Digital Scholarship Lab

Digital humanities initiative creates history for the public good

March 20, 2012

Loyalty. War. Freedom. Pride. Slavery. Rights. These words bring to mind many significant moments in history. But thanks to the Digital Scholarship Lab’s (DSL) latest project, Secession: Virginia and the Crisis of Union, 1861, these words can be used to track shifts in dialogue as Virginia sought to answer a pivotal question in U.S. history: to secede or not to secede?

Secession is a collaborative project built by web designers, database experts, digital curators, digital humanists, and historians. The full-text transcript of the debate, Proceedings of the Convention of Virginia, 1861, is stripped down to its most fundamental words, and an algorithm identifies patterns in usage and connections to other words in the text. Using this technique, the DSL, historians, and the general public can sift through 3,000 pages of text and draw their own conclusions about the meaning behind the message.

“We created a number of visualizations that would lie over top of the text so that students could search for words and see how those words played out over time during the debates,” says Scott Nesbit, associate director of the DSL. “When were people talking about slavery and what were they saying when they did?”

In another project, Mining the Dispatch, every word printed in the Richmond Daily Dispatch from the eve of Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 to the evacuation of the city in April 1865 was catalogued, graphed, and analyzed. The topic model revealed variations in military recruitment strategies during the course of the Civil War.

“A lot of patriotic poetry is about convincing soldiers that it’s OK if they join the Confederate Army and die — it ensures they’re going to be remembered as a hero,” says Rob Nelson, director of the DSL. “But there’s another category that justifies killing Northerners because they’re inhuman invaders, they’re not Christian, or they’re not of our nation.

“So on one end you have these articles related to dying and other articles related to killing. If you graph these over time, there’s a peak at the beginning of the war, another when they institute the draft, and a third at the end of the war — all the moments when the Confederacy needed men to join the army. You can start to see exactly how patriotic rhetoric is being used and to what ends.”

Visualizing textual data isn’t the only way the DSL brings history off the dusty parchment paper and into an interactive exploration experience. Mapping has proved beneficial, even with information that isn’t necessarily considered geographic. In Redlining Richmond, the DSL took real estate surveys and neighborhood grades from the 1930s to show the impact of race on the landscape of Richmond. And a 3D model of the James River lets users walk along the banks of the River City’s greatest landmark at a time before its citizens ever arrived.

“Having something to look at — images or something that moves — can get across more information than just reading text,” says Nate Ayers, programmer analyst. “Some people that shy away from history may not be as put off by it, and may even find they’re interested.”

While the DSL may make history a little more playful, they also hope that by making history accessible, today’s citizens can use historic data to stimulate future change. They recently took public access a step further by participating in UR Downtown’s addition to the city’s First Fridays Art Walk on March 2. Several of the DSL’s initiatives were projected on the walls of UR Downtown and Nelson, Nesbit, and Ayers were on hand to discuss their findings in an interactive art exhibit.

“While our work may not be art in a formal way, we hope that it will engage people who are interested in seeing some beautiful things,” Nesbit says. “We think that history can be compelling in the same ways that our best aesthetic renderings are.

“We’re also excited to share some of our projects that are about Richmond with people who live in this place. These are conversations that we think Richmond can benefit from, seeing some of the sources of our past and seeing what that history looked like.”