How to Interpret Historical Information in Graphic Formats

Instructor: Dana Dance-Schissel

Dana teaches social sciences at the college level and English and psychology at the high school level. She has master's degrees in applied, clinical and community psychology.

Graphic formats such as charts, graphs, maps, diagrams, and even political cartoons are useful means of presenting historical data. This lesson explains the use of these measures and provides tips for interpreting the information presented in them.

What Are Graphic Formats?

What if I asked you to list all of the major storms that have impacted the American West throughout history? Where would you begin? How would you organize that information? Writing it all out would take forever and would probably be tough and maybe even confusing to read. However, what if you presented the information in a chart or graph? This would create a one stop shop for viewing these historical statistics, wouldn't it? This is why graphic formats are popular methods of presenting historical information. However, there are some important issues to remember in terms of interpreting historical information in the different types of graphic formats. Let's take a look at those now.

Charts and Graphs

Charts and graphs come in many forms, but they both provide visual representations of data. One example is a pie chart which presents data in segments similar to a pizza. Let's say that fifty percent of people in a town were over the age of twenty. If we were trying to show that with a pie chart, half of the pie would represent this group and the remainder would represent the other groups that together, form the whole. Therefore, interpreting historical data presented in a pie chart is simple because the size of the sliver of pie provides clues about the facts.

Another common type is the bar graph. Bar graphs use bars of different lengths to present information. For example, imagine that we were trying to show how many casualties occurred during each month of a one year war and that March was the month with the highest number of casualties. In a bar graph, the bar representing March would be longer than the bars representing the other months. In short, interpreting data presented in a bar graph comes down to the length of the lines. Overall, charts and graphs are very effective means of presenting a lot of information in a small amount of space.

Maps

Maps are great at presenting historical information of different kinds. They may show how land formations have changed over time, or they might indicate how boundaries have changed. For example, an early map of the United States of America would not look the same as it does today because states have been added as the country matured. Maps can also be an effective means of sharing data about specific regions and areas and may include keys to explain what certain colors or symbols mean. To interpret historical information presented in maps, it is important to take some time to assess what is being presented and how it is being shown on the map.

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