Presenting on DH & Digital Mapping

Last night, I presented some of my work at CUNY DHI’s Media Res #2: NYC Digital Humanities Lightning Talks. I’d never been to a lightning talk event before, and I was pretty inspired by what I saw. Each presentation was strictly limited to five minutes, and there was only about twenty seconds between each presenter, with a five minute break halfway through the presentations for questions, and a longer period for questions and discussion at the end. It was great to see what other graduate students in the Humanities are doing with digital technology. I found myself introduced to completely new practices that have helped me think about how I think about my own work.

My own presentation was on a digital map I made on the number of newspapers by county in the mid-Atlantic in the 1820s and 1840s. Mostly, I emphasized the authentic learning experience that I had by harvesting raw data, transforming it into something visual, creating a narrative out of that visual, and then noticing patterns and trends that made me rethink the narrative and, again, rethink how I think about my work. It was ultimately a presentation about metacognition, but also about one strategy for presenting, teaching, and researching better.

Here is the link to my map:
Newspapers in the Mid-Atlantic United States by County (1820-1829, 1840-1849)

Creating the map was an amazing experience because I first had to (not so amazingly) find the title, location, and publication dates for hundreds of newspapers, write them into a data set, create visual lists of that same data as display images, run them through ARCmap, transfer them into ArcGIS Online, and then create the final product with ArcGIS Storymap Builder. Well, that still wasn’t the good part. The good part was when I saw the finished product and then casually analyzed the two maps I’d created. I noticed that there were way more newspapers in the 1820s than there were in the 1840s, and there was also a higher number of counties that had newspapers in the 1820s, while the newspapers of the 1840s were mostly concentrated in larger cities (Baltimore, Philadelphia, NY, Albany). I also noticed that, in the 1820s, there was a distinct line of newspapers and somewhat higher populations than average straight across from Albany to Buffalo (I had also mapped the county populations). So, I wondered why there was this line of newspapers and population from Albany to Buffalo, why the number of newspapers declines by the 1840s, and why many smaller counties didn’t have newspapers anymore.

Then the connections started happening! The line of newspapers and population across NY State was related to the Erie Canal, which was active from 1821 onward and officially opened in 1825. I was able to find, after quite a bit of searching, a GIS Shapefile for the Erie Canal. I added it into my map and found that the counties on either side of the canal were the exact counties with higher populations and numbers of newspapers! So this route of transportation and, likely, its construction, may have had a strong influence on the population and newspaper production of surrounding areas.

Why, then, did population increase by the 1840s, but the number of newspapers being produced along the Erie Canal decline during the same period? It would make sense that, with larger populations, there would be more of a market for newspapers and more individuals likely to start up printing shops, right? Well, not quite. I thought about what changes happened between the 1820s and 1840s, and it clicked that railroads might have something to do with this. There may have been other factors, too, like the Panic of 1837, and I’ll look into that in due time, but for now I was feeling that awesome, rare, precious “researcher’s high.” So I (again, after much searching) was able to find GIS Shapefiles for the railroads of the entire United States in 1840, 1845, and 1850, and I tailored them just to fit the extent of my map. When I had everything layered together, I saw that the railroad lines connected not just major city to major city, but major cities to surrounding and more distant, less populated counties. My hypothesis is that the railroad made it easier, cheaper, and faster for big printers in major cities to distribute their newspapers to readership in smaller counties, giving them more metropolitan, cosmopolitan news, which may have been preferable to readership in lesser populated areas. That hypothesis raises other questions, like what that means about the ideology of less populated, more agricultural populations. How is their mindset changing as they shift from reading local newspapers to reading news from 200 miles away about big cities and political, economic, and social issues that might not have had much of an impact on their “backcountry” culture previously.

So, the presentation was a success and I met a number of other scholars who had great information to share. In fact, the overall event was such a good experience that I’m thinking of organizing a lightning talk event at Stony Brook. I’m thinking of having one for the Humanities and organizing a few different panels to cover a wide variety of areas: Public Humanities, Digital Humanities, Sciences and Humanities, etc. One of the organizers of the event yesterday said that it was relatively easy to set up, so I’m going to propose this idea at a Graduate English Society meeting later today.

Oh, and here’s a picture of my office mate, David Rodriguez, presenting on his topic (which won a lot of positive attention, rightfully so), entitled “Reading/Navigation: Mapping the Spatial Affordances of the American Novel.”

One thought on “Presenting on DH & Digital Mapping

  1. Pingback: NYC Digital Humanities Week | Scott's Schoolhouse Reflections

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