friday” “Selfie Sunday.”

The photos and snapshots show pictures of the cast picking apples together, costume mock-ups, pre-show rehearsals, script readings, inspiration, game nights etc. Here’s a snapshot of some of their posts (you can see much more through their website.)

This is a pretty brave step. Showcasing what goes on from script to stage is never easy. This kind of transparency excites me, as it’s something that I think a lot of historians are calling for in the field (and are reluctant to do). Talking about these decisions and negotiations is something I tried to do with my MRE script, and in the reflection I’ll be writing.

What the St. Lawrence Performing Arts Program is doing deserves applause, but there are some issues with it as well. I’m confident that someone involved in the Flipping the Stage program has  A) already thought of these issues, and B) will likely write/present about them at some point, but since I haven’t seen anything as of yet, I’m going to throw in my 2 cents, coming from a historical/theatre perspective, and combined with some of the things I’ve learned thus far from my Digital History class.

The biggest issue is that they’re buying into the idea that by using things like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, the public is getting a “real look” at what is going on in production. Whether we like to admit it or not, whenever we post something on the Web, we’re performing.  Think about how many selfies you’ve taken when you have a huge pimple on your chin…None? Yeah, not surprising. Knowing that the images we’re taking are going to be seen by others causes us to automatically filter ourselves. We all want to look like we’re living happy, fabulous, and fulfilling lives.

Not surprisingly then, the majority of the Flipping the Stage content shows a happy, fun cast. While I am in no way saying that these people weren’t happy when these photos were taken, I can’t ignore the fact that there aren’t too many photos/videos that show a stressed out director, dealings with a difficult cast member, budget issues etc. This is because we don’t often have the knee-jerk response to whip out a camera when people are fighting, and things are going wrong. However, those are the realities of theatrical production. Nothing every goes 100% according to plan, there are always hiccups.

I’d argue then that in carrying Flipping the Stage forward (which St. Lawrence Performing Arts Program should 100% do, because again it is an amazing initiative), they should strive to catch more of these kinds of interactions. Leave the camera running during rehearsal, capture those creative differences. Because it’s those things that will be interesting for public, the conversations that happen surrounding blocking, readings, and character development, that show all the minute decisions that go into a production. All the little negotiations that shape how an audience will learn a story.

Congratulations to the cast/crew of The Ash Girl, and to St. Lawrence Performing Arts Program for being bold and brave! Keep pushing forward, and keep up the good work!

See your words: Using Voyant on my MRE script

In this post, I’ll be talking a bit about my graduate research, and about the tool Voyant.

As part of my graduate research  at Carleton University I wrote a script based on a shooting outside of Ottawa, in the township of Goulbourn. One evening in August 1882, Robert McCaffrey was confronted by his lover, Maria Spearman, and her brother, on the side of the road. Maria was reportedly in the “family way”, and the two had sought out McCaffrey in order to arrange a marriage. When McCaffrey refused, a struggle occurred, which resulted in a gun being fired, and McCaffrey’s death. The headline “Murder! Shot Through the Heart” was splashed in newspapers as far away as Washington. Maria and her brother were arrested for murder, and taken to the Carleton County Gaol (now the HI-Ottawa Jail Hostel) to await the upcoming fall assizes. The story was taken up by anonymous writers to discuss the current issues of the day, including women’s rights, and the inequality of the justice system. Public outrage over the death of Robert McCaffrey soon turned to sympathy, and Maria quickly became characterized as a helpless victim, who had no other course but to take matters into her own hands. In the end, although Maria admitted she had accidentally fired the gun, the jury found her not guilty, and she returned to Goulbourn following her release.

The script I’ve written tells this story, using historical records as the skeleton of the piece. I created dialogue by combining verbatim excerpts from primary sources and then using my imagination to fill in the remaining gaps. The script also features characters based off of individuals who were involved in the creation of the script, including myself, that work to highlight the complexity of creating and performing the past. They also are a reflection on the evolution of script, and my journey throughout my research.

This script was performed by The Cellar Door Project at the end of February 2016. Now, I’m in the phase of my research that involves writing a reflection on this project.

A few weeks ago I was introduced to a tool in my Digital History course called Voyant. Voyant is a web-based tool that searches through a text you’ve uploaded, and provides information on words that frequently appear in it. For it can provide you with a graph that shows the trend of a particular word through multiple texts.

Someone in my class had mentioned they had tried Voyant on their thesis/MRE paper, to see what kinds of trends in the words they could see. I decided to give this a try on my own work, specifically with the script.


So, there are a total of 5,315 words. The most frequently used words are the (182), you (162), I (148) etc.

If you click on the small cog wheel, you have the ability to edit out these kinds of words. Select English (Taporware) from the dropdown list, and then click “OK.”


Pretty neat!


Looking at the new cirrus (the word bubble), there are a couple of words that I expected to see “Emily” “Maria” “Chester” “Robert.” These are all major characters throughout the script. I can even generate graphs that show trends in specific words. (Sorry, I went a little bananas!)

By clicking on a specific word in the cirrus, I can see how many times it appears. “Maria” appears just 5 more times than “Emily.”

Seeing “Maria” just barely scrape ahead of “Emily” prompts a wave of guilt. Seeing them side by side hit the issue of authorial presence I’ve be struggling with in my research.

“Emily” (surprise surprise) is based on me. The idea to insert myself into the script came in a roundabout way; I had been speaking with friend of mine, and while discussing my research I remember that he had been the one who had taken me out to the site of McCaffrey’s death when I was doing my early research.  I reminded him of the trip, and to my surprise he remembered it right away, even referencing the music we had been listening to on our drive out.  I was struck by this.  While I have shared my research (and the story of the shooting) with many, I hadn’t realized until that moment that my audience was listening, or that they would might take part of the story away with them.

I decided to write a scene for the script based on this conversation, which eventually became the last scene in the script. I felt that this would help me navigate some of my feelings on the subject, and be cathartic.  When I discussed the conversation I had had with members of The Cellar Door Project production team I was encouraged to cultivate this more. They urged me to consider adding myself as a primary character to the script. Immediately my guard was up.  I didn’t want to include myself in the script, after all, this was supposed to be a play about Maria Spearman.

Greg Dening in book Performances, articulates my reluctance.  He explains that most historians find authorial presence disturbing. Furthermore, he explains that the use of the subjective “I” is seen as “complicated and untrustworthy.”[1]  Historians find authorial presence disturbing because we have been instructed that our writing should be objective.  Bruno Ramirez in his work explains that the application of a structured rationality is inherent to the discipline of history, and is perceived as necessary for the attainment of historical truth.[2]  Logically, historians know objectivity is impractical, as well as unobtainable.  However, a small part of us still clings to the illusion.

Seeing “Maria” and “Emily like this a tangible manifestation of all this. Whether I like it or not, the script I’ve written is just as much about me as it is about Maria. And that, like everything I create, it comes from me.

It’s also pretty moving to see all my research filtered down into a colourful blob of words. Since after all, all the script is is a stringing together or words. It makes me think more about the words I’ve chosen to use, and what they reflect about me.

Here are some of the word trends.




[1] Greg Dening, Performances (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 111.

[2] Bruno Ramirez, “Clio in Words and in Motion: Practices of Narrating the Past,” The Journal of American History 86, no.  3 (1999): 998.


“Authentic” Russian Folktale Generator

Take a spin and generator an authentic Russian folktale!

Here’s what I got from these selections:folktale

function 6: antagonist(s) attempts to deceive victim(s) / protagonist(s) in order to take possession of them or their belongings = trickery (eta)

eta3 — use of other forms of deception or coercion

function 7: victim(s) / protagonist(s) accept deception and unwittingly help antagonist(s) = complicity (theta/lamda)
zeta3 — information received by other means

function 8: antagonist(s) causes harm or injury to victim(s)/member of protagonist(s)’s family = villainy (A)
A11 — casting of a spell, transformation

function 8a: one member of family lacks/desires something = lack (a)
a5 — lack of money or means of existence

function 19: initial misfortune or lack is liquidated = liquidation (K)
K8 — breaking of spell on victim

function 19: initial misfortune or lack is liquidated = liquidation (K)
K6 — poverty done away with thru use of magical agent

function 30: false protagonist(s) or antagonist(s) punished = punishment (U)
U — punishment of false protagonist(s) or antagonist(s)

function 31: protagonist(s) marries and ascends throne = wedding (W)
W#* — protagonist(s) weds and ascends throne

dramatis personae:
person sought-for:


A little wordy, but you get the idea!

Make your own here.

Deceptive data visualisations

As part of my final project I’ll be using CartoDB to make a map of the movements of a family throughout time and space. So, doing some due diligence, I thought I would read a bit about data visualizations. I came across a paper, “How Deceptive are Deceptive Visualizations?”, and thought I would take a look to see what they found.

They start off the article by explaining how useful visualizations can be, but how with the wrong selection of colours, scaling etc., the data can be misinterpreted.

In a way this questions reminds me of the pictures you can find that show 2 images, such as this one below (which I talked about in an older blog post about an art exhibit I saw.)


“All is Vanity” Charles Allan GIlbert 1892

To see just how deceptive bad visualizations can be, the authors (in connected with an NYU lab class) tested a series of well-known graphical distortions on participants. Below are some examples:

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For the study half of the participants received a deceptive chart, and the other a controlled one. Each were asked the same questions, which were essentially to measure the difference between the two (exp: How much better are the drinking water conditions in Willowtown as compared to Silvatown?) What the tests showed was the the deceptive chart led to more participants answering the questions with a larger/bigger estimate.

So, how can I transfer over some of these ideas into my own final project. It made me think about the options that will be available to me when I create my map. I know that CartoDB features different visualization options, include to change the shapes of makers, make it animated, and change the basemap. Below are some screenshots of the map options.

While absolutely none of the data has changed in any of these maps, at first glance they do appear to be very different.

Variety can be a great thing, but evidently if we don’t think about how the data will be used and who will be using it, we can run into some problems.

Using historical documents for mapping

Examples of Mapping using Genealogy and Census records

In preparation for my final project (which I discussed a bit in my last post), I decided to check out my competition and see what other kinds of maps are being generated based on census records and other historical documents. There are many out there, so in this post I’ll highlight two, and talk about what I found interesting, problematic etc.

The first one I looked at was from the Smithsonian magazine, by Lincoln Mullen, on slavery in the United States from 1790-1860 (which you can access here). Mullen created two interactive maps, using data taken from census records, that have a time lapse featured.

One of the first things that caught my attention was that the accompanying article was centered around the maps Mullen generated, rather than the other way around. Reflecting on this, I thought it was really important, and showed that Mullen wasn’t just using the maps as filler, or to make this article look cool. He had created the maps, and then was reflecting on them, and using them to build an argument.

The trends seen in the maps are very clear. Moving forward through time the Western United States becomes increasingly populated with slaves. Mullen uses this to talk about how rather than something that was confined to the Southern United States, slavery was widespread across the country. Additionally, he mentions the difficulties of using data from sources such as censuses, citing the example of how no slaves were enumerated in the State of Vermont in 1860, but how historical research has shown that African-Americans were kept in bonds in Vermont during this period.

The second map I looked at was made using a program called CartoDB (a program I think I’ll be using for my own project, and something I’ll discuss in another post.) It shows the movement (reportedly over 1 million locations) of the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy during WWI. It’s data set was created using captain’s logs. (You can see it here.)

The map is animated using a function called “Torque”, which allows you to create animations based on the locations in your data set. The result is the ability to watch your data zip around your screen, as time-lapse moves forward. The clock on the bottom counts us forward through time, and this map even features short summaries for activities (“Trade routes resume” “War begins with Germany”).

One of the first things I noticed was the inability to control the time. In Mullen’s maps you can move forwards and backwards, but with The Guardian’s we can only advance forward (and start/stop.) While aesthetically much nicer than Mullen’s, I found this less user-friendly. The Guardian’s map was also completely standalone and didn’t feature any accompanying text. While initially I liked this, after giving it some though I found it didn’t really prompt me to do any reflection. Instead, I watched the map a few times, mostly noting that it looked cool. I had to actually stop and prompt myself to think about what all the lights meant, and what kind of trends are visible.

Something I noticed about both maps was that they were working with large data sets. They used the data from thousands of documents, spanning hundreds of years. For my final project I want to keep my data set small, specifically focusing on one particular family. I’m curious then how features like Torque in CartoDB will work with my data set.