Context and argument: What is the object of study and why is it important? Is it original? How is this project particularly suited to the digital medium? How and what does the project contribute to the field at large? Does the website have an interpretative element?
Evidence/sources:What kind of evidence does the project showcase? How and what kinds of materials do the authors link to? What are its source bases? Are any of the sources/archives open source? Are any parts of the project crowdsourced? How does the use of particular sources impact the overall utility and reach of the website?
Representation/aesthetics: How does the website represent its argument? Are all the links/animations/visualization links functional? Do they load unevenly on different kinds of devices i.e. mobile vs laptop vs desktop? Does a change in divide impact the overall look and feel of the website? What is the ease of navigability of the website? How text heavy/image heavy is the site? How does it cite sources?
Methods: What technologies and tools does the website use? How are these explained/rationalized? How do the creators bridge disciplinary methodological boundaries? Are there any pedagogical implications? Are there any limitations exposed in the methodologies?
Pedagogical implications: Does the project have any pedagogical implications? What are they? How might this project be used in a classroom setting? Was it designed keeping in mind possible pedagogical insights and uses?
Audience: Who is the intended audience? Is it a discipline and/or demographic specific audience? Or is it open to the public? How might this project appeal to its audiences and why? Are there any impediments to audience engagement?
Funding sources: Who is funding the website? Are the funding sources obvious? Have the funding sources impacted the content of the website?
Evaluating “American Panorama: An Atlas of United States History”
‘American Panorama: An Atlas of United States Historywas released in December 2015 by the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, as a collection of four map-based visualizations on American history by chronicling the migration of enslaved people, immigration to the U.S., canal construction and Overland trails. Each of these visualizations is an interactive map providing context, primary sources, as well as interpretative text and charts. The greatest contribution of the project is the way in it incorporates movement, migration, and infrastructural creation into U.S. history through each map. However, these are not mutually exclusive maps even if they are separate. Read together, these maps reveal the monumental changes experienced by and in the United States in the 19thto the 21stcenturies. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the website was designed by Stamen (https://stamen.com/work/)—a digital design and community firm based in San Francisco. The design firm specializes in designing maps and data visualizations. The maps are authored by historians and staff at the Digital Scholarship Lab including Edward Ayers. Across the project, the authors have left their voices out. This is especially telling in the lack of analytical text that could have accompanied the maps and given the reader more to chew on. Furthermore, pushing authorial interpretation to the background raises the specter of historical mischaracterization, as Cameron Blevins points to in his review of the project.
Canals’ is a project under the larger ‘American Panorama’ project at the University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab, showing growth of the canal system from 1820-1860. The ‘About this map’ section of the website lists the sources for the shapefiles as well as data sources. Primary sources include the annual reports of various canal commissions and commissioners. The website also uses secondary sources in the form of published documents and books. While it is helpful to list the overall sources used, it is difficult to see where each data point was obtained from. In the overall scheme of things, knowing the source of each data point may not seem important but given the multitude of sources in play, it would be important to know which data points about commodities were estimates and which were recorded. Knowing the source of data points would reveal who was doing the recordkeeping and perhaps why. It would have been helpful if the authors had pointed out the limitations of the data sources in greater depth.
Design and visualization are superlative. The map aims to represent canals as the “engines of trade, economic development, and travel in antebellum America” but showing “the spaces that canals connected but information about the goods they carried.” To do so, it uses Leaflet to recreate the actual canal/canal section on a map. Chronicling the development of the canal network into the Midwest, the map on the website shows the chronological expansion of canals that eventually connected the Midwest to the Northeast instead of the South, via the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Given the variety and quantity of goods carried by canals, especially in a pre-railroad era, the website does an excellent job of finding a visual that helps one easily understand the importance of a commodity in the market based on volume—a dot. The size of the dot increases based on how important the commodity was. Commodities are also subdivided into Grains, wheat, tobacco; building materials; sundries; lumber/wood; ore and fuel; and agricultural products other than grains. Hovering over a commodity reveals is volume through a specific canal in a year. While is very easy to understand the type and volume of commodities that were carried by canals, it would have been helpful to understand how the creators came up with these categories. The completion of the Erie Canal in the mid-1820s was one of the most important developments that helped connect the Great Lakes to the Northeast. The timeline below the Leaflet map chronicles the development and decline of canals. Users can select a canal (they are listed alphabetically) to understand the chronology of its development. Zooming out of the map and toggling the timeline also allows the user to see the development of the canal system. Commodities load based on the time period and canal in question. While the website is extremely visually appealing, it misses an important element that might bring it together—an interpretative element. If the creators had put separate interpretative elements such as an accompanying essay and/or static elements such as photographs as well as archival material, it would have helped make better sense of the website. An interpretative element, in this context, would also have been an important and useful pedagogical device. Furthermore, the website does not load well on a mobile device making it difficult to access across devices.
The website is meant for a general audience. Yet, one could imagine a layperson not fully understand what they were looking at. I for one did not fully understand the website when I first saw it, and I like and study canals! While the website claims that it hopes to show how important canals were to the creation and sustenance of markets and commodities, connecting the dots (pardon the bad pun) is difficult. For instance, the reader does not get a sense where the markets were: were they all in New York? Were there important regional markets? What directions did the commodities flow? These questions remain unanswered. Answering these questions might have made the website heavier and perhaps changed its visual vocabulary, but it would have helped make it more accessible and legible. That having been said, however, this kind of granular data may not be available given that the Canals were developed in Antebellum America. Pedagogically, the map has a lot of potential. it would work well in a class where students could use the map to write a short, visually informed essay as well as inform class discussions. The map would make an excellent pedagogical intervention in class on 19thcentury America.
In conclusion, ‘Canals’ is a great website and an excellent start at trying to link together economic data with spatial and infrastructural data. Yet, there are issues of legibility and access. This is not to take away from a phenomenal website that links together very disparate kinds of data in a legible and (mostly) accessible manner, to tell a powerful story of infrastructural, economic, and cultural change in Antebellum America.
Cameron Blevins, “American Panorama: Part I,” available at: http://www.cameronblevins.org/posts/american-panorama-part-i/. Last accessed April 30, 2019.