Railroads and the Making of Modern America: A Digital Review

Railroads and the Making of Modern America. http://railroads.unl.edu/. Directed and edited by William G. Thomas, III (Professor in Humanities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln), Richard Healey (Professor of Geography at the University of Portsmouth U.K.), and Ian Cottingham (Software Engineer for the Computing Innovation Group at UNL). Received production assistance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. http://railroads.unl.edu/about/team.php. Reviewed February 22, 2019.

Railroads and the Making of Modern America is a digital project that looks at the social impacts of railroads in 19th-century America. It covers topics such as slavery, the Civil War, politics, migration, segregation, tourism and railroad work. The website implements visual aids including documents, maps, and statistical graphs.

As an example, when you look at Slavery and Southern Railroads under the topics tab, there are two columns: On the left are documents and on the right are visual aids. Under documents, you can take a closer look at contracts, annual reports of railroad companies, and letters. When you click on contracts, there are seven items – all of them are receipts for a slave purchase. One receipt was for the sale of slaves to the Mississippi Central Railroad Company on March 5, 1860. It briefly describes and shows a photo of the receipt. Underneath it is the metadata in the “about” section. It gives the source, the citation, the date, and other related topics. In the letters, they all have a description, but some do not have the photograph of the letter. However, these contain a transcript of the letter. As for the visual aids, many are maps to visualize information. Some require Adobe Flash Player 8 to view.

The next tab on the website is “views”, which are specific cases that focus on a research question or problem. Some of these “views” include passenger mobility in the 1850s, land sales in Nebraska, the growth of slavery and Southern railroad development, and women’s experience on the Great Plains in the 1850s. Just like the topic section, these “views” use multimedia when presenting the material.

This project openly shares their data and tools used in the making of this site. Under the data tab, you can download these resources for free. The authors encourage you to use these resources for your own research. The search bar for this project has several categories to limit your searches. These include types of document, the topic, scope, year, and publication.

Railroads and the Making of Modern America features four railroad-related projects from several graduate students in history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Finally, this site offers teaching materials such as seminars, interviews, worksheets, and links to other teaching sites for university, college, secondary and elementary school teachers. Just like the sources provided in the data tab, these resources are free and open-source.

Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, American Council for Learned Societies, Economic and Social Research Council, and the UNL Office of Research, this digital project uses digital tools and primary evidence to analyze social changes and impacts that relate to the development of the railroad. There is plenty of data here already, but this is a work in progress. The project team is currently working on adding documents and visual materials to the website to further help teach American history. This project is most suitable to those who want to research this topic or teach it in an academic field.

Six degrees of an imagined social network of the 1600’s

Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, http://www.sixdegreesoffrancisbacon.com. Created by Carnegie Mellon University with support from the National Endowment of the Humanities. Current website maintained by John Ladd, David Newbury and the Density Design Lab including Paolo Ciuccarelli, Tommaso Eli, Michelle Mauri and Michelle Invernizzi. Reviewed Feb. 8, 2019.

The Six Degrees of Francis Bacon visualizes an imagined historic social network of the sixteenth century surrounding Francis Bacon based on crowdsourced historical documents. This project can lead digital humanists and historians to askew questions based on the visualization of the data provided by these relationships. These relationships have been inferred statistically by datamining entries from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  Six Degrees of Francis Bacon expanded this project, inviting new collaborators to join a January 2016 Networking Women Add-a-thon to focus on adding women who were not originally included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 

The program website uses network analysis which provides a solid foundation  although there are still many questions to answer about how projects such as this can be as inclusive as possible. Most of the researchers and collaborators work for Carnegie Mellon and this project did not really seem to open this project to a larger collaborative effort which could have been a missed opportunity. While the website communicated the basics of the project, I needed to search the site’s blog for deeper answers about how the project was put together and organized. With its design, I felt that a more intuitive narrative would have been helpful in describing what the web of relationships could mean. I also do not believe that this website is as friendly to mobile devices, because it’s hard to see the layer of relationships on a small screen.  

The audience for this project is digital humanists and scholars looking for new perspectives on how to use primary and secondary sources to determine possible social networks of the past. This project does an excellent job of communicating to digital scholars who understand network analysis. However, it does a poor job of educating those without a background in this field how to use and understand this tool. As a digital media tool, this website provides a new way to visualize information and to consider new questions. This is not something that could be done in another format and so it does move the digital humanities forward as we come up with new ways to perfect the details of network analysis.  

While this project provides a good start for network analysis, the website and blog have not been updated since early 2018. This is a missed opportunity for continued engagement of how learning from this project can further advance our questions about who knew who centuries ago and how that might have affected events in the past. Overall, I rate this project a solid B, and I’d encourage the site to work to remain relevant and active in the digital age leading the cause of uncovering new questions for the digital humanities.

Railroads and the Making of Modern America: Documenting the Railroad industry on the backs of the slave trade.

Railroads and the Making of Modern Americahttp://railroads.unl.edu. Created by William G. Thomas III, Richard Healey, Ian Cottingham, Leslie Working, Nathan B. Sanderson, Zach Bajaber, Karin Dalziel, Keith Nickum, Brian L. Pytlik Zillig, Laura Weakly, Trevor Munoz, Dan Becker, Catherine Biba, Luci Bolwer, Karin Callahan, Sarah Dieter, Paul Fajman, Marco Floreani, Amy Grant, Erin Johnson, John Kemp, Kurt E. Kinbacher, Miles Krumbach, Dan Larsen, Steve McGuire, Lundon Pinneo, Cris Rasmussen, Anastasia Smallcomb, Nic Swiercek, Michelle Tiedje, Rebecca Wingo, and Robert Voss, The University of Nebraska Lincoln, http://railroads.unl.edu/about/index.php. Reviewed Jan. 2019.

It is said it takes a team to build a mountain. In reviewing Railroads and the Making of Modern America, a digital history project maintained through the University of Nebraska Lincoln. On a macro-level, Rail Roads and the Making of Modern America can be defined as a digital exhibit/tool, covering the socioeconomic, political, and cultural impact of the rail road between Nebraska and America’s slave trade. In discussing this topic, Rail Roads does a great job at maintaining a neutral point of view in providing objective content on the matter. At a more defined micro-level, you really begin to see the immense depth of this project. When visiting the site, a simple scroll of your mouse pad begins your journey as samples of content interchange on an automated slideshow.

Complimenting the automated slideshow, the home page, provides for the viewer easy access tabs concentrating on individual areas of this site. Tabs labeled “Data”, “Search”, “Topic”, and “Home” make it utterly impossible to get lost while navigating. I began maneuvering through this site simply by taking a quick glance at what each area had to offer. On a quick glance, I came across things photos, map, letters, reports, and contracts, mostly in relation to a specific rail road company or slave owner. In addition to these items were also more general documents specific to a region or route taken. Not isolated to any one area, these documents could be found within each area of study. An area not given much attention, was the adaptations for those with special needs or abilities. While each area of study contained an assortment of available content, individuals with special needs or abilities will need to find alternate aid to assist in viewing this site as no options are available for the filtering of these needs.

Aside from this, the content of this project is well organized and displayed. In general, the material housed here could benefit high school and college students in search of primary sources on this topic. Outside of classrooms, this source also has the potential to be useful for genealogy, with its capability to search for railroad employees. 

In reflection, the digital media pieces which stood out to me more than others as having the most potential included, an interactive map which allows the viewer to scroll through to a given event and connects it to an interactive calendar, so the viewer can connect an event. Another fascinating section documented the purchase of slaves to include surnames and quantities of slaves. Another area I particularly enjoyed was an element which use the rail road information to show an example of Spatio-Temporal Correlation Technology. For this example, you are given the option to view the map used from the view of elevation, population, or rail roads. For each of these, this example gives the viewer the option to scroll from 1869 to 1887 and literally watch the rail road system grow across the state of Nebraska. Finally, in what would be everyone’s favorite, Rail Roads and the Making of America has added to this collect several podcasts which allow for additional insight into some of the more detailed pieces to this story. As a bird’s eye view it is fascinating to watch the impact of the railroad in real time.

In conclusion, the work compiled for Railroads And The Making of Modern America is but a mere example of the heights digital history can go. In an age filled with up and coming tech savvy students, the need to maintain a higher level of engagement become more of a necessity. Railroads And The Making of Modern America does that perfectly.   

Locating London’s Past: A Digital Review

Locating London’s Past. https://www.locatinglondon.org/ . Created by Matthew Davies (Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research), Tim Hitchcock (University of Hertfordshire), Robert Shoemaker (University of Sheffield), managed by Sharon Howard, developed by Jamie Maclaughlin (Humanities Research Institute), data prepared by Mary Merry (Institute of Historical Research), geo-references by David Bowsher, Peter Rauxloh and Sarah Jones (Museum of London Archaeology), technical work by Michael Pidd. https://www.locatinglondon.org/static/AboutThisProject.html . Reviewed February 8, 2019.

Locating London’s Past uses several maps of London to analyze geographic statistics. Using GIS, it illustrates 18th century records on John Rocque’s 1746 map of London. The University of Hertfordshire, the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, and the University of Sheffield developed this project. The project also got help from the Museum of London Archaeology and the Humanities Research Institute in developing the map and technical layout of the website. Because this is a non-profit project, the website depends on advertisements to maintain and upgrade it.

On the front page, one can examine 1746 London more closely and compare it with a 1869-80 map, a present day Google map, and a satellite view of London. There is an “about the project” tab, along with a short historical background section and a contact list. Under the about page, you can read more about the geocoding tool that they used to map the data in addition to the limitations they faced. Multiple places having the same name, several locations unable to be mapped, and failure to match street levels are some examples of these limitations with the tech.
In addition, you can also look at certain data and read document text. The majority of the content will be found under the data tab.

The data section of the project may look a bit puzzling at first glance, but it is helpful in finding specific information. For example, you can look at all of the documented trials from 1674 to 1819 that occurred at the Old Bailey. Here, you can choose the victim’s gender, category of offence, verdict and punishment. Suppose you wanted to look at all of the trials in London that involved an animal theft in which the male defendant was found guilty and sentenced to public whipping. As it turns out, several of those exact cases have been recorded. All of the trial account’s texts can be read and many can be mapped. The project has more to offer than just trial cases. It also includes criminal records, a list of carpenter apprentices, fire insurance policies, a 1774 directory of citizens living in London, religious records, burial records for plague victims, population distribution, and more. The authors include bibliography of the records used. Comparing population density on the map effectively can be complicated, but luckily the website authors have provided several video walkthroughs on Vimeo. This can be problematic if Vimeo eventually shuts down.

The project’s design is simple, but that is not a bad thing. It could benefit from fleshing out the historical background more by giving details on civilian life in 17th century London, but otherwise the information presented is straightforward. The abundance of specific categories to choose from is one of the main strengths of the project. From what I experienced, there does not seem to be any bugs or glitches on the project. This website will appeal most to visitors or researchers who want to analyze the geographic and court records of 18th century London.

Reviewing Redlining Richmond

Redlining Richmondhttps://dsl.richmond.edu/holc/pages/home. Created by the Digital Scholarship Lab in collaboration with the University of Richmond in Virginia. https://dsl.richmond.edu/holc/pages/about . Reviewed Jan 31 – Feb. 8, 2019.

The Digital Scholarship Lab develops digital humanities projects that contribute to research and teaching at the University of Richmond and beyond (http://dsl.richmond.edu/). Redlining Richmond extends this mission by creating an interpretation of race and politics through maps in Richmond, Virginia.  The project draws from and focuses on the assessment surveys and maps produced by the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and local agents allowing visitors to explore this information.

Redlining Richmond has five different tabs to look through (Home, Introduction, Neighborhoods, Factors, and About) that states a project summary, contextualization of the history from the time period the project focuses on, the different neighborhoods, and the arguable factors that contributed to the redlining of the neighborhoods. The map on the home page shows neighborhoods divided into four different grades based on “residential security.” “Neighborhood” grades are categorized by the colors: Green (A), Blue (B), Yellow (C) and Red (D). “Neighborhood,” “Factors,” and the maps on the home page contain interactive links.  These links provide detailed information about each neighborhood and the different factors that attributed to the redlining. The “Factors” tab looks at the different individual factors (Terrain, Favorable Influences, Detrimental Influences, the different inhabitants, Buildings Occupancy, Sales Demand, Rental, demand, New construction, Availability for mortgage funds, and Trends of desirability next 10-15 years, Clarifying Remarks and Information for this form was obtained from) that the HOLC collected data for their assessment for each area.

The information on the site is communicated clearly, however specific terms can be difficult to understand if one is not coming from a background of race studies or geographic information systems.  It is not exactly clear whom the target audience is, but I believe it could be for those who are familiar with the terms and ideas that are used and for people to look at as another case study for race, politics, and redlining. The home tab has an interactive map and links embedded in the text to provide and clarify what the project is interpreting. Under the neighborhood tabs there are two mini tabs, Map and List. Under maps the image of the map is not there. There are instructions to “Click on any marker to view report data for the neighborhood,” however there is nothing to click on. The collections of the area descriptions are very clear quality and help add even more nuance to what the project offers.  

The actual site is fairly easy to navigate with the different tabs and internal links that are provided.  When first clicking on the link to visit the page, it takes you to the home tab. The website is not accessible to those with disabilities, which there is no sound to read the text aloud nor color-blind-friendly colors used on the amp to distinguish the different grades of neighborhoods. The site seems to be compatible with tablets and mobile-friendly, however requires manipulation of the site such as zooming in.

Six people created this project.  Robert K. Nelson, director of the Digital Scholar Lab, wrote the introduction, programmed the site and led to the overall development of the project.  Kathleen Smith, a research intern at the Digital scholarship lap, helped conceptualize the project and the site and developed the project’s database. Scott Nesbit, association director of the Digital Scholarship Lab, contributed to GIS expertise. Nate Ayers, programmer and analyst the Digital Scholarship Lab, designed the site and all of its images. John V. Moeser, a senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, brought the HOLC assessment surveys and security maps of Richmond to the attention of the DSL and contributed to his expertise in the twentieth-century history of Richmond. Mike Saraham, a graduate student of Moeser, visited the National Archives to gather surveys and maps for Richmond.

Although the format of the site is not a unique design and seemingly basic, it offers a nuanced point of view on the topic of assessment surveys and residential security and how politics and race interact with these things in Richmond, Virginia.  I believe there could be a more unique and appealing design and also more interaction with the maps. Looking at different platforms such as Story Maps or interactive layers would benefit the project and add more to the interaction with the audience.  

S. Shine Trabucco

St. Mary’s University

San Antonio, Texas

Digital Review: Geography of the Post

Blevins, Cameron, Jocelyn Hickcox, Jason Heppler, and Tara Balakrishnan. “Geography of the Post.” Cameron Blevins.  Feb 5th & 6th 2019

 “Geography of the Post” is an attempt to catalog every post office, both active and inactive that was constructed west of the 100th meridian between the years of 1846- 1902 in the United States.  The location of each post office that the site could verify is represented on the map by a colored dot. Researchers have two options for viewing the data. The first option uses four different colored dots to indicate the status of an office at a given location.  The designations tell the researcher if the post office was Established, Closed, Active Throughout, or Established and Closed.  The second option displays the post offices with dots showing how long they were active.  The darker the color of the dot, the longer it was in service.  Both views allow the user to adjust the period they are viewing but only for the aforementioned years.  The data variables can be set to any years in that range.  The creators note they were unable to include every single post office in this region due to gaps in the records, and that some of the post offices that are listed as newly opened were in fact renamed offices.  To aid researchers, they have included a running total of the percentage of post offices documented. 

The website uses data compiled by Richard Helbock in his work United States Post Offices vol. 1-8. The map that is used to display the data was created exclusively for this project.  Others might have chosen to use Google maps or a similar mapping application, but the creators opted for an application were they could keep complete control.  The display looks nice and anyone remotely familiar with the geography of the United States will easily recognize the shapes on the map.  However, the interface is clunky to use and just enough to annoy the user.  T is able to be moved around to focus on what the researcher is looking for, but it is a bit slow in its response to the movements of the mouse.  It also lacks a zoom feature, which prevents researchers from looking at things on a county or city level and thereby limiting the scope of research.  It only offers the region-sized map for viewing, and there are no geographic references besides the state boundaries.  There is no feature that gives the user a satellite view or allows for adding features like roads or rivers to the map.  This may require a researcher to have to cross reference other sources to verify locations of offices.

The audience for this website is going to be very limited.  Researchers who are doing projects focusing on the western United States are the main beneficiaries of this database.  The lack of a zoom feature would be a huge detriment to anyone doing a local history project at the county level or smaller.  On topics pertaining to the western states, this could be a very helpful website.  Using the data to track population movements or their rise and fall is rather easy to do, however the time limits are also constraining with that task.  A person with a casual interest in history is not going to get much out of this site.  The scope is too narrow and the features are underwhelming. 

The site does not make good use of the digital media.  It does compile a large amount of data into a usable format, but many features are lacking.  The slow interface also takes away from what should be a nice interactive experience.  The map itself is nice, but there is not much difference between that and a scanned piece of paper with the same dots on it.  This site falls short on what it could be.

The site was put together by Cameron Blevins, Jocelyn Hickcox, Jason Heppler, and Tara Balakrishnan.  They are associated with Stanford University. 

Overall, the site is underwhelming. It works well as a visual database, but the area it covers and the lack of geographic information potentially limit the types of research it would aid.  It is does have its purpose, but it is very niche.  For someone studying population movement of the American West at the end of the 18th century it would be a great tool, studying the postal coverage of El Paso, TX not so much.  Being able to zoom in closer would be a big improvement to the usability of the website.  Having more post offices on the map would also improve what the website can do.  Being able to see all the post offices to the Mississippi River or even further East would increase the research possibilities.   Marking the map with geographic features would help to improve accuracy of research being done also.


History Through Time…Line

Histography, https://histography.io/. Created by Matan Stauber at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. The project was over seen by Ronel Mor as a final project. This database is an interactive archive that is presented as a timeline. The timeline crosses through 14 billion years of events, starting from the Big Bang all the way to the end of 2015. The large amount of data that is being processes into this website is being siphoned through Wikipedia. Each page of major events that are mentioned on Wikipedia are placed onto this extended timeline and are represented by a dot.

When you begin working with the interface a pop up opens to explain very simply in two sentences how to begin using the timeline. Once pressing “got it,” the user is free to roam the timeline. At the bottom of the timeline there is a bar that allows the user to decide upon the years that are shown more in depth. When the sliding bar is moved it also gives the user the name of the eras that are being shown for that section. After deciding upon years, the user can hover over the dots (events) and look at a short snapshot of what the event is. When pressing the dot, the snapshot expands and some of the extra links that can be seen are related events, read wiki page, and watch video. Clicking on related events takes the user to other dots on the timeline, read the wiki page and watch video opens a pop up within the site.

The extras on this website can be seen on the top and on the left of the timeline. The top of the timeline Has three options, the first is the “about” page which takes you off the website. Then there is the “based on Wikipedia,” section that sends you to the Wikipedia website. At the end there is a simple “sound on” button that allows the user to turn of the music for concentration. On the lefts is a list of topics being Literature, Music, Wars, Politics, Construction, and Inventions. Selecting one of these topics like Music changes the timelines shape and only places important musical events. If the user decides to click on another topic like Politics, then the timeline morphs once again and is separated into two parallel timelines. The bottom black timeline being about music and the top white timeline being about Politics. Every time the user selects a new topic then the topic chosen before is sent to the bottom and the new topic chosen takes it place.

The project could be used by classrooms, researchers, history enthusiasts, librarians, university professors, and students. The website URL is short and easy to access and easily searchable in a Google search engine. One of the only cumbersome points is the website automatically reloads if the user decides to visit another open page on the desktop. It is also somewhat difficult for the user to select specific years with the sliding tool bar.

The effectiveness in the capacity of digit media is positive when it comes to comparing topics in specific eras. It is a great teaching aid in showing what event are happening during an era and how it could affect or mirror another event. The website is user friendly and simple to interact with, yet it would be difficult to convert the project into print or film. It may be possible to create a snapshot of the database into an exhibit to show different events happening at the same time.

Overall the digital project is very informative and eye opening. The different ways to manipulate the timeline can be helpful in multiple realms of historical, digital, and informational research. Syphoning information through Wikipedia allows the designer a vast amount of information with a workforce that continually pushes more information out. The timeline only goes to 2015 and I do not know if the designer is going to be continuing the digital project, but it will continue to be useful.

A Review of the Orbis, the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World

Orbis, the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World. http://orbis.stanford.edu/ Stanford University, Created and Managed by Walter Scheidel, Elijah Meeks and Karl Grossner. Reviewed February 6, 2019.


Orbis, the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World (http://orbis.stanford.edu/). Orbis is a website and online tool for illustrating the geographic constraints that governed the efficiency of Roman communications and transportation. By calculating the distances between various points of interest in the Roman world and applying typical principles of topography and meteorology, the Orbis series of maps can help viewers better understand the topographic and geographic conditions of the Roman Empire, and the ways in which people and goods were transported at the time.


The information presented on the website is conclusive historical data, so there is minimal room for misinterpretation of the raw data. However, when implementing different seasonal factors, there is no probability tool factored into the presentation. Therefore, the tool cannot account for specific weather conditions that were particular to individual years and instead relies on historical trends discovered through data analysis. This is a purely academic tool. As such, the interpretive point of view is that of a scholar, and uses appropriate language and a clean user interface to communicate this information.


The user interface and information architecture of Orbis are functional and easily recognizable. The website is barren of flair and complex design elements, and so comes across as very scholarly in nature. There is an easy to navigate top bar and side bar. The top bar is more of a luxury than a necessity. I imagine its primary purpose is to  give the button used to run a simulation a more prominent position on the page. Regardless, the structure of the site is easy to follow and uses common and simple language. All links are functioning and the site feels complete. The site is inaccessible to those who are vision impaired without a third party application, and the tool itself is only useful to those with vision and a comfortable understanding of English.


The project itself would be difficult to understand for someone who doesn’t have a good understanding of history and cartography, let alone geographic models. The Orbis model allows for scholars interested in the topic to apply a number of modifiers to traditional maps of the Roman world, and does so spectacularly. It is a very niche need for a very niche audience.

Digital Media

The technology behind the project isn’t exactly new, but it is used very effectively to convey information to the audience. The site and the contents themselves would be perfectly comfortable in the early 2000’s. The digital media itself is not featured on the websites landing page in a prominent

position, which was surprising to me. The project is unique in that it uses a very specific geographic tool to convey data that other mediums of conveying information would struggle to do. The written word, audio and video could all accomplish the same task as Orbis, but would require much more effort and be far less accessible to a layperson.


The Orbis project was created by a team of historians in collaboration. These historians were centered in Stanford University, and the two main developers of the project are Walter Scheidel and Elijah Meeks. Scheidel collected the raw geographic data and Meeks implemented the data into the GIS system that Orbis uses


Orbis is an incredibly useful tool for those who are studying the topography, meteorology and geography of the Roman Empire as well as scholars who are interested in visual ways of interpreting data. The academic nature of the site is an obstacle for those without experience in the aforementioned disciplines, so the intended audience is quite clear. The skills used to create Orbis would be of great use to public historians, and with language tailored to a more broad demographic, could be a very influential way of representing data to those of different academic and technical backgrounds.