You’ve heard the cliché “A picture is worth a thousand words,” plenty of times. The power of imagery in conveying information is undeniable, and the digital era has equipped us with new, more powerful tools for visualization. The modern field of digital humanities provides us new ways to both learn and teach information using visual mediums to express data. Reading about a historical event or enjoying a novel is one level of learning; surveying an interactive map, reviewing original historical documents, and constructing a context for the material builds on the initial level to create a much richer learning experience. Efforts to integrate visual elements into teaching are increasing as both interest in digital humanities grows and visualization technology becomes more accessible. In one recent example, “the ASHP [American Social History Project] staff helped pioneer a set of active learning strategies to improve history teaching, emphasizing, for example, the uses of primary source documents and visual source materials available online as a way to encourage students’ deeper immersion in historical thinking and history making” (Brier 2012). Other digital humanities efforts include digital reconstructions of a gallery Jane Austen visited, maps that track the travels of famous people and fictional characters, and an archive that collects all known documents of William Godwin and the Shelleys, to name a remarkable few.
Perhaps most incredible is the visual flexibility that digital humanities offers. Text maps can chart the frequency of words or phrases within a single book or across thousands (or even millions, given the computing power). An interactive map can explore a single room or an entire continent. An interactive timeline can examine a single person’s life or a full epoch. All of these methods of visualization are open to exploration through the innovation of digital humanities. However, the digital humanities present a way of thinking about visualization that does not have to be confined to digital mediums alone. Indeed, as Paul Fyfe suggests about using ,“One might offer maps, statistical surveys, journalistic exposés, impassioned editorials, urban sketches, snippets of fiction. Students could gather, assemble, and present to the class the critical narratives they collaboratively determine and argue. Discussion could proceed about how to present, exhibit, or visualize those relations” (10). In this sense, the tools that digital humanities offers us are not purely digital. Instead, the ways of thinking about visualization that digital humanities presents can be applied in studies both at and away from the computer.