Yesterday software engineer Matthew Gray from Inside Google Book Search posted a mashup/geo-visualization demonstrating how place name frequency changed over the course of 19th century publishing history. Gray’s four maps—one each from the 1800s, 1830s, 1860s, and 1890s—clearly point to a growing publishing industry and broader shifts in center of gravity from Europe to North America and from East Coast to West Coast.
While Gray’s results are convincing and the whole project a good example of how digital tools are creating new avenues for amateur historical inquiry, we should also admit that it reinforces Dan Cohen’s recent point that “too many visualizations … merely use computational methods to reveal the obvious in fancy ways.” The question Dan wants us to ask is whether these visualizations teach us anything new. It’s a good question. Are we surprised that Denver is mentioned more frequently in print in 1890 than in 1830? Probably not. But another question we should ask is whether these visualizations can teach our students and publics anything new. I wonder if the obvious truths told by these maps, charts, and diagrams aren’t so obvious to people who don’t identify themselves as historians. I’m struck by the fact that both this example and the one Dan points to were both produced by and for non-professionals. I suspect the answer to Dan’s concern is that the best place for these things is not in research, but in teaching and public understanding.