Week 6 – Argument and narrative: do maps build the bridge?

Maps are arguably the most successful forms of historical images that have been digitsed, as they are easy to digirally manipulate adn change. Maps were first created with reference to religious landmarks, with one destination in mind. When maps were then made to be more flexible, they were constantly being redrawn as new areas were plotted. With digital maps this is no longer the case, data is much easier to add to and fix errors than with pen and paper, and large amounts of data can be plotted with ease.

Maps as visualisations of data create a form of narrative, but leave much of the interpretation up to the user. For historians especially, these visualisations can take the argument of academic history and create a narrative that is engaging for all audiences, without losing any of the stories that were trying to be told in the first place.

The Oxford Knights Archive can be used to do just that. Created by students, the data contains information from a series of mini-biographies of students who graduated from Oxford University before 1715, from a published book called ‘Alumni Oxoniensis’ that was digitised by British History Online. The students worked together to extract the birth places of all of the graduates who went on to be given a knighthood.

Using this data alongside Google Fusion Tables, you can map the data and filter it in various different ways. The most useful method of doing this is heatmaps. Heatmaps create coloured diagrams that show the concentration of people, rather than individual entries, giving a better visualization of an area on a map, not just a myriad of dots which would be confusing to the untrained eye. The maps are able to be filtered by any of the different types of data available in the original table, including college and matriculation year, meaning the large data set can be manipulated for any number off projects or historical enquiries.

As the data set is so large, it would be close to impossible to do the same thing on a physical map, especially when it comes to filtering by different variables – the possibilities are simply too large. Furthermore, having the data already laid out in a table, and having the technology to input it onto a map saves the time of trying to physically input the data onto a digital map, which would also be incredibly time consuming and close to impossible without a program to do it for you. While you may be able to analyse the tabular data for the answers to any enquiries, it would take much longer and you would be far more likely to miss the bigger conclusion if the data is not displayed visually, on a map.


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