In the second part of Tomas Vancisin’s blog ‘Visualising the Biographical Register of the University of St Andrews (1747-1897)’ we take a look at the visualisations which focus on the students, degrees and LLA subsets of the data. Part I is available here.
The second visualisation of BRUSA focuses on the student subset of the data (students that were physically located at the University during their studies; external students also existed) and contains an additional view which allows to explore the number of students in different colleges (St Leonard’s in blue, St Mary’s in orange, St Salvator’s in red, United College in teal, U.C.D in green) over time (see Figures 17 and 18). The visualisation makes it possible to see the establishment of the United College (1747) as well as the inclusion of the University College Dundee into the University of St Andrews (1897). Moreover, it is possible to restrict the information shown on the screen using the timeline filter (see Fig. 19) or focus on a particular college at a time (see Fig. 20).
The primary objective of the third visualisation (see Fig. 21) was to provide an overview of the degrees people acquired and especially whether they obtained them through graduation (shown in red), externally (shown in blue) or became honorary graduates (shown in orange). Similarly to the previous visualisation, the timeline view shows the number of degrees awarded over time (see Figures 21 and 22). In addition, the user can filter the data by student status (see Fig. 23), degree discipline (Arts, Divinity, Medicine, Law, or Science) (see Fig. 24) or combine these filters.
A particularly interesting aspect revealed by this visualisation is the obvious peak (see Fig. 22) indicating 604 external degrees awarded in 1862 followed by a massive drop to 9 degrees in 1863. The explanation for what we initially thought was a technical problem with the data analysis was found to be the change in the regulations for medical degrees in the University in 1863 after the Medical Act of 1858. This restricted the number of MDs to be awarded annually to 10, hence the 1862 ‘rush’.
Another notable pattern in this visualisation was discovered whilst examining the distribution of UK birth locations and its dependence on the way degrees were awarded (see Figures 25-27). It was surprising to see the number of English students who in fact made up the majority for externally acquired degrees (see Fig. 27). The reason was likely to be the Uniformity Act 1662 which made it difficult for the so-called Dissenters (people who did not conform to the Church of England) to gain a degree from old English universities such as Oxford or Cambridge.
The fourth visualisation (see Fig. 28) was developed in order to study degrees in more detail but at the same time emphasise the problem of over-reliance on the visual representation. Views 1 and 2 contain aligned timelines. The former represents the number of Humanities and Science degrees whereas the latter focuses on Arts, Divinity, Law, Medicine and Science. View 3 uses the tree-map representation of all degree types (M.D., M.A., L.L.A….) with colour tone and rectangle size indicating the number of records for the given degree type. The user can filter the data to Humanities (shown in orange) or Sciences (shown in red) (see Fig. 29), choose one of 5 degree disciplines and examine them separately (see Fig. 30) or combine these filters.
An important aspect in this visualisation is the timeline alignment of the first two views which emphasises that visual representations can be misleading. Even though both of them work with the same dataset (only grouped differently) View 1 does not show gaps/uncertainty, and View 2 does not allow for how many degrees were awarded in a given year to be shown (see Fig. 30). Moreover, View 2 highlights that a visualization can only be as ‘true’ as its underlying data. In this case, it may seem that gaps in the timeline indicate that no degrees were awarded in certain years; these gaps truly represent the dataset, but not the actual situation at the University at the time. For example, the visualisation indicates that the first female degree was awarded in 1892 to Jessie Nicholas Nelson. However, Nelson actually received the Lady Literate in Arts (L.L.A) qualification, a higher diploma, awarded by the University of equivalent level to the MA, available to women from 1877. Based on Dr Smart’s article Literate Ladies – A Fifty Year Experiment it was not just Nelson who received it in 1892 (see Fig. 31). In fact, 699 women entered to gain this certificate in 1892 and 101 succeeded. This is a particularly interesting area for future research as the ratio of male and female alumni/staff in BRUSA now is 146: 11,784. Including all L.L.A students would not only change the visual representation but also portray a rather different picture about University’s treatment of women in the 18th and 19th century. Rachel Hart, Keeper of Manuscripts and Muniments agrees:
‘The admission of women to higher education in 1892 means that the final 5 years covered by the Biographical register (1892-1897) does include both male and female students. However, the LLA had been a very successful pathway to the equivalent of degree-level studies since 1877, and some of those women who matriculated after 1892 already held the LLA qualification. Those references are only incidental to the BRUSA, since the LLA records were not included by Smart in his original work. Thus the entries relating to women need to be interpreted very carefully and visualisation of data using the full LLA records would be needed to be able to acquire anything other than a partial picture of the learning of women in this period.’
The purpose of information visualisation is to make visible trends in data – making visible what is missing in the data is a challenge. Future research will investigate how to make uncertainties in the data visible in visualizations such as these to promote more critical discussions.
It also needs to be emphasised that the amount of information still available in BRUSA is vast. From parents’ names and occupation to alumni bursaries and prizes as well as their occupation and residence after their life at the University. All of this data should by no means be overlooked as it poses a lot more research questions than those revealed by Mapping the Biographical Register of the University of St Andrews, 1747 – 1897.