A Manuscript Travelling Through Time And Space: How to Visualise the Journey of A Historical Object?


Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 17.05.20Use Case: The Watsons by Jane Austen

Is it possible to visualise in one simple interface the entire journey of a historical object, from its creation, to its most recent location? And in one interface – is it possible to see not only where it was and when, but how it got there, who it belonged to and how much it was worth at every stage of its travels? And if it is possible, how do I make that happen? You will find no definitive answers here, but perhaps you will join me in my attempt to visualise the movements of the manuscript of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel The Watsons.

Gathering information about historical artefacts is hard work in itself. There are manuscripts that are hundreds, even thousands of years old, and recording their every move is often virtually impossible. But where some have found a way of meticulously gathering and organising the information, there is huge potential to engage a wide audience by transforming black and white lists into didactic and interactive visualisations.

In order to find answers to my questions, I collected in a simple Excel spreadsheet all of the information I could find about the journey of The Watsons manuscript, from when it was written in 1803 until now. A brilliant source of information was KCL’s digital project Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts which hosts a transcription of the manuscript and key information about its provenance (1).
I then searched for existing online tools that would give me the possibility of visualising my data, which contained dates, locations and monetary values (expressed in British pounds). I needed the tools to be open source, and possibly free and user friendly. I imagined I would need a tool displaying a map (perhaps even a map of the 1800-1900s!) with pointers to indicate the locations. In my dreams these pointers would increase in size to reflect the value of the manuscript at every stage and a slider timeline. I have yet to find something that meets my needs.

In my search I stumbled across a Standford University initiative called Orbis. Orbis is a geospatial network model which allows users to visualise movements of an object in terms of time and expense. The problem for me is that the route network cleverly displayed is that of the Roman World. The map contains the Roman names of cities and fixed paths which existed in ancient times, whether coastal, road, river or open sea – far from Jane Austen’s 18th century travels by carriage or barouche box.

Route Network of the Roman World – Orbis, Standford (accessed in August 2015)

So then I was advised to try uploading my data into DARIAH’s Geo-Browser, which appeared to have exactly what I needed, albeit in an interface which could do with some extra love. The system asks for a CSV file, which I had. Despite having made it according to the model provided, my location coordinates would not appear on the display, together with the images that I had attached to the descriptions of each stage of the manuscript’s journey. The tool was overall a little too fiddly and unclear for me. Theoretically, however, it would even allow for the user to pick the desired background map, offering a selection of maps which go all the way back to 2000 BC.

I finally settled on TimeMapper, a creation of Open Knowledge Foundation Labs. It is open source and if need be, one could tweak the code, which is easily available on GitHub. But instead of reading what it does, why not click on the interactive time-map of Jane Austen’s The Watsons below?

Click here to view fullscreen and for a better overall experience.

TimeMapper was quick, easy and very pleasing to the eye. It doesn’t, however, help me visualise the passages of the manuscript from one location to the next and the viewer is forced to read the entire description section to get an idea of the value of the object. It is also somewhat of a mystery to me why some of the pointers are blue and perky and some remain like ghostlike drops in the background.

Being fully aware that my quest is nowhere near over, this post is also a call for collaboration. Please get in touch with me if you know of any visualisation tools meeting the criteria described above OR any information about The Watsons that I have not yet included. I would be incredibly grateful.
For now, in the words of Jane Austen, I bid you farewell!

(1) Other sources of information include this article from The Guardian Jane Austen rare manuscript up for sale, the Bodleian Library Oxford dedicated page, the Morgan Library New York dedicated page, this article from The Telegraph The artful portfolio