Visualizations and Historical Arguments

The fifth part of Dougherty’s and Nawrotzki’s book, Writing History in the Digital Age, also includes an essay by John Theibault about the role and importance of different types of images for publications.

In ‘Visualizations and Historical Arguments’, Theibault argues that a deeper sense of understanding for a topic can be achieved by adding images of processed data to texts. However, the information used to create a visualization has to be accurate and transparent to minimize misinterpretations (see Leslie Madsen-Brooks’ story about ‘Black Confederates’ in ‘I Nevertheless Am a Historian’).

Moreover, he also recognizes, why visualizations may fail to add to the readers’ understanding: either they are unfamiliar with the type of visualization or they do not possess enough background information about the topic. Both issues can be overcome easily, but authors have to be aware of their potential effects on the readers, when creating their visualizations. Additionally, with the advent of computers and the internet, the range of ways to represent data has increased beyond any historian’s imagination: from text books with few expensive colour prints to interactive articles with fully animated data streams. Therefore, it has also become more difficult to select the right visualization: not too basic or too complicated, yet still being able to convey the author’s key messages.

In their latest incarnation, visualizations are interactive and allow readers to manipulate them to their liking, which may lead them astray from the original argument. The challenge for authors in different fields is now to find balanced visualizations, which will support and enhance their arguments without losing their readers in the process.


About AMK @ Ryerson

In the past, I was the experienced IT admin and troubleshooter, but the new me is going to be a creative analyst for sustainable solutions (maybe!).
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2 Responses to Visualizations and Historical Arguments

  1. historytw says:

    I agree with you on the matter that the visualization has to be accurate and transparent to minimize misinterpretations. As technology progresses, the types of representations also advances with it. As you mentioned, there are now even interactive types of visualization such as interactive maps like the one from a previous class on mapping Harlem. Yet these reinforce the issues with familiarity and lack of background information when using these tools. Not everyone viewing the visualization will fit into the target audience and have sufficient knowledge on the matter and how to use the tool. This can then lead to various unintentional misinterpretations. That is why I think you touched upon a very important challenge on finding a balance visualization to support their argument.

  2. jdegrave10 says:

    I like how you touched on the idea of the dangers behind the use of visual methods when presenting history. although I myself enjoy the presence of visual aids when conducting research simply because they allow be to better create an image of the event or issue i am study, there have been times when i have been faced with visuals that do not accompany text, but are the entire source of info on their own. having no background knowledge of the subject I felt lost and at a disadvantage of truly understanding what i was looking at. I find that with the use of visualization comes great responsibility as it enforces the idea that using more than one medium to display information can be a great thing, however it must be done so in a way that allows both sources to compliment one another and not distract or be overshadowed by one.

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