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[edit] Readings

[edit] Patricia Cohen

“Digital Maps Are Giving Scholars the Historical Lay of the Land,” The New York Times, July 26, 2011


Cohen's article is a starting point for a discussion about spatial humanities because she is writing in a public venue for a wide audience of laypersons and scholars alike. Her brief overview of the field draws from Anne Kelly Knowles and David Bodenhamer for a theoretical framework for the use of GIS in humanities, and offers examples of projects by Knowles, Bodenhamer, Geoff Cunfer, and Benjamin Ray. Though Cohen makes no specific argument of her own, she seems to find the use of GIS important, and essentially presents the arguments of her sources as representative of her own stance. In my opinion, the most significant section of her article is the following quotation:

Mr. Bodenhamer said the humanities had become too abstract and neglected physical space. The value of what scholars are calling “the spatial turn,” he added, is that “it allows you to ask new questions: Why is it that something developed here and not somewhere else, what is it about the context of this place?”

[edit] Bodenhamer, Corrigan, and Harris

David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris, “Introduction,” in The spatial humanities: GIS and the future of humanities scholarship


Bodenhamer, Corrigan, and Harris introduce their edited collection by describing briefly the history and current state of GIS, and suggesting the humanities must use GIS "technology to probe, explore, challenge, and complicate, in sum, to allow us to see, experience, and understand human behavior in all its complexity" (xiv). As is fitting for an introduction, they suggest the potential of GIS is in "its ability to integrate in­ formation from a common location, regardless offormat, and to visualize the results in combinations of transparent layers on a map of the geogra­phy shared by the data" (ix). They acknowledge that the origin of GIS in environmental sciences and its later adoption into geography ascribed the technology certain uses and particular functions, but argue for changes and improvements by humanists hoping to incorporate the potential of GIS in their research. In my opinion, the arguments made by these editors set a framework through which to approach the studies by Knowles, Novak, Gilliland, Cooper, and Gregory.

[edit] Edward Ayers

Edward L. Ayers, “Turning toward Place, Space, and Time,” in The spatial humanities: GIS and the future of humanities scholarship


Ayers' chapter approaches GIS as a technology that is best incorporated through a collaboration between two disciplines: geography and history, which are focused in similar ways on physical space and time, respectively (though not exclusively). By combining methods that view layered geospatial information through changing time, history can adopt a perspective unavailable with the use of static maps. Ayers argues that dynamic maps can demonstrate trends and shifts that are not visible through traditional maps, offering historians a way to look deeper at a physical space by combining maps from different times, perspectives, and purposes.

[edit] Anne Kelly Knowles

“GIS and History,” in Placing history: how maps, spatial data, and GIS are changing historical scholarship


Knowles presents in her chapter an overview of the possibilities of GIS in history and the challenges facing historians who choose GIS for their research. Perhaps the most helpful section of Knowles' work is the following description of the current state of historical GIS scholarship:

1. Geographical questions drive a significant part of the historical inquiry.
2. Geographical information provides a good share of the historical evidence.
3. The bulk of evidence or the evidence that provides the study's key analytical framework is structured and analyzed within one or more databases that record both location and time.
4. Historical arguments are presented in maps as well as in text, graphs, tables, and pictorial images; maps serve in particular to show patterns of change over time. (7)

Much like other humanists writing about GIS, Knowles refers to projects that have been successful in demonstrating its use in humanities, arguing many of the same points as Bodenhamer, Corrigan, Harris, and Ayers. She seems to disagree with Ayers, however, on the concept that geography and history deal with physical space and time, respectively, preferring a more complex view of their interaction across many frames of reference.

Knowles make another important argument by acknowledging that history as a discipline has often rejected the use of GIS in scholarship, referring to limited use of GIS in PhD research projects. It is unclear, however, whether that trend is dictated by the discipline from the top down or is because historians tend to avoid such different projects. She concludes that GIS, despite the level of knowledge and research required, has enormous potential for historians, partly to become better acquainted with their area of study but also to present their research in a dynamic way.

[edit] Matthew Novak and Jason Gilliland

“Buried Beneath the Waves: Using GIS to Examine the Physical and Social Impact of a Historical Flood,” Digital Studies / Le champ numérique 1, no. 2 (June 16, 2009)


Novak and Gilliland undertook a project that combined conventional (sometimes contentiously called "traditional") history practices with historical GIS (HGIS) application in order to better understand the extent and impact of a flood in London, Ontario in 1883. The flood has not been the subject of much research, which Novak and Gilliland attribute not to a lack of interest but to the limited amount of data and sources. By mapping the topographical details of London and using simulation to raise water levels, they were able to demonstrate the possible extent of the floodwaters. To confirm their findings, they cross-referenced data compiled from newspaper accounts and photographs that indicated areas affected by the flood. Only through the combination of HGIS and textual (or photographic) research were they able to reach conclusions about the significance of the flood and its lasting effects. About GIS, they conclude that it offers unique analytical and modelling possibilities, and that combined with other methods, proves invaluable to research.

[edit] David Cooper and Ian Gregory

“Mapping the English Lake District: a literary GIS,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36, no. 1 (January 1, 2011): 89-108.


Cooper and Gregory present an exploration of GIS in the humanities that focuses not only on geospatial location (which they suggest has been criticized for being overly geometric) but also on qualitative aspects of the literary texts they map. Their study of Gray and Coleridge's journeys through and within the Lake district of England incorporates a location-based mapping technique, but also demonstrates that GIS can include and represent information about an author's engagement with the land and response to it. The mapping of moods through the authors' use of adjectives in reference to specific locations suggests possibilities for new understandings of intellectual focal points in geographical space. Cooper and Gregory sought to expand the uses of GIS to include non-geometric qualitative information, and their experiment indicates that not only is such an inclusion possible, but that the resulting map is richer and holds more significance than simple geometric mapping.

[edit] Questions

[edit] Question One

Based on your reading of the articles, your own perspective, and your experiences, what advantages do geographical information systems offer to research in humanities or other disciplines?

[edit] Question Two

In our discussion of text encoding and large-scale textual analysis (distant reading), we've highlighted some important points about which we should be cautious in our use of these tools. If we are to use GIS in history (or the humanities in general), of what aspects of the tool should we be wary?

For instance, what degree of validity can be given to modelling of water levels in a physical space no longer accessible because it is in the past? What steps must be taken to ensure due diligence for research using GIS?

[edit] Question Three

What methodological approaches or changes may be required in order to incorporate GIS into historical or humanities research?

For instance, are there possibilities with GIS that current methods cannot accommodate, and if so, how might the methods be adjusted to do so?

[edit] Question Four

Assuming that GIS is used by a humanist in research, what perspectives, understandings, frameworks, et cetera, are made possible through dynamic maps that can show changes in time of geography, topography, population density, and so on?

[edit] Question Five

In a break from questions about the readings, what other uses of GIS can we envision as a class? Disregard all limitations based on technical knowhow, money, time, support, and other extraneous details. If it can be justified as contributing to history (in any imaginable way), we want to hear it.

[edit] Responses

Thanks to everyone who has contributed so far, and please feel free to continue right up until we meet, or even while we chat. Not likely, but allowed.

[edit] Sean

Since everyone was kind enough to jump into our discussion last week, I'll return the favour and try to touch upon both questions one and two. I think that GIS has the potential to help merge a number of different types of resources and perspective in order to create a more dynamic model for historians to consider. The use of GIS by Novack and Giulliland at UWO to reconstruct and explore London Ontario during its flood in 1883 demonstrates the use of differing resources perfectly. In this sense the ability to store, organize, and analyze data from a number of perspectives makes it unique and valuable as a resource to historians. In terms of my own projects, I think that the ability to trace and map the use and expansion of different words, terms, and ideas as well as being able to track the migration of peoples throughout a region would be, and is invaluable. All of that said, I think we have to be wary that we use these sorts of resources as a means of considering the results of these resources and not falling into the trap of using them as the sole basis for our historical interpretation. We also need to remember that the results outputted by such GIS projects are only as good as the number and types of resources inputted into them - to this end, not all resources have been digitized and not all are of equal value or authority. Finally, as usual for me, I'm also concerned about the quantity versus quality issue - which in this case arises when there is a need to quantify information to be inputted. Good questions. Sean

[edit] Dave

I like the second question since it had me consider the nature of technology in relation to history. Namely, what do you do when you are employing HGIS and yet there is missing data? In history we often have to make that "best guess" leap when there are gaps in the historic record; that doesn't fly when you are employing a powerful tool like GIS. The researchers in the London flood project had to construct their models using existing hard data such as city maps, geographic surveys and city population records to present the probable results of the flooding that occurred in 1883. To prove their hypotheses they used newspaper accounts, photographs and eyewitness testimony to validate the levels of flooding that they supposed had happened in the city and by plotting the locations of the victims of the flooding, they were also able to demonstrate the likely extent of the effects. In order to prove their theories, they had to build multiple layered models that could incorporate a huge range of factors in order to present a factual result.

I see the use of HGIS growing as we move forward. Several of the articles mentioned the visualization aspect of the models, as in the case of the Gettysburg battlefield. These maps will allow us to get a true sense of the challenges that the historic actors we study faced. I have been to Gettysburg and have a sense of the land, but my memory is also cluttered with monuments, visitor information buildings, parking lots and a McDonald's. Having HGIS can help historians to see through the noise of the present day into a more accurate representation of the topography of the past. For my research, this will allow me to understand the difficulties in moving armies around on the frontiers of the early nineteenth century, when forests and rivers were true impediments to movement. It also underlines the need for historians to have a greater appreciation of geography and cartography; we all reference areas in our research, but how many of us actually take the time to give any thought to the importance that the geographer has to our comprehension of the past? Dave

[edit] Ryan

First off, I have to say that I had an easier time wrapping my head around the concepts of text encoding than I did this mapping. I think maybe some hands on experience with GIS might help me conceptualize better. Test limits and such. Y’know?

That being said, I definitely think that viewing information in a non textual format will help us as historians approach data from a new angle. The Novack and Gilliland article really helped show the practical application of HGIS and how they were able to discover how much water had flooded the area and what it meant for the people living there. This multidisciplinary approach is nothing new to history. Practicing history exposes us to many different disciplines, generally on our own. With this mapping, however, it is important for the historian to work in a team with a geographer in order to produce the best results. As Sean pointed out, the results of GIS projects are only as good as their design or the data input into them. It seems to me that this is why it is so important for a geographer to be involved in the process. I believe that the push towards interdisciplinary collaboration is an extremely important element in the implementation of new technologies within history. Fresh ideas and new perspectives generate new questions. Ryan

[edit] Dave

While I agree with Ryan that the ideal is a multidisciplinary approach, has that really been the model that we have followed in the past? I think that we still hold onto the notion that we have supremacy on the past and that geographers are (mostly) unnecessary to our work. This despite the wealth of information that old maps, city plans and demographic tables can and do afford us in our work. The use of HGIS forces us to collaborate and use the strengths of each other's disciplines in order to tell the most complete story that we can. That having been said, don't get me started on sociology. Sheesh - 'social sciences'! Dave

[edit] Sean

Question three, discussing what changes to methodological approaches are necessary to make this sort of multidisciplinary collaboration work is a great one. It strikes at the heart of the possibility of conducting interdisciplinary research in trying to figure out what aspects of each discipline do we keep as necessary and which ones serve to undermine the effectiveness of it. I'm not sure I have a clear answer to this, save that I agree with JB Owens in his article "What Historians Want from GIS"when he asserts that history as a discipline does have a value in its methodology and ability to critically assess events, individuals, et ceteera which should not be lost or given up. Dave has mentioned in his comments that GIS gives way to interesting possibilities, which is certainly true, but accessing the virtues of geographic systems and meshing them into historical methodology certainly requires a shift in the types of information historians use and accept. Sean

[edit] Melanie

These are really good questions for this week, and got me thinking about a lot of the readings as a whole, rather than as individual pieces. I think each article for this week touches on question one - each author talks about the positive uses of mapping technology. Novak and Gilliland obviously couldn't have completed their work without using GIS, and Knowles talks about how visual representations of historical issues are great for establishing/viewing patterns in history; in general, the authors seem to acknowledge that another way to view history isn't a bad thing. However, (question two) we have to keep in mind what this kind of quantitative data can do for us, which I think Sean and Ryan both touched on nicely. Quantitative data and mathematical equations used in this kind of work can only present themselves on a graph, table, chart, etc. - the interpretation of the work and determining its meaning will still fall onto the shoulders of the academics who are using it. Not that that is a bad thing by any means! But it does show a limit in what these kinds of tools are capable of. I think current methodological practices (question three) will have to be more open-minded about using digital data. Historians have used maps for centuries, so that isn't much of a step, but using digital tools to generate information and patterns is different then the stereotypical historian pouring over book after book for info. I agree with Ryan that having a geographer or perhaps mathematician who better understands the processes behind creating such data/maps will help alleviate gaps between traditional methodologies and those of the future.

I don't know how to make another separate space to post in, so if anyone wants to help out with that for other people to post that would be great!! Sorry.

[edit] Robert

Let me begin by praising Patricia Cohen. Without her down-to-earth and approachable writing style much would probably sail right past many people or else leave one in a state that encourages a certain species of glazed eye.

That said, after reading these articles and book sections, I am convinced of the utility of digital mapping in history. The question of place in relation to human interaction in any time must always be taken into consideration. It seems to me that GIS mapping allows us to access another dimension of understanding which hitherto has been restricted by mental abstracts. However, as with program like ngram, we must always tread lightly and not rely too much on this technology to save the day. Again I liken it to corroborating, yet circumstantial evidence.

One place we must be wary is that of taking too seriously descriptions of place in certain primary documents. Often, when someone has written a history of something or relates something regarding a past time they are basing this on their memory of the place. In this way, if we were to map it, we would really only be getting an accurate reflection of how the writer remembered it, not necessarily how it actually was. Overlays would be helpful in this respect. At other times, several hundred years may separate the writer from the events. Here, GIS mapping may allow us to determine varying degrees of veracity in the author's account - though it should not be wholly relied on.

Likewise, the use of this technology in teaching cannot be overstated. Just think of battle maps we see on the history channel that show us graphically which tactics were used. Were we to be restricted to using only words, it would take a great imagination and memory indeed to appreciate such strategies.

I am much more skeptical about using this, as Moretti did, with literary accounts. A writer of fiction may not always intentionally placing them where they might appear on purpose. Places may be situated the way they are for dramatic effect. Where this is not the case, and they have provided a map themselves (like Tolkien - whose citation did not escape me), we may argue otherwise.

All in all, I think this practice may bring historians out of the realm of time and into space as well, which will greater inform our understandings and interpretations of both. Though I do not wish to try and do the math, I would greatly like to try out one of these systems as they seem to be a lot of fun too! I wonder if this sort of thing can be used to try and determine where Egil buried his treasure (sorry, that one's for Clan McDonald. haha). Robert

[edit] Dave

I like question 4 because it asks us to consider the scope of the GIS contribution to research. To imagine, as our medievalist bretheren do, the topography and population densities of the cultures that they study while being able to visualize the areas as they would have looked at that time is immensely helpful. In the case of Heidi's research, for example, looking at the layout of the battlefield and surrounding Irish villages in relation to the topographic dimensions of the battlefield at Clontarf (sp?) may give insight as to tactics used and the reasons for the Irish victory (proximity to rivers, nearby Irish reinforcements, natural barriers, etc.).

As I posted earlier, looking at maps in 2D are helpful in understanding relationships between places and peoples in terms of distance, but looking at the data from GIS maps of the same area can give us a sense of the changing demographics over time affected by a variety of factors; war, natural disaster, industrial growth and the overall change of the landscape as we expand and shape the world we live in. I would love to employ that same technology to get a sense of the population densities nd terrain that the armies had to cover during the border wars of the early nineteenth century here on the Niagara frontier. Being able to see the settlements in relation to the forts established by the British may give some insight as to the tactics used by the commanders that logs and 2D maps cannot. Unfortunately many records would have to be compiled, many of which may be impossible to accurately determine, such as the true number of the native population at that time.


[edit] Grant

In terms of the first question, GIS offers a great amount to the Humanities. The Novack and Gilliland article gave an excellent example of how GIS can be used to reconstruct historical events where there is little primary evidence. Though there was no actual recording of the London flood, they were still able to reconstruct what happened based on data and mapping derived from GIS. Historians can then use GIS to reconstruct any historical event. For example, a specific battle can be brought to life by GIS, or another natural disaster such as an earthquake or volcanic eruption. GIS can also be used to reconstruct lost buildings and monuments. As a Classics major, one huge problem we face is finding out how certain ancient landscapes looked. GIS can help with that, through a reconstruction of the landscape based on textual accounts. These landscapes can then be made into 3D and may help in the visualization of certain ancient buildings. GIS can also be used, as shown in the Novack article, to display the movements of populations. Historians can then retrace where people moved to and from, and the changing populations of certain cities. All of these advantages can be gained from GIS.

However, in addressing the second question, some steps must be taken to ensure that GIS is used to its best ability and without mistakes. Both the Novack and Cooper articles showed that a great amount of preparatory research must be done before GIS can be implemented. The studying of existing maps, contemporary accounts and field data must be completed before a researcher reconstructs past landscapes using HGIS. The tool is only at its best when it is given the proper data to interpet. As well, in such terms as the London flood, geographical space changes over time and is succeptible to erosion, damage and weathering. These factors in turn could change how GIS works. Data could be read wrong, landscapes could be hard to reconstruct and the system may be plagued by errors. All factors must be taken into account before GIS is fully implemented, and thorough research must be done first.

[edit] Sean

In terms of the fifth question regarding other uses of GIS. I think that technologies and approaches to data collection and management such as GIS, in addition to shifting how historians assess information from the past will also alter the types of information available to scholars in the future. In this sense, I think that GIS, statistical analysis, and digital representations are quite representative of who we are as a culture at the moment and that in itself will shift the types of academic questions and conclusions which are explored in the coming years. At the present I think that GIS analysis will aid in scholars interested in Counterfactualism, historical propobability, and statistical projection. Not quite what the question was directed at, but a thought which has really stuck with me throughout this week's material. Sean

[edit] Stacey

Wow, I'm a little late in responding in comparison to others, but what the heck I might as well include my two cents. Like most of the posts I also like the fact that GIS allows us to not only be multi-disiplinary but also allows us to ask more questions about our research. Being a medievalist like Robert, Grant, and Heidi its not always easy to place ourselves where the history we are studying occurred, not only because of the distance between us and Europe, but also due to the changes that have occurred geologically etc in an area. I think it's interesting to be able to reconstruct where history happened with a few clicks on a button. As for my own research GIS does not really prove to be overly helpful but I can see its awesomeness for those military historians! I'd love to be able to recreate a battle based on maps and also written accounts. I understand that GIS isn't going to be a perfect tool for a historian, but honestly what is? It's the best we have to go with for the time being, I like being part of a changing world of humanities where fields are able to interconnect and thus learn from one another, creating new avenues for things that have already been studied. Whether we like it or not the field of humanities, or history for that matter is changing and adapting to new technologies in order to enhance all our learning.

[edit] Val

I will offer a few words related to question 3. Sean makes an excellent point in his response to the same question. Application of tools like GIS in historical research requires methodological changes to be discussed, challenged, organized, and tested. In order for GIS based research to succeed it needs to be grounded in formal methodology. As Sean said, this is necessary for making interdisciplinary approaches work. I am not sure however if mapping in history requires such drastic methodological changes. Novak and Gilliand, for instance, used a relatively traditional historical method to 1) gather sources and information required to successfully map the flood and its consequences and 2) to interpret their sources and the information gathered from mapping the flood. In other words, GIS did not replace traditional research methods, but instead added to these traditional methods in a complementary way. However, Knowles does suggests that such forms of research ultimately change the relationship between the researcher and her or his readers, stating that mapping in research often encourages readers to engage themselves in the final analysis and thus form their own conclusions. While this does not necessarily imply that mapping in history requires alternative methodology it does force us to reconsider the purpose of research and our relationship to research and those interested in it.

[edit] Heidi

After being off the grid for several days, I am ready to jump back into the worldwide web and our discussion. All of the main points I had have already been touched on, so if I may, I will try to elaborate and tie them together. First of all, I would like to acknowledge Robert's comment in reference to Egil's treasure. It made me l-o-l as the kids say. I too started thinking about these types of uses and I'm glad to see that Robert, Stacey, and Grant in particular saw how GIS can be used in particular for medieval studies.

Dave's reference to the use of GIS in my work also got me thinking. Dave, you mentioned using GIS to look at the logistics of the battle, which I think is brilliant in looking at the military aspects of the war. For my research, I think what struck me more so about these articles and using GIS was the way in which I can now look at the different areas warriors were coming from in relation to Clontarf. What was the geographic importance of Brian's 'kingdom'? Yes, there are some general obvious conclusions one can make, but as we have said before, this type of resource opens a dialogue and a new series of questions.

As I did in the text encoding discussion, I again agree with Ryan that this type of tool needs to be developed by people from multiple fields. As text encoding needs historians to outline our needs, we need geographers in GIS to make sure we are on the right track. Just as Google Ngrams did, GIS can help us ask new questions, and as Val mentioned, it adds to our traditional research methods. I believe that touches on Questions 1 and 2.

Question 5 is such a great question, and all I can think is, I don't know how far it can go, but I'm sure in years to come we will see. My immediate thought goes back to a project I did last year for a course on teaching history where I created a unit on the US involvement in Vietnam and incorporated the video game Call of Duty. Was the game historically accurate? Well, what I referenced was the part in which President Kennedy, Sec of Defence McNamara, etc, tried to keep zombies out of the White House. Buuuut... the point was to make history relevant to the students. I know they're going to go home and play video games for 5 hours after school so why not make them think while they're doing it. It creates a starting point and dialogue about history and what is accurate/ what is not. The point of that little anecdote is that GIS may allow us to use fairly accurate video game depictions of historical events to teach. Making history 'cool' is a challenge teachers have faced for years, so tools that could make this easier could change the way some parts of history are taught.

In our lives we have seen how mapping has changed. Maps are still just as important, but rather than having mom trying to fold up the impossible-to-fold-up giant map on a road trip to Florida, we have GPS and MapQuest. I think Cohen nicely describes this transition to digital mapping, and really made me start to think about the evolution of mapping and growth of GIS.

[edit] Post-Class Post-Its

Note: I was unable to take extensive notes from class because I was busy engaging with the discussion; below are my brief notes and observations.

[edit] Major Points and Questions

  1. Dynamic maps make possible methods of investigation previously unavailable and prompts new lines of inquiry.
  2. If humanists use GIS, they need to be transparent in their processes, sources, and limitations. Computers do not necessarily demand greater accuracy than traditional maps, but the need to acknowledge sources and influences is similarly important.
  3. GIS can offer new meaning for history, but we need to expand our applications in order to expand the possibilities.
  4. We must be cautious not to become too dependent on technology. Reasons for dependency include a rhetoric of positivism, the omnipresence of technology, and a preference to lay responsibility for failure on technology rather than ourselves.
  5. In some cases, historians feel threatened by technology; if this is the case, perhaps we are placing our pride in the wrong abilities. If technology can do a trivial thing for us, we are free to do something technology cannot, which is interpret, synthesis, create arguments, and so on.
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