Data Mining

Hallmark Christmas and Victorian Tattoos

I have a confession to make.  This year has been difficult and to make it through the holiday season, I have found myself watching a lot of light-hearted holiday fair.  I’m embarrassed to admit the majority of which is from the Hallmark collection.  Why am I writing about this for a digital humanities assignment?  Well, when playing around with the Google Books NGram Viewer, and having just recently finished the Netflix holiday series Dash and Lily (don’t judge!). I began typing common holiday phrases into the search bar, such as Christmas eve, Christmas morning, holiday movie, marzipan (I love the British Baking Show), and even Hallmark Christmas.  The results showed a steady increase of popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, peaking around 2019.  My hypothesis is that the trajectory of the phrases matches the history of Hallmark holiday programs, which aired its first original holiday movie in 2000 and expanded the programming in 2009 with dozens of original movies being aired during the “Countdown to Christmas.”  Today, the term Hallmark Christmas has multiple meanings and plays a significant role in popular culture during the holiday season.


Google NGram Search: Hallmark Christmas
Google NGram Search: Christmas Movie

My sojourn into the history of campy and plot-predictable Christmas movie history is a simplistic example of how data mining can provide insight into digital humanities research. For example, Professor Robert Shoemaker and Dr. Zoe Alker’s research into Victorian era convict tattoos challenged previous beliefs that tattooing was an expression of criminal fraternity.  By utilizing data mining techniques centered on the Old Bailey convict records housed in the digital panopticon – 75,688 tattoos on 58,002 convicts in Britain and Australia from 1793 to 1925 – the researchers were able to show that tattooing was in fact an acceptable practice of working people during the time period.  The use of data mining allowed the researchers to view the tattoo records with a new light while discovering associations and patterns not seen before.  They looked into already established datasets, created visualizations (example chart below), and identified the types and locations of popular and recurring tattoo themes which opened up a window into the lives of ordinary working-class people in Victorian London.  Similarly, Ruby Mendehall’s research on the historical experiences of black women analyzed 20,000 documents from the HathiTrust and JSTOR using high-power computing.  The researchers knew that the documents contained information on black women but they needed to create methods for extracting the information. In the end, they used data visualization techniques and topic modeling to make senses of the findings.

Digital Panopticon: Female Tattoo Subjects 1830-1925

Using computing tools and machine learning to enhance humanities focused research is an interesting concept. It is clear that data mining practices can speed up research tasks while uncovering hidden and interesting patterns in established or overlook data. As an outsider reviewing several of the datasets available I could see how specific questions could remain unanswered without the use of high-powered analysis techniques and methodology.  And, because of data mining research I now know that Buffalo Bill was a popular tattoo in Victorian London and Hallmark Christmas movies remain a popular escape for troubling times.

Digital Mapping

You Are Here!

When I saw that the topic this week was digital mapping my thoughts when directly to the old navigation maps found in shopping malls and theme parks.  I am a child of the 80s and 90s and before there was Google maps or global positioning technology I learned my navigation skills through location orientation.  However, times have changed and now you can download a navigation application that will point you in the right direction while providing context and supplemental information.  I bring up this old school way of looking at the world around us to point out how far digital technologies have advanced in the past few decades.  What is even more impressive, today’s historians and educators are using these technologies to engage audiences, and to even discover things previously unknown.

Sean Fraga’s article, Digital Mapping Commercial Currents, was an insightful look at how digital mapping enhanced a maritime research project.  He recounted the experiences and discoveries made while compiling the data contents of a ledger that recorded information about vessels entering and leaving the Puget Sound customs district in the 1850s.  By digitally mapping the contents found within the ledger Fraga was able to answer questions related to how transpacific migration and trade patterns impacted the American conquest of the Pacific Coastal region.  At first, when looking at the ledger it seemed to be pure data, containing no historical story, characters, or plot points.  However, by digitally mapping the contents Fraga was able to extract narrative content that revealed insights on topics such as the role of steam propulsion in American settlement, how vessel technology supported coastal colonization, and the significance of the Fraser Gold Rush.  In the end, he found that by using digital mapping and data visualization the ledger research project was able to provide interesting correlations between patterns of human mobility and a physical space.

Similar to the benefits and usability aspects of digital mapping and data visualization resources, story mapping technologies are another way to visually enhance research or engage an audience on a particular topic or project.  Resources like ArgGIS encourage users to create web-based interactive experiences utilizing a variety of content/media resources such as maps, video, written content, legends, and photos.  These story sites can provide narrative context on a specific topic or act as a standalone resource.  When reviewing some of the projects and content available through sites like Story Maps and the Digital Humanities, I was drawn in by the visual experiences they provide. For example, the esri story map on the Road to Agincourt used items such as paintings, maps, book sources, family trees, graphs, movie depictions, and Shakespeare quotes to recount the history surrounding the the Hundred Years War and Henry V. 

Like any other form of storytelling, digital mapping and story mapping require thoughtful coordination of content to make sure the narrative is cohesive, engaging, and relevant.  I appreciated how the technology was able to connect the audience to subject matters with geographic context and through accessible interactive narratives. However, like all forms of digital media we must also ask who will continue to manage the content and when will it become outdated, like those old two-dimensional navigation maps that I once used. 

Video History

Be Kind, Rewind

Most, if not all of us, have experienced learning about history through video.  As a former secondary educator, I often used Video as a supplemental instructional tool.  This form of teaching was affectionately called the “lesson in a box” by one of my principles, which in itself is a historical reference to old VHS tapes. When working as a substitute teacher I welcomed and cringed at the idea of using video for lesson plans.  The reasons: it benefited my time in the classroom because managing student behavior was easier, but showing the same content class period after class period became mind numbing, no matter how interesting the content.  Side note: This is why I will never watch 2001: A Space Odyssey again.  Video, like audio and infographic content, is another method of making historical subject matter more accessible to a larger number of people, those who might never pick to a journal article or text. 

While watching the suggested video selections this week, I was struck by how brevity can be beneficial when highlighting specific topics.  Why? Because we live in a sound bite world, where lasting opinions and beliefs can be formed after reading 140 characters.  Videos like the Andersonville Stories, Minuteman, and Presidential Coffee clips share historical content or discuss historical topics in a manner that make the subject being covered interesting and impactful.  The watcher will not become an expert after viewing the clips, but the videos may encourage the viewing of additional content or further personal research on a topic found to be interesting.  For example, after watching the Minuteman video clip on colonial attire I did some research on the difference between stays and corsets, which I also found to be a common Google search topic.

When looking at the impact historical video content can have on an audience, the Whitman Mission Historical Park video selections showed that video content – like other forms of historiography – must be updated. The information presented should reflect inclusive and modern beliefs surrounding race, gender, and ethnicity.  Historical videos should not perpetuate antiquated ideas about race and culture, but provide the audience with a balanced and accurate accounting of the each story being told.  However, it is also important show how the manner in which we produce and share content can change, especially when previous beliefs and ideas are challenged.  As a student, I found the second video more impactful because of how flawed and “racist” the content in the first video was.

Updated Whitman Historical Park Video

There are many ways to experience history, and this can be done through books, podcasts, tours, and video. I believe a varied approach to learning and instruction can entice a larger number of people to seek out information on topics they find interesting or valuable.  More significantly, the manner in which the content in presented is also varied in its quality, accessibility, and purpose. Whether that purpose is to entertain or inform, I hope the long-term goal of any historical video is to engage and challenge an audience to participate in thoughtful reflection on the topic they are viewing. 

Below is a sample video I made while working on an Island Histories story.

Listening to History

Podcast for Distraction

Every morning, during my walk, I listen to a podcast.  These audio gems can be a great distraction and they help me prepare for the challenges or monotony I will most likely face each day.   Needless to say, I do not listen to anything related to current events.  Right now, my favorite podcast is that of a grumpy old guy talking about sports with a cohort of recurring guests.  I don’t watch sports, so why do I listen? For some reason, I find humor and a sense of calmness when listening to the quirks of the characters and conversations they present.  This is what I believe makes a conversation focused podcast great. 

So as expected, I enjoyed the first assignment this past week.  The task was to listen to The Ouija Broads a podcast hosted by two Pacific Northwesterners who tell each other strange stories related to regional history.  My selection was Man’s Best Friend, the tale of Meriwether Lewis’s four-legged companion.  Of course, I would choose to listen to a conversation about the Newfoundland dog that traveled with Lewis and Clark on their journey to the Pacific Coast.  While the main topic was Seaman the Newfoundland, the two hosts zigged and zagged while talking about their subject, like most natural conversations often do.  You can tell they have an established friendship and have been working on this podcast a while (this was episode 94) because of how comfortable they seem with each other. 

Similarly, interview podcasts can draw the listener in through conversation. This week I chose to listen to Ben Franklin’s World, a podcast focused on early American history.  My selection was Episode 278: an interview of Sarah Pearsall the author of Polygamy: An Early American History.  The host, Liz Covart, conveys enthusiasm when interviewing guest historians.  A strength of the podcast is how she is able to create an informative discussion between her and the guests, by providing historical context and substantive questions.  In contrast, the niche podcast was my least favorite category of the week.  I chose a selection from the Memory Palace, which is a random collection of short stories by Nate DiMeo.  While I enjoyed listening the Story of Maria Barberi, I missed the conversational aspects associated with the first two podcasts. 

When it came time to attempt to create my own podcast, I really began to appreciate the skill and work that goes into producing high quality big budget podcasts.  Serial was the first podcast I listened to that focused on story telling with high production value.  The host drew you into each episode with the effective use of music, story pace, interview placement, and thought-provoking commentary.  The same can be said for Bundyville, where journalist Leah Sottile skillfully recounts the tale of Clive Bundy, an extremist who participated in an armed uprising against the Federal Government over cattle grazing rights.   

To create my own 6-minute podcast I used the iPhone Anchor application.  This is a very user-friendly tool that easily allowed me to record, edit, and arrange my content.  However, a far from intimidating setup, I found that speaking into my phone did not prevent nervous stumbles.  After completing the task, I appreciated how easy it was to publish the podcast to Spotify using Anchor.  I’ll admit to being a tech novice and this made adding the audio content to my webpage quite simple.  Be warned, my voice is not radio ready, but I hope you enjoy the attempt. (Pictures of the experience available on the Podcast page.)

Islands, Empire, and a Pig

Let’s All Get Along

English Camp, San Juan Island National Park

When reading about the San Juan Islands and their history in Mike Vouri’s book The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay, you see the role place and relationships have on the manner in which stories unfold.  For example, growing up in a rural community provided me with several first-hand experiences related to property disputes and they were often times linked to the challenges of animal ownership.  One summer in particular, my family came to blows with the neighboring property owner because our horses enjoyed breaking free for walkabouts.  Those troublemakers would always head to the one place we they were definitely not welcome, causing property damage and endless frustration.  As a result, resentments grew, threats were made, and relationships frayed.  However, community is important to success and whenever situations arose where old disagreements needed to be set aside, we would band together for the greater good.

The story of the Pig War flashed me back to those pervious experiences, which helped me process how the events of this particular confrontation would ultimately conclude.  Truth be told, I fully understood how a wondering British pig could almost insight war.  This tragic figure, shot by an American settler, was the catalyst event in a land dispute between the United States and Great Britain.  The question being, who had the ownership rights to a small set of Islands on the coast of the Washington territory? However, the two countries were able to stave off conflict through a lengthy joint occupation and compromise.  In the end, the pig would be the only causality of the 13-year standoff. 

1859 British Map of the San Juan Islands

Throughout the book, Vouri provides a detailed account of the ownership claims of each country tracing the history back to the early European explorers and this lesson establishes reasons why each country would value the location.  It seems some type confrontation was inevitable because of the ambiguities in the Treaty of Oregon 1846, which divided the Oregon Territory at the 49th Parallel, but did not make clear who would get the San Juan Islands.  As a result, both countries assumed that they had a rightful claim to the Islands and a collection of colorful actors would pursue their country’s nationalistic and economic interests.

A strength of the book is how Vouri introduces the main figures involved is the historical account.  For example, James Douglas, the chief factor in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Northwest post at Fort Victoria.  In the early 1850s, under Douglas’ direction the first moves to establish a British claim on the region began when the company established a salmon curing station and a sheep ranch on San Juan Island. Douglas was a staunch supporter of the British claim throughout the duration of the standoff.  Similarly, the U.S. military General William S. Harney played a significant role in this narrative when he encouraged American settlers to seek protection after the pig incident.  Also, Captain George Pickett who – Vouri points out several times graduated last in his class at West Point – landed on the Island in 1859 to establish an American military presence.  Years before his infamous role in the Civil War, Pickett claimed exclusive American jurisdiction and set up a military post on the north side of San Juan Island’s Cattle Point.

George E. Pickett (1825-1875), Picture taken while serving in the Confederate States Army

Ultimately, I found that the most important feature of the book and the story of the Pig War is how Vouri connects the reader to place.  The San Juan Islands became a tangible location and I longed to see the places discussed within the text.  The Belle Vue Sheep farm and locations connected to Griffin Bay, English Camp, American Camp, and Roche Harbor were especially interesting and sites I would like to continue to learn about.  So many times, history can seem distant but knowing that these locations are within driving distance and a ferry ride way makes them seem accessible in the Pandemic world we currently live in. 

NPS Image: Belle Vue Farm: Sketch by James Madison Alden, 1858

Data Visualization

Let Me Tell You a Story

Last year, at the urging of a friend, I participated in the annual Spokane Zine Fest event at the Downtown Library (oh, those were the days).  This was a gathering of people sharing stories that use words and images.  My entry was a short picture book (really a coloring book) about my adventures welcoming a Newfoundland puppy into my life.  I could have written a collection of essays full of anecdotes describing my first year with Guster, but I chose instead to focus on the visual aspects of this unique journey.  Guster is a very large dog, and seeing the chaos that can bring into any situation is a lighthearted and entertaining way to experience the story.  I was able to share this personal narrative with a few specific drawings that engaged the audience.  In the end, I hope my finished Zine used what David McCandless from Information is Beautiful called the “language of the eye and mind.”

When jumping into the topic of Data Visualization, I instantly enjoyed not only the complexity of some of the infographics and charts, but also the creative thinking and problem solving that went into their creation.  For example, the Histomap created my John B. Sparks exhibited and compressed a huge amount of historical information into a small space. While not a perfect representation of the historic civilizations depicted the Histomap is an interesting example of how the visualization of information can make knowledge accessible. The visualization helps connect an audience to new and challenging topics through image storytelling.  This type of visual knowledge collection is an interesting way in which historians and humanists can organize large amounts of information into more manageable data repositories.  This can be seen in The Fir Trade in Canada: Mapping Commodity Flows on Railways infographic created by Joshua MacFadyen and Nolan Kressin. The researchers used GSI technology to create animated maps that focus on Canadian railways and the goods they carried.  As a result, this project helped them uncover geographical patterns and create visualizations of historical change.

After reading on the topic and viewing a wide variety of presentation methods, I came away with the belief that data visualization is a method of forming relationships between knowledge and images.  These relationships allow the audience or researchers to recognize trends and patterns, while encouraging them to search for the meaning behind what is being shared or presented.  This was especially true for me when I reviewed the data infographics found on the US Census Bureau: Data Visualization Gallery.  I randomly clicked on the Population Without Health Insurance Coverage: 2008 to 2015 visualization and found myself seeing first-hand how federal legislation impacted the general population.  Like it or not, there is visual evidence, and my take away was that the Affordable Care Act definitely had an effect on the US population.  The viewer could see that the end result was many more people having access to health care coverage.

Today we are inundated with data, graphs and charts showcasing information on topics like the upcoming election, the spread of COVID-19, and troubling weather-related incidents related to climate change through social media and news outlets.  As an audience member it is my responsibility to learn and make connections from the information being presented. And, to acknowledge, that just like my silly little Zine, data visualization as another form of creative storying telling.  When done well, it can make challenging concepts easier to comprehend and more accessible to a larger set of audiences. 

Drawing by Melissa Baker, Guster The Newfoundland Zine 2019.

Mobile Revolution Materials

The World at My Fingertips

I would like to consider myself a world traveler, having had the opportunity to experience the sites, sounds, smells, and histories found within regions of Western Europe and Malaysia. Sadly those travels are relegated to past memories and I find myself, like so many others, living a more home-based existence. Truth be told, it has been years since I have traveled beyond the boundaries the Pacific Northwest.  In an attempt to relive some of my past adventures I recently logged into the virtual tour application of London’s National Gallery to as they state, “Step into one of the greatest collections of paintings from the comfort of your home.”  The gallery’s virtual reality tour encouraged this art lover to venture through different rooms, click on pieces of artwork, and learn about the artists all the while sitting on my sofa enjoying some potato chips.  I appreciated the engagement and accessibility of images and knowledge presented, but I also longed for the actual experiences associated with enjoying the artwork in person. The paintings were never larger then the size of my screen, and I could not smell the aging varnishes or see the intricacies and details of the artists’ brush strokes.  This is not a disparagement of the VR experience, just an acknowledgement that this type of interaction with art and/or history requires the participant to enter the virtual environment with an open mind and imagination.

My role as a stationary traveler is one thing, but as a historian interested in sharing and preserving knowledge the utility of virtual and digital media is compelling.  Web-based curation tools such as Curatescape – the host of sites like Spokane Historical and Salt River Stories – allow historians and archivists the ability to apply layers of multi-media content to the stories they are endeavoring to share.  For example, this type of storytelling is showcased in Mark Tebeau’s article, Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era.  By linking community and place, Tebeau demonstrates how the Cleveland State University Public History and Digital Humanities team were able to create an informal experiential learning laboratory by adding images, oral history, text, and video, to an interpretive website that geolocates specific stories on a map. The end product provides the audience access to a wide variety of media and content, while also challenging them to experience history in a new and interesting way.  More specifically, Tebeau’s Cleveland Historical site resulted in a community-based oral history project that provides broad public audiences an enhanced understanding of regional identity.

The desire to learn about distant locations from the ease and safety of home is not a new concept, and the Peter Dawson et al. article “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveler: Using Virtual Tours to Access Remote Heritage Sites of Inuit Cultural Knowledge”, links passed Victorian panoramic paintings depicting arctic travels to the new virtual photospheres that connect visitors to geographically isolated heritage locations.  In relation to digital humanities, virtual and mobile tools have limitless possibilities, most significantly as innovative ways to enhance classroom education, by connecting students to distant history, stories, and art.  However, there are also accessibly issues to consider as many still face the challenge of limited internet resources and unequal access to computers, tablets, or phones needed to fully experience interactive sites and virtual tours.  In the end, the positive and negative of each interactive website or application is dependent on what the individual visitors’ intentions are.  I sought out a distant gallery to reflect on an old adventure, others may access these sites for virtual tourism, educational purposes, or to engage with unfamiliar regions.  What is true, is that we now have the world at our finger tips.

Photo of framed WWI Memorial
Google Scan Image of WWI Memorial

Welcome to the Topic of Digital Humanities

My how the times have changed!

When thinking back on my relationship with historical research, my first thought is always of Eastern Washington University’s esteemed archivist Dr. Charlie Mutschler.  For decades he oversaw the JFK Library Special Collections and I remember, as clear as if it where yesterday, the horror on his face as I, in error, used a ballpoint pen in the research area.  Yes, this dates me, but as a member of Generation X I have experienced first-hand the vast changes to research methods within educational and workplace settings that have occurred over the past few, dare I say decades.  For example, my undergraduate experiences involved long hours in the library sorting through microfiche, card catalogs, with only limited access to online resources.  In contrast, many years later, my post-graduate experiences have involved sitting in coffee houses as I easily access JSTOR and other online resources. 

As I read through the many articles related to the topic of digital humanities, I was overwhelmed by what the field’s title encompassed, and how technological and expansive it all seems.  Wikipedia states that there is a general recognition that printed word is no longer the main medium for knowledge production and distribution.  This is clearly evident when examining how students learn and workers collaborate in today’s digital-based online structures.  Currently, when creating presentations or course lessons, I use an online presentation tool that maintains the copyright of my finished work. I research content using online open source databases, and I present and share the material using tools like Zoom, Google docs, SharePoint, or WordPress. There is no longer a need for hard copy reports as workplace and educational documentation and publications are stored and shared on the cloud.

The convenience of it all seems to be a time saving blessing and a much more accessible and equitable method of sharing knowledge.  However, this overwhelming abundance of easily attainable knowledge comes with a new set of challenges. Within the article State of the Field: Digital History, the authors discuss how the multifaceted features—associated with digital history—also require the expertise to ask the right questions.  Typing a single topic or keyword within a search engine or online database can result in an overwhelming amount of content to sift through. As a result, the accessibility of the knowledge becomes a cumbersome challenge to manage and navigate. This proves that even though the methods of maintaining and storing the knowledge has changed, the need for trained and educated individuals to help with the processes of research inquiry are still a valued and important aspect of humanist and historical research and scholarship.

Though I reminisce fondly on the more simplistic aspects of sitting quietly (pencil in hand) in the library, reviewing and carefully handling primary sources within an archival setting, I also see the value and convenience associated with unlimited access to the wide variety of digital resources currently available online.  However, the larger and more challenging question facing those within the field of digital humanities is how best to maintain and organize the overwhelming amount media currently requiring preservation.  However, that is a topic of discussion for another day.

  1. Melissa, I love the Christmas theme of your blog post, way to get into the holiday spirit! It’s very lovely.…

  2. Nice blog! I’m super curious now about that valley for Hallmark movies. How’s the Christmas historian field looking these days??

  3. I hate you – this is that good.

  4. Enjoyed your synopsis, of the book. I think he spent more time talking about the Americans. If he spoke of…