Cameron Blevins on his JAH Article

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Cameron BlevinsCameron Blevins is a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University. His article “Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston” appeared in the June 2014 issue of the Journal of American History.

Could you briefly summarize what your article is about?

The end of the nineteenth century is often described as an age of national integration. Technologies like the railroad, telephone, and telegraph “annihilated time and space.” Behemoth corporations like Standard Oil or Carnegie Steel extended their reach across the country, while the Associated Press built a national system of news and information. But how did these forces alter the relationship between region and nation? My article, “Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region,” applies digital methods to answer this question. I used a computer program to analyze more than one hundred million words printed in a Texas newspaper from the 1890s, The Houston Daily Post. By tabulating how frequently the paper referred to different cities and states, I was able to recreate how one newspaper from a middling American city produced a particular view of the world for its readers. The results were surprising.

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The first surprise was the degree to which the newspaper focused on regional geography rather than national space. Despite the Houston Daily Post’s close connections with the Associated Press and the period’s powerful integrative forces, the newspaper concentrated its production of space largely within the local scale of Houston and the state of Texas. The second surprise was the kind of national space the newspaper produced. Houston had extensive connections with the American South, from its cotton-based economy to its Jim Crow municipal politics. But southern states and cities were muted in the city’s leading paper. Instead, New York and the American Midwest – places like Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City – towered over its view of the nation.

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How and why did you decide on your methodology? What sort of benefit does your methodology offer?

The past decade has witnessed an explosion of new digital approaches within the humanities. This article is part of that trend. Using a computer to tabulate the occurrence of individual place-names across thousands of newspaper issues and hundreds of millions of words reveals a pattern and process that would otherwise remain invisible to the human eye. This approach is in many ways a blunt instrument – counting words, after all, lacks the kind of nuance and context that historians are so good at. But historians have their own blind spots as readers. Namely, we like exciting things. When we scan through an old newspaper, our attention is drawn to the front-page story about a sensational murder or a scathing editorial about a political scandal. You know what’s a lot less interesting to read? Freight tables. Weather listings. Classified ads. Stock prices. Now multiply this kind of mind-numbing content across not just a single issue, but thousands and thousands of pages. It’s all but impossible for us to read and analyze that kind of non-narrative information across that kind of scale. Computers, on the other hand, can process thousands of issues in a matter of minutes and they never get bored.

I realized that this giant mountain of boring content was actually vital to how nineteenth-century newspapers produced space – it took up more than 40% of the newspaper’s physical layout. When I looked closer, it turned out that all of these railroad schedules and commodity prices were outlining a particular kind of commercial geography. The newspaper produced space in ways that followed a dense network of railway lines that wound their way out of Houston and into the American Midwest. It also printed a huge amount of fragmentary content that operated on the local scale of Houston and Texas: classified ads, real-estate notices, or hotel guest registries. This local and regional geography had been sitting there all along, hiding in plain sight. It was only by using a digital approach that I was able to see it.

What kind of impact do you believe your article has on the field?

I have two goals for this article. First, I hope it will change how we think about the production of space in the late-nineteenth century. Terms like “incorporation” and “integration” are thrown around a lot to describe this period, and those words carry certain spatial connotations. But national integrative forces didn’t necessarily translate neatly into imagined geographies. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the smaller scale of locality and region still mattered at the close of the nineteenth century.

Second, I hope that my article will help nudge digital scholarship forward in print journals like the JAH. People are producing a lot of exciting digital history, but most of it is taking place outside the pages of print journals. In many ways digital historians are turning away from traditional journals in favor of online communication and publication models. There are good reasons for this, but journals like the JAH still have a very important role to play within the field of digital history. Journals need to take more radical steps to engage and experiment with this digital scholarship. My article and its accompanying online component represent a very small step down that path – one that I hope will quickly get eclipsed in the coming years.

You state that “Journals need to take more radical steps to engage and experiment with this digital scholarship.” Could you expand on this? What exactly can more traditional print journals like the JAH do to ensure they don’t fall behind in the world of digital scholarship?

Let me first say that there are a lot of very smart people who have spent a lot more time thinking about this issue than I have. But from my perspective the most radical step the JAH could take is to publish a peer-reviewed project through an entirely digital platform. My article was in many ways fairly traditional, with a printed piece that could largely stand on its own. I wrote it with the knowledge that many JAH readers might never put down the print journal and look at the online component. But a lot of current digital history operates best through a purely digital medium. Many rely on interactive visualizations or mobile interfaces that are impossible to transmute to a print medium. Here at Stanford, a new initiative was recently announced by Stanford University Press to publish just these kinds of interactive scholarly works.

There are two other steps the JAH could experiment with. First, the timeline of print publication is poorly suited for digital projects. If the period from initial submission to final publication can span multiple years it’s going to dissuade a lot of scholars who are used to a much faster feedback cycle. Second, digital historians are used to their work being openly and freely accessible. The JAH agreed to make my article open-access, which was extremely important to me. But accessing this open-access version requires a special link; the version available on the Oxford Journals website is still behind a paywall. These two factors – speedy publication and open access – are quickly becoming the norm for digital historians. To illustrate this point: in January I posted the text of my presentation at the American Historical Association conference. Putting it online made it available to a much larger audience, and the conversation around it took place almost immediately through comments, Twitter, and email. A blog post is certainly not the same as a peer-reviewed article, but this mode of publication exemplifies the gap that is growing between print journals and digital scholarship.

What might scholars outside of your field take away from your article?

Non-Americanists will be interested in its digital methods and its conceptual treatment of space. It’s tantalizing to think about recreating this analysis from any number of vantage points beyond a Houston newspaper in the 1890s. For instance, what did the imagined geography of the Spanish Empire look like from the vantage point of eighteenth-century Mexico City? What about a view of the world from Beijing during the Cultural Revolution? The approach I took for the Houston Daily Post could be applied to a range of other times, places, and sources. Of course, that includes a major caveat that those sources have to be digitized in a machine-readable format; in that regard, Americanists are quite spoiled. The article also uses visual evidence to make its arguments. Maps and tables were crucial for me to formulate and present an interpretation of the paper’s imagined geography. They drive home the article’s argument far more powerfully and concisely than I would have been able to do otherwise. Whether you study U.S. history or medieval history, there is tremendous potential for visualizing evidence in historical scholarship. This is a core component of what we do in the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis at Stanford. It’s part of a bigger trend of rethinking how we produce and present scholarship in today’s world.

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