Reviewed December 2017
Kathy Edwards, Associate Librarian
Emery A. Gunnin Architecture Library, Clemson University
Itinera is a data visualization research tool being developed by the University of Pittsburgh’s Visual Media Workshop, a digital humanities lab within the Henry Clay Frick Department of the History of Art and Architecture. Data input for the project is the work of art history graduate students, who also train and advise first-year undergraduates participating in the School of Arts and Sciences’ First Experiences in Research program. Besides fostering student engagement with technology in the service of history, Itinera’s larger purpose is to support research into the social, intellectual, and artistic correspondences that resulted from greater mobility and opportunities for travel among certain classes of 18th and 19th century Europeans. This new freedom spurred the emergence of “cultural tourism,” a knowledge-building phenomenon with ramifications still debated by scholars today.
The project’s source materials are archival collections of travelers’ letters and diaries, biographical dictionaries, and an encyclopedia of British and Irish travelers of the period, underpinned by Getty and other controlled vocabularies as data authorities. Combining interactive maps and social network graphs, Itinera generates overlapping spatial and temporal visualizations of narratives to reveal undiscovered connections among agents and objects of the period.
On the website, users can toggle three visualization modes to investigate a single individual or several at once: Travelers (366 at the time of this review, indexed alphabetically), Routes (tracked on interactive maps), and Chronology (a bar-graph timeline, with short event descriptions). The Traveler view provides an interactive network diagram of social and object connections an individual made during his/her journey, alongside a portrait image, assigned descriptor (artist, architect, scientist, politician, collector, naturalist, administrator, etc.), and a minimum of biographical information focused on significant travels and life events. Not all persons identified as Travelers were travelers, however (some were individuals encountered during a journey, with no other information supplied), and identifiers often shortchange known histories (for example, Charles Willson Peale as "administrator" or Dolley Madison as "mother"). Objects—accessible via the Travelers index—remain a tentative, undeveloped category: out of eighteen identified objects, thirteen are Parthenon friezes.
One can compare Stanford University’s excellent Mapping the Republic of Letters (MRL) projects, which focus on a similar time period, activity, and cast of travelers. MRL content has the depth of a case study per traveler, providing richer biographical content, cultural context, connections, and the path and direction of travel per journey—in short, a fuller narrative. Itinera’s Routes interface, in comparison, offers dots strewn across a map that fail to cohere into an itinerary, while Chronology consists of overlapping timelines that connect travelers and dates but not to places in common. Another significant improvement to Itinera as a history research tool (and teaching model) would be ready access to full citations for source materials. The Chronology interface offers a source per traveler event, but with incomplete citations.
Two improvements will make Itinera both a valuable research tool and an exemplary digital humanities teaching model: one, the provision of full citations for source materials, throughout, as an integral step in data input; and two, a (greater) body of data both substantial and granular enough to drive more complex, nuanced visualizations of synchronicities among Enlightenment travelers and cultural objects. Until then, Itinera provides an excellent case study for digital humanities scholars interested in what possibilities for historical meta-analysis may inhere in the data mining of historical texts.