How to Interpret Visual Representations of Historical Data

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Think that historians only rely on dense textbooks full of nothing but words, dates, and more words? Think again. Historians actually use a variety of visual representations, ranging from images that they create to visuals that are sources themselves.

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

Ever read a textbook and been left scratching your head, only to look up the page and see an image that helps it all make sense? While historians may be better known for their word-heavy primary sources and textbooks, a great deal of history is more easily displayed in a visual manner. Sometimes, this gets taken to the extreme - for example, Florence Nightingale, a British nurse during the Crimean War, once used a very detailed chart to show the different types of death suffered per month during the Crimean War. In fact, historians had to write articles on how to use it for other historians! However, for most historians, a much simpler treatment will do. As you'll see over the next few minutes, the very best of these are easily and implicitly understood.

Maps for the Historian

For most historians, the most often used type of visual aid is a simple map. Maps help track the development of empires, the progress of diseases, and even the spread of new technologies. Also, they really help do exactly what visual aids are supposed to do in history - condense complicated information to as few words as possible, so as to reduce the chance of misunderstandings from occurring. Think about it like this. I could describe, in a very lengthy block of text, how the Black Death progressed across Europe, starting in the Southeast and then traveling by trade until it was everywhere. Or I could just show you this map, which through the different shades shows exactly how the progression took place. Combine the map with a bit of explanation about how Italian cities were major trading posts with those cities in the Middle East that were first affected, and suddenly the whole subject of the Plague's spread makes much more sense. Of course, an animated map would be impossible in a book, so historians often show progression through different shades of the same color.

Animated map showing the progression of the Black Death in Europe
Black Death

Using Charts and Graphs

Sometimes the knowledge needed to examine a particular historical question is independent of geography. After all, the location of New York City is firmly established; thus, a study of its population growth over time would not benefit from a map as much as it would from a graph or a chart. Just like in math class, graphs and charts can show how quantities differ between groups, as well as how quantities change over time. In that first confusing chart from Florence Nightingale, reproduced below, each slice of the pie is a month and the colors represent the types of casualties suffered. The bluish-gray represents the number of people who died from disease, which Nightingale's nursing techniques would eventually shrink. In the chart on the left, there is less blue than there is on the right. This is because nursing became much more common in the war.

Florence Nightingale

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