Using Voyant

Voyant Tools is a rich suite of applications that allows a researcher to perform textual analysis. Both web-based and stand-alone desktop versions are available. The developers’ slogan for their product, “See through your text,” is an apt description of what the product can do.

Voyant relies on the user providing some digital text and accepts a variety of formats, such as plain text or Microsoft Word files. It even handles PDFs, which is an advantage for researchers working with scanned documents that have been run through optical character recognition. A user loads any number of documents into Voyant to create a corpus, which then may be analyzed and visualized in a number of ways.

The first visualization that might draw the user’s attention is a word cloud, or cirrus in Voyant-speak. These now familiar visualizations provide a sense of the relative frequency of words in the corpus. However, the user should be quick to expand on the default “stop word” list so that frequently occurring articles, conjunctions, and other common words do not get in the way of the analysis.

Other applications within the Voyant suite include Trends and Context. Trends creates a trend line graph showing how frequently a word is found across the corpus. In my experiment using the text of interviews from the Library of Congress collection “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938,” I saw how Voyant illuminated the frequency of words across the different states in which former slaves lived. This prompted additional questions for research. And that, after all, is the point of a digital tool like this.

Context allows the user to view a chosen word in relation to other words around it, allowing — as the name of the application suggests — to understand the context. For example, war might be frequently used according to the word cloud and the trends graph, but it is only upon examination of context that it becomes clear whether the former slave was referring to the Civil War, World War I, or some other conflict.

Voyant is not a perfect tool. It can be a memory hog in some web browsers and some users might experience display issues. On my Macintosh computer, Voyant worked relatively well in Firefox up to a point, but at times seemed to behave better in Safari.

It is, nonetheless, a powerful tool for textual analysis.