The Historian’s Macroscope

Exploring Big Historical Data: The Historian’s Macroscope is an interesting book project created by the collaboration of S. Graham, I. Milligan, and S. Weingart. The interesting feature of this book is how it was produced, which was markedly different from others. The book began as a draft online, allowing the public to see the drafting and writing process on page at a time. This meant that the authors, as well as readers, had continual input in the creation of the text. COmments on the webpage where the draft was held, Tweets from Twitter, and a variety of other means allowed the authors and readers to actively engage in a conversation regarding the unfinished book. This process gave it a sort of peer review prior to completion in my eyes. This collaborative version of the text is the one available for free online, as the authors state the reason is for those who cannot afford a print version.

The print version of the book is nearly $40, and while I do prefer reading a tangible book, that price seems a bit far-fetched for me. The print version seems to be a simple tenure checkmark. THe authors put an incredible amount of time into this work, but without it in print many institutions will not count it towards tenure. I also believe that with the print version, the reader is missing some of the most interesting aspects and uses of the book: the application of digital tools to history. This book addresses the fluidity of digital scholarship in an interesting way by allowing the public to comment and suggest alterations to the text, and while this might create a few controversies, it also forms a peer review board for the book. This is something extremely important I think, and something that most people say digital scholarship lacks.

The authors are all self-proclaimed computer geeks. This work is a blend of their two passions, technology and history. While the origins of their love for each are different, their primary goal is to create a fusion of the two. Ian Milligan did this prior to the book at a THATCamp session, while Shawn Graham worked independently on his blog “New Tools for Teaching and Research in Archaeology.”

The Historians Macroscope is clearly aimed at students. The trend that I’ve seen authors working towards in their writings on digital history seems to focus less and less on theory, instead the focus has become getting the new generation of historians on the bandwagon for the digital history. The increase of digital publication only legitimizes the work there, in most cases, senior scholars have done while also broadening the field. The authors also intend to introduce people to the “macroscope.” THeir intention with this is to simply put the knowledge out there so that researchers and students who could benefit from the use of the macroscope may do so, where they may have not found it before. It  is also thoughtful to provide a free version for the broke college students!

The authors suggest working with multiple tools throughout the book, and I chose to create a word cloud of the transcript of the South Carolinian “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” This is something I have read for a previous class in an attempt to draw out what we thought the causes of the U.S. Civil War were. The avoidance of the word slave is interesting in the document, while the fight for states rights easily show the significance of the Lost Cause myth in this document.


Prior to creating this cloud, I had some trouble figuring out how to remove the common English language words and phrases such as to, the, for. Basically, the simple words muddied up the data for the cloud, allowing no conclusions to be drawn from it. Luckily, Voyant’s only setting is this text removal. While this is a simple version of text mining, I think it would be interesting to mine newspapers from a period and try to reconstruct the world as they knew it. You would be able to see what businesses and other towns a community was speaking about during the era, which I think would be fascinating.


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