Visualizing Historiography

Dan Allosso

As a grad student preparing for Oral Exams, I spend a lot of time in a library carrel with piles of books. I’m trying to keep track of the connections between them, and simultaneously wondering how to think about historiography, for my particular project. Does it make more sense to trace the development of sub-disciplines like new social history? Or to group labor historians, regardless of the techniques they used? This question becomes even trickier, since the subject I’m exploring (American rural history) has much fuzzier edges than labor, or even than its own counterpart: urban history.

Nerd that I am, I naturally look to the computer for tools. I love Endnote, but it doesn’t really give me the note-taking and visual elements I want. So I’ve started using Tinderbox. It lets me extend the “post-it note on the plate-glass window” metaphor to extremes. But looking at the historiography visually has advantages.

I thought I’d draw American historiography as a tree (click image below to enlarge), so I’d be able to see how the different topics I’m tracing emerge like branches from a less differentiated body of earlier work. My reading list also includes a lot of iconic authors in the “trunk” area, but more single texts in the “leaves” area at the top. Time will tell, I suppose, which of the historians of the last three decades will emerge as “trunk” material. Or whether some of our current sub-disciplinary divisions will become permanent, leaving us without a single trunk at all.

The inclusion, placement, and arrangement of the authors and titles is completely arbitrary, of course, and represents my evolving ideas not only about how this material fits together, but about how it becomes meaningful to me. One of the interesting things I noticed, as I began building this list, was how much historiographies reflect the interests of their makers. The crowd of red on the left, for example, represents labor historians discussed in Francis G. Couvares, et. al., Interpretations of American History, which was one of my initial sources. I assume that, as I look at each of these authors, some will fall out of my tree. Similarly, as I continue reading environmental histories, I’ll be able to add more blue leaves to the tree, and make the appropriate connections between them.

The hidden advantage of Tinderbox is that all the content is XML, which means that it’s live and searchable. That means I can create agents that will sift all the pages behind these leaves, where I’ve attached my abstracts and reviews of these titles, ideas for my own writing, and even random notes. So it will be easy to see all the historians who’ve responded to Charles Beard or Frederick Jackson Turner, or all the books that discuss free banking or the agrarian myth.

The output side of this process is still a little sketchy in my mind. In the long run, I’d like to post something that would allow readers to navigate through the tree, and explore some of the material behind the leaves. But that’s several steps farther than I’ve gotten in exploring the software and refining my ideas. Thinking about output helps me grapple with the differences between learning this material myself, and communicating it to others--with taking what I’ve picked up on a personal journey through this material, and finding what’s relevant and interesting to other people.