Thinking Differently About History: Using Mapping Tools

I must admit that I have been finding the readings more and more difficult to understand as the weeks have gone on. Since we’ve started reading about and discussing the actual methods of digital history, such as text mining and networks, it’s been hard for me to fully grasp the readings since I’ve never worked with these tools before and the subject matter always seems more abstract until I can work with the tools myself. The setup of the readings this week (and the past week with networks) was a few theoretical articles followed by articles detailing uses of GIS and mapping in scholarship, along with the accompanying websites. This has helped me in understanding the application of this certain historical tool.

Hitchcock brings up the point that historians and geographers should be in constant dialogue. This is a valid point that has been brought up in readings from past weeks. All humanities scholars should be working collaboratively to further scholarship in the disciplines that fall under the humanities umbrella. Hitchcock’s notion of the infinite archive is an interesting one. He argues that the infinite archive is the driving force behind a change that is bringing the disciplines of history and geography into a more direct relationship. The infinite archive has turned text into data, which can then be used to create geographical representations. I also agree with his point that using maps to aid in interpreting history will draw in a wider audience.

Harris, Corrigan, and Bodenhammer state that humanistic mapping runs counter to traditional GIS mapping. They mention deep maps, which is different than GIS mapping in that the user is no longer just an observer but can experience through a sense of actually being in the world. I didn’t fully comprehend their explanation of a deep map and hope that we will mention this in discussion. Are Visualizing Emancipation and ORBIS examples of a deep map? Their definition of GIS for humanities seems accurate and accounts for the changing nature of historical data.

In mapping it appears that scale has two different meanings: it can define the spatial and temporal reach of specific practices, and it is also how observers frame social activity; it is both practiced and perceived. Visualizing Emancipation uses both meanings of scale to map emancipation. The Ayers and Nesbit article really made me think about how I think about historical information. They were able to create this fantastic mapping tool to show the process of emancipation because they were able to change the way that they thought about their sources. The concept of deep contingency is new to me, and I liked seeing how they used this concept to create their tool. Their final argument, that seeing the patterns of emancipation can help scholars understand the profound social changes it created in American history, is more believable after visiting the Visualizing Emancipation site and playing around with it.

With Visualizing Emancipation, you can choose to view the information as either a map or a list. You can select emancipation event types, such as abuse of African Americans, capture of African Americans by Union troops, conscription and recruitment by the Union, conscription by the Confederacy, fugitive slaves, and more. The sources are from books, newspapers, official records, and personal papers. It is a great way to visualize the data. What surprised me the most was the amount of sources they used to compose the map. I also liked that each point on the map gave the bibliographic information of the source, since this promotes transparency.

ORBIS is another mapping tool that shows the transport of goods and the movement of people in the Roman Empire. Meeks and Grossner argue that interactive scholarly works (ISW), of which ORBIS is one, blur the line between academic and popular scholarship. They state that to treat ISWs as simply tools undercuts the possibilities that ISWs and other similar models bring to the humanities. While I do not agree that ISWs should be methodologies, I do think they are useful tools and any ISW that widens the historical audience can only be beneficial in the long run. I thought that Dunn made a good point when he stated that ORBIS does not try to simulate agency. The user must interact with ORBIS in the context of their own analysis or interpretation, which makes ORBIS a tool since it cannot independently create research conclusions. ORBIS is so popular that the creators have decided to update the current version.

What struck me the most when reading Dr. Robertson’s article on Digital Harlem was how much information is left out of historiography and how much was gained by inputting the sources into the mapping databases. As noted by the author, location is not a precise science for most historians, but when studying it closely, location can show wider patterns and trends among the population, and can show how that population actually lived. Historians examining location have to use sources that are not always valued by other scholars. Digital Harlem revealed new information on nightlife, traffic accidents, and how blacks moved through the city. The articles on Digital Harlem showed how digital tools can be used to fill holes in the historiographical gap. While I had previously understood that text mining and networks could show patterns and trends, I never fully grasped that they could reveal the holes in existing scholarship.

Week 7 readings

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *