Paper Digital Humanities Australasia 2018

Visualising Raynal: Design as digital humanities (63)

Geoff Hinchcliffe 1 , Mitchell Whitelaw 1 , Glenn Roe 1
  1. Australian National University, Acton, ACT, Australia

This paper reports on Visualising Raynal [1]; an online interface offering new ways to explore, read and visualise three editions of Guillaume-Thomas Raynal’s monumental Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes, a controversial work that circulated widely among philosophic circles during the late Enlightenment. Visualising Raynal emerges from the Digitizing Raynal project [2], an international research consortium led by Dr Glenn Roe. In 2016 the Digitizing Raynal project completed digitisation of the 1770, 1774 and 1780 editions of the Histoire des deux Indes and Visualising Raynal builds on these digital editions.

This paper details the outcomes of the Visualising Raynal project, as well as the processes which produced them. It documents the project’s exploratory and iterative production process and its eclectic mix of techniques and technologies, fondly referred to as the “ungodly cocktail”. While conceived as an “interface” project, Visualising Raynal required us to dive deep into data analysis and manipulation. Using off-the-shelf techniques at large scale we were able to reveal structures and connections in the vast document despite our inability to read the text. We used a simple text similarity measure (Lehvenshtein distance) to track changes across editions, and distinguish between modifications, additions, deletions and transpositions. We visualised the resulting data-structure in the web browser using HTML and SVG, generating interactive diagrams that align related passages, revealing patterns of change and enabling exploration and interrogation of the text.

As well as a novel representation of Raynal’s Histoire, this process suggests new understandings of the text. Notably the 1780 edition includes unique annotations marking  passages attributed to Diderot. The interface highlights these contributions and their connection to previous editions, thus opening new lines of enquiry regarding Diderot’s role in all editions of the Histoire.

For more than 200 years the question of Diderot’s involvement in Rayal’s Histoire has remained a mystery, with estimates ranging from light emendations to more than 60% of the 1780 edition. Using newly discovered editorial annotations, we are able to highlight his purported contributions and, at the same time, examine how these build upon, edit, or add to the previous 1770 and 1774 versions - comparisons that are all but impossible using traditional print editions. Furthermore, this model of multi-variant editorial visualisation can be applied to other complex textual traditions in the growing field of genetic criticism.

As well as reporting on the project outcomes, this paper considers its methodological and disciplinary implications, focusing on design and digital humanities. This process oscillated between exploratory sketching and instrumental production, across data, algorithms and visualisations. Frayling posits a key distinction between research for design (investigations that support the work of design) and research through design (where the design process generates new knowledge) [3]. We suggest in parallel, a distinction between design for DH and design as DH. This project was conceived as design for DH — creating an interface; its outcomes suggest design as DH — demonstrating novel analytical methods and representational forms, and suggesting new content-specific knowledge.  

  1. Hinchcliffe, G., Whitelaw, M. (2018). Visualising Raynal. Accessed April 3, 2018, from
  2. Roe, G. et al. (2016, July 30). Digitizing Raynal. Accessed April 3, 2018, from
  3. Frayling, C. (1994). Research in Art and Design. Royal College of Art Research Papers, 1(1), 1-9.