Reviewed by Greg Burris (Florida State University)
We can put away the pitchforks and torches; David J. Staley is not a history heretic trying to convert us to cliometricians. This book, an address to his fellow historians, proposes a reexamination of visual methodologies. As Staley notes on several occasions, he sees the computer more like the telescope than the printing press, an instrument of visual inquiry more than a word processor. Staley is careful to be clear that he is not saying that visual history is better. It is simply another tool that historians can put into their repertoire. He calls on historians not to let past mistakes of particular historians prejudice us against useful visual and quantitative methods. However, he also gently tells digital historians not to fall into the same hubris as the cliometricians. Prose has been the medium of historians for 2,400 years, and history begins with the invention of the written word. Computers may add dynamite to our tools next to our mining picks, but that does not mean blowing things up is always appropriate, or that we should start throwing the dynamite at each other ... again.
When Staley uses the term “visualization,” he is not talking about the pretty pictures that we use to decorate a text or that our students use to try to take up some of the space on their term papers. He is using a definition akin to that used in science. A visualization is a method of efficiently displaying large amounts of information. A map is the most familiar type of visualization to historians. How long would it take to convey all the information of a map in prose? You would need to explain not only a list of countries and cities but also which bordered which; the shape of those borders; the direction, distance, and angle of each to every other country or city; and the kind of terrain that was between them. We use a map to convey spatial information, but there are many other types of visualizations that could be useful to historians.