One of the most diverting assignments that I have continually returned to over the past couple weeks has been looking at different network interfaces. A network interface is basically a visual way to organize and connect a lot of information, and there are definitely applications for these interfaces in the context of historical research.
The McCord Museum’s virtual exhibit offers a network interface that allows users to see the connections between different artifacts held by the museum. Clicking on different topics or items brings up more information on specific artifacts, creating a really neat way to explore the museum’s holdings. Unfortunately, the actual interface is constantly moving around, it doesn’t show the entire web of connections very well, and it isn’t very aesthetically-pleasing, especially when compared to other network interfaces.
Visual Complexity is an online database for network interfaces. Although many of the applications in this database are oriented towards the sciences, there are a couple interesting examples that could imitate what the McCord is doing.
Tracking the Threat is an interface that connects suspected terrorists to countries, terrorist activities, and organizations. The icons that represent these different entities can be moved around, and more information can be brought up by double-clicking on an icon. The maps that are created can also be focused by removing entities that the user is uninterested in. If this site was applied in a historical context and had its name changed to “Finding the Figure,” the interface could be used to connect historical figures to events, places, movements, organizations, or other individuals. Alternatively, one might call the site “Search for Scholarship” and create a network of information regarding historians. Scholars could be connected to institutions, topics of study, and publications. Such a tool might be useful for discovering potential research partners, employers or scholarly works on a desired subject.
LivePlasma is a site that uses information regarding music purchases from Amazon.com to create a network indicating what artists are the most popular and what other artist consumers bought albums from at the same time. The site also allows the networks that are generated to be saved or emailed. Such an interface might be used to track what pages were most popular in a website or what resources students were most interested in when doing library research for a history paper.
As a general application for historians, network interfaces have the potential to allow historians to organize and see information in novel ways. Names of people or places might be layered with historical information that can be accessed with a click of the mouse. References to journal articles or books might also be included in this layer of information. Alternatively, it might be possible to periodize history in different ways by starting from a generated network.
A general problem with many network interfaces seems to be that there can be so much information that it becomes difficult to see the forest for the trees, but this problem could easily be rectified by creating a zooming tool that eliminated broader connections or by creating a number of smaller networks that focused on more specific topics.
Network interfaces offer a very tangible way to manipulate data, which makes these interfaces useful for looking at historical information in a creative way.