Exploring history with Voyant Tools

Imagine how long it would take to explore and analyze textual patterns across nearly 2,900 documents using physical copies in a library setting. Such analytical processes would consume vast amounts of time, patience, and coffee.

Thankfully, modern researchers can rely on technology for assistance with such processes, and what would once take weeks to years takes only seconds.

Miriam posner writes, “Voyant is a web-based tool for text analysis that is designed to combine ease of use with a sophisticated array of visualization methods.”1 It is an online program that assists the analytical process and sifts through texts, documenting word frequencies and the contexts in which they appear.

In this post, we will explore how Voyant Tools can help us analyze texts, form research questions, and draw conclusions from our discoveries.

According to the Library of Congress, the texts we will breifly analyze in voyant “chronicle vivid life stories of Americans who lived at the turn of the century and include tales of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the 1871 Chicago fire, pioneer journeys out West, grueling factory work, and the immigrant experience.”2

The above tool, called a word cloud, makes words occurring more frequently larger within the cloud. While hovering over each word, we can see the precise number of times it appears within the series of documents.

Within this tool, we can see that one the most prominent words is “got.” As a communication major, I wondered, “In what grammatical context would the word ‘got’ be used so frequently?” So I looked at another tool to help me find out why this might be.

In this tool, which tracks trends, we can see how many times each document uses the word “got.” I clicked on one of the dots that indicate the most frequent usage of the word, then explored the box below to view the contexts surrounding the word usage.

This frame shows that the word “got” is used frequently in a manner that raises more questions. How might the speakers usage of the word reflect their educational background? How does the speaker’s word choice compare to regional dialects within a certain time period?

After considering the Voyant results, my questions shifted from the context of the word to the background of the speaker. We can learn a lot about individuals based on their syntax and word choice, and thanks to the availability of this online textual analysis tool, we can more quickly draw conclusions about those individuals, who are the voices of their time period.

  1. Miriam Posner. (n.d.). Investigating texts with Voyant. Miriamposner  / Voyant-Workshop. https://github.com/miriamposner/voyant-workshop/blob/master/investigating-texts-with-voyant.md
  2. Library of Congress. (n.d.). American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/collections/federal-writers-project/about-this-collection/

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