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Hand-Wrought & Hard-Fought

by RJ ANDREWS December 28, 2022

My parents, who raised me and my sister re-enacting the American Revolution, gifted me with an appreciation for the wonder and struggles of past peoples. To me, history is not funny clothes and desaturated photos. To me, history is as alive as today. In this spirit I consider myself an amateur historian, a lover of history.

Technologist Colin Megill recently asked me to recount how I do my digital spelunking, finding fascinating facts throughout the Internet commons. So Colin, this dive into my particular digital-humanities practice is for you. 

My newest book for Information Graphic Visionaries is about Florence Nightingale’s persuasive diagrams (book link). It is divided into two parts: a new essay by me explaining the story, and faithful reproductions of her work and other related historic artifacts.

Florence Nightingale’s data graphics have been trotted out for decades. At conference presentations we applauded her as history’s token woman information-designer. How to read one of her peculiar circular diagrams was sometimes explained.

But the details about her work were always thin. The basic timeline of when she did it never made sense. No one tried to explain how she did it. No one attempted to evaluate if her graphics had any impact. What little context was given—concerning the who, what, why, when, and how—never smelled right to me. 

There seemed to be a gap, a cognitive gap, between the amount of attention we gave the thing, and how well we understood it. This always struck me as odd. And that’s the best sense I can give for what attracted me to understanding Nightingale’s persuasive diagrams—why I spent years trying to decode this puzzle.

Information designers organize artifacts. It’s right there in our title, we put things in formation.

A particular and meaningful arrangement is what separates information from data. Data is a collection of records. Information is the records stacked in some meaningful way. (Illustrated by a mess of texts from my 2019 book Info We Trust.)

Cataloging, arranging, and re-arranging helps us become familiar with our material. It’s also how we sometimes discover interesting understandings. Organizing any mess can be a soothing activity for the right person. For some it’s doing the dishes, for some it is wrangling data. I believe that to organize is a personality trait we information designers are compelled to express. 

My Nightingale essay has a disciplined focus to her graphics, only including what was relevant to their creation. Its writing was not a precious creative journey, but a mechanical process that spanned several years, pushed forward as I was able.

This mater-of-fact sensibility extended to the essay’s flow, which follows Nightingale chronologically, with one major flashback to introduce her primary collaborator and review the evolution of graphic statistics that influenced her work.

Flow of essay (from left to right) compared to the history it recounts (older history at bottom).

While I believe it is a cinematic story, I only allowed myself a few passages to become stylistically dramatic. In most cases I tried to not over-shade the facts, and let Nightingale and her colleagues convey the emotion by quoting their publications and correspondence at length.

Nightingale published two batches of Crimean War data graphics. The primary contribution of my research is sorting out the details of these graphics: where and when they appeared; who made them; how and why they were used. One of our book’s last spreads summarizes all of this work—the first graphic catalog I know of showing Nightingale’s diagram publications:

Nightingale graphic catalog from my book.

Nightingale’s diagrams are tools of persuasion: declarations and rebuttals in a years-long argument about army and public health regulations. Blows were traded across many months of printed matter, including: government publications, unpublished reports, official testimonies, unofficial speeches, trade books, newspaper articles, lavish graphic folios, and anonymous pamphlets. Charts, by and against her, appear throughout these materials.

The mixture of reading and citation-tracing that helped me reconstruct the back-and-forth of these arguments is not special. I read everything ever written about the topic. I bought and borrowed real books. I searched book archives (Hathi Trust, Internet Archive, and Wellcome Collection) for historic texts. See my book’s backmatter for over 300 cited references and a page of further recommended reading.

Here, I am able to produce an interesting look at when I encountered my primary sources: In the below bar chart you can see a spike in sources during 1858, when Nightingale’s first graphics were published. I began my discovery here: you can see that the first items I read are colored dark blue. Across several years of research I expanded to many more documents: the final sources I encountered are in dark orange.

(I know the dates of when I first encountered items by looking at PDF “date created” metadata.)

Today there are digital archives of American or British newspapers that are wonderful resources. Like the book archives, their text is searchable via optical character recognition. OCR is not perfect, but it helped me locate many interesting articles that added color to the story. I found many reviews of Nightingale’s graphics, and several advertisements for their purchase (5 shillings).

Low resolution scan of The Examiner newspaper from 9 March 1859 reveals an advertisement for Nightingale’s second batch of diagrams.

Several illustrations in my essay came from newspapers like The Illustrated London News. From these we get contemporary views of Nightingale’s hospital, Harrison’s print shop, Farr’s underground data vaults, and one of the instigating courts of inquiry. It astounds me that there are illustrated records of all of these places and events.

These newspaper illustrations were not always found via OCR. In some cases I found them by turning every page of a digital newspaper during key months of the story. In other cases I found them by a curious and circuitous path: Many historic newspaper illustrations have been extracted by stock-photo services and tagged for better discoverability. These sites were useful for finding images. Once discovered, I could return to a library to locate and obtain the image at a more affordable price.

Throughout the Nightingale essay I put an emphasis on craft: the hand-wrought and hard-fought work that went into making Nightingale’s masterpieces. As a practicing information designer this is the area that interests me most. It’s also the area that Nightingale’s rich archive, with over 12,000 surviving letters, might answer better than any historic information designers.

The critical digital resource for studying Nightingale’s correspondence is an archive of plain-text transcripts assembled by Lynn McDonald and hosted by the University of Guelph.

Lynn McDonald with her Collected Works series on Nightingale. McDonald is history’s most prolific Nightingale author. I had the joy of her guidance through my research and honor of her introduction at the front of our book.

McDonald’s digital archive draws on collections from around the globe. Its texts span over 38,000 pages across 52 PDFs. Reading every word was not necessary (nor practical) for my interest. To identify where to read closely I developed a crude keyword index for each of the PDFs. The most useful keywords were:

  • farr (Nightingale’s primary statistics collaborator)

  • diagram (how they described their charts)

  • harrison (printer of the diagrams)

  • statistic

Part of archive index I created to guide my research. I also tried colour, coxcomb (a nickname for her diagram publications), wedge (how she described a sector of her polar charts), and Quetelet (Nightingale and Farr’s statistical muse)—but these words appeared too infrequently to be of any use.

My reading of Nightingale’s correspondence was filtered through an information-organizing funnel: copy+pasting relevant letters into my own chronological record, then highlighting and commenting interesting text, and finally referencing and quoting some text in my essay. 

My extracts amounted to about 120 pages (a significant reduction from the 38,000-page archive!). Each copied letter received an H3-formatted title of date and sender-to-recipient. This let me quickly scan an auto-generated table of contents, and insert milestone events along the chronology so I could understand where everything fit in.

My chronology’s table-of-content organized a clickable correspondence record relevant to Nightingale’s diagrams, with milestone events hanging outside.

Reading the letter transcripts produced many delights. The best moments were finding descriptions of diagrams. For example, the transcript of a September 1858 letter from Nightingale included this text: {two dotted circles with solid circles inside and the words Liverpool, Manchester, in the latter case the solid circle is much smaller than the dotted one}.

Hopeful, I contacted the archive which held the original letter and commissioned its photography. Amazed, I received beautiful photography of diagrams from Nightingale’s hand, further-proving her as a visual thinker and communicator. (Her famous diagrams were produced at her direction, but drawn by government clerks.)

Florence Nightingale to Elizabeth Herbert, September 28, 1858, Wiltshire 2057/F4/67. Photograph courtesy of the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre by permission of the Earl of Pembroke and Trustees of Wilton House Trust.

Even more outstanding, the text transcripts pointed me to a folio of hand drawn draft diagrams, which we also located and photographed for the book.

In total—by reading and organizing prior research, primary source publications, correspondence, and graphics—I developed a sense of who did what. Nightingale worked within a large circle of reformers, and until my work it was not possible to distinguish what intellectual and production contributions were made by all the different players.

Throughout my research and writing I thought of myself as jigsaw-puzzle solver: my job was to find enough pieces and arrange them so that we could see what the picture was, despite not having every piece. Today, we do not have a perfect picture. But we do have a picture.

This essay gave a brief look at some of the technical work behind making history. See loads of more details and order the book directly from Visionary Press to experience the story for yourself (book link):

I look forward to seeing what future Nightingale and data-graphics scholars are able to do by building on my work, in the same way that I have built on so many valuable resources. There is more to discover! (William Farr’s letters, which are notoriously difficult to read, have not yet all been transcribed. Start there!)

Until then, I’m satisfied with the picture I made.


This essay was originally published  as part of RJ's newsletter, which you may subscribe to here.