Visualizing the Telephone Network in French Indochina (or The Beauty of Boring Books for the Digital Humanities)

When historians engage in historical scholarship, I think it is safe to say that they want to “visualize” or “see” the past in one way or another, and there are various techniques that they use to do this.

First, knowledge helps one see the past. The more one knows about the past, the more visible it becomes.

Second, knowing languages also helps one visualize the past. The greater one’s ability to read historical sources in their original form the more one is able to see.

Third, theory can also help. Looking at information from a different theoretical perspective can help one see the past more clearly as well.

Finally, these days the emerging field known as the Digital Humanities (DH) is providing various ways to visualize the past, one of which is by mapping.


These days there are numerous open source (meaning “free”) GIS programs (such as Quantum GIS and uDig) that can enable one to relatively easily make complex maps that one can then analyze and “query.”

I will write more specifically about those tools later, but here I want to point out that we now also have fabulous sources that we can use to build interesting maps with.

In particular, thanks to the digitization of texts by Google and various libraries around the world we can now easily access numerous (formerly obscure) books that are filled with valuable data that can be mapped.

All that is required is some imagination and effort.


In writing about Alexander Grossman (here), the inventor of the “Manhood Creator,” I came across an obscure book that Google has digitized called the International Chinese Business Directory of the World For the Year 1913.

This book lists the names of Chinese businesses and what they sold from around the world in 1913. Further, in many cases (but not all), it even names the street where each business was located.

For people who study the history of the Chinese in Southeast Asia, a source like this is fantastic, because with a little work (with historical maps and Quantum GIS), one could easily “map out” where the Chinese businesses were in a place like Batavia (or for all of Southeast Asia!!).

What is more, one could create a GIS map with different layers of information. The opium sellers could be on one layer, and the grocers on another, and one could examine relationships between different types of merchants and different communities, etc.

This would be fascinating to “see,” and with DH tools and techniques this is now possible.


Similarly, I was looking at some of the materials that the French National Library has digitized. There are many books there that are filled with fascinating data.

I was looking at one book called Indochine adresses, 1ère année 1933-1934: Annuaire complet (européen et indigène) de toute l’Indochine, commerce, industrie, plantations, mines, adresses particulières.

It contains information like a list of telephone numbers in the various cities of French Indochina. That is fascinating because one could use that information to “map out” the telephone network in the 1930s, and then think about where communication could “move” and where it couldn’t.

It would then be interesting to think about how historical events (like the First Indochina War) related to something like the telephone network. If we mapped the events of that war against a map of the telephone network, what would we see?

the telephone

Ten years ago, if I had come across either of these books in a library I would have probably laughed at how “obscure” and “boring” they were.

With the ways in which DH techniques are enabling historians to visualize the past, however, such “boring books” now have great potential.