Mapping History

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A review by Melanie Gilligan, written for HIST 5V71 in Fall 2011

[edit] Review

Within the digital humanities, a new and highly promising field is emerging – the spatial humanities. Referred to as the “spatial turn” by many, a shift in scholarship has occurred where humanists are turning back to re-examine the role of space, place, and geographic location in a number of academic fields. Using tools such as maps and GIS (Geographic Information Systems), historians, literary scholars, and others are able to examine the significance of both physical, geographic locations in their work, as well as metaphorical or symbolic ‘spaces’ of meaning that are present as well. As Anne Knowles argues in her book Placing History, for historians in particular this kind of analysis has the potential to change the way the discipline is practiced. While she acknowledges the ease with which this software allows historians to map locations, analyze information, and detect short- and long-term patterns, she also states that the mathematical basis from which it springs can prove problematic for a field which derives much of its foundation and goals from a deeper understanding of content, interpretation and meaning. In spite of this concern, a number of projects have begun developing with great potential for historians.

One project fueled by the ideas espoused in the spatial humanities is entitled “Mapping History”, a website run through a partnership between the University of Oregon, the University of Munster and a number of not-for-profit organizations. Mapping History works with information and interactive geographic maps, divided by countries. This project was “designed to provide interactive and animated representations of fundamental historical problems and/or illustrations of historical events, developments, and dynamics”. Upon entering the website, one sees that it is divided into categories along its left-hand side: American, European, Latin American and African history. By clicking on one of the topics, the website takes viewers to a page with a brief introduction to the section, along with a list of modules running down the left-hand side, broken up by topic. For example, under the European History heading, some of the modules listed include “Origins and Movements of Greek Intellectuals” and “Communication and the Postal System in the Early Modern Period”. Each module contains a brief introduction to the information covered in the section, and then proceeds to an interactive map. The interactive map, depending on the information being dealt with, shows different kinds of data. For example, in the Origins and Movements module, the first map shows the locations of cities that were most significant for Greek intellectuals and intellectual thought across Europe. By hitting the ‘play’ button at the bottom of the map, a timeline begins to run from 800BC to 323BC; as the marker moves along the timeline, the map changes to show the shifting locations of significant cities across different periods. The second map of the module, using the same interactive timeline, shows the movement of particular Greek intellectuals to and from different cities across different spans of time. The website also has access to a number of digitized maps for viewing use only.

A tool like this is useful for a number of reasons. Firstly, the simplicity of the design makes this website extremely user-friendly. I was able to engage with it with no prior knowledge of its aims, its methods, or of the topics it covered. The maps themselves are easy to read, with very basic colours and shapes used to indicate the information being shown. More importantly, the content of the site is practical and valuable as well. Continuing with the Origins and Movements module as an example, the locations of important cities in Greek intellectual circles are easily identified, and the movements of key Greek scholars and thinkers are marked from city to city, with the directions they were moving. By placing this information on a map, viewers are able to not only see what cities/intellectuals are important, but place them within a physical location. Having a timeline running along the bottom of the map takes this further, by not only positioning these facts within space, but also time as well.

Situating the information within a space-time context provides a broader knowledge base for the viewer, as well as an easy-to-use visual representation of the data. This kind of tool is useful for examining not just historical facts/places/people, but more importantly gives visual confirmation of changes over time, potential patterns and or/diverges, and locations and movements of historical problems. It is an excellent example of a basic digital tool being used to create a better understanding of the humanities and the study of history in particular.

As useful as this tool is, there are some drawbacks to it as well. The map is incredibly simple; as previously stated, on one hand it makes it very easy to use. On the other, it also remains simplistic in its analysis capabilities. The presentation of the information makes for a good starting point for research or gathering information, but the level of sophistication regarding study will remain low until further information is gathered. One way this could be improved would be to add more layers to the map; for example, if one was able to click on a particular city or pathway of movement and pull up more external information, either placed within the map itself, or showing links to outside sources and/or resources for further research. This issue also connects back to Knowles’ concern of these tools lacking deeper meaning and interpretation. Although we can see where an intellect may have traveled, we cannot determine from this information alone why they may have travelled to a particular city; or, why a particular city was so significant for the period. Also, researchers are limited in what they can explore within this site by the modules that are available for use; only certain historical issues have been input into this tool thus far.

Despite some of these drawbacks, the Mapping History project is a valuable tool and maintains the potential to grow into an even more useful resource for amateur and professional historians alike. By beginning with such a simple premise, it remains easy to expand on and add information to. This project has the ability to develop into a tool that is not only useful for historians, but perhaps can be cultivated further with their kinds of questions and concerns of meaning and interpretation directly in mind. This could help to alleviate some of the anxieties historians and humanists have voiced about digital tools, as seen in class readings and discussion, and allow wider access to valuable information. All in all, it is a simple, functional tool with great potential and a solid user-friendly foundation.  

[edit] Bibliography

Bodenhamer, David J, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris ed. Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2010.

Knowles, Anne Kelly. “GIS and History” in Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship, ed. Anne Kelly Knowles and Amy Hillier. New York: Ingram Publisher Services, 2008.

“Mapping History,” University of Oregon, accessed October 10th 2011, .

“What is the Spatial Turn?”, Spatial Humanities, accessed October 10th 2011, .

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