Review: Placing History (I)

(This is the first installment of my review of Placing History. See the second and the third parts.)

I finally got around to sitting down with Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship, edited by Anne Kelly Knowles. The book addresses the growing field of combining Geographic Information System (GIS) software with historical scholarship. ((Technical aside: GIS is a broad term for digital analysis of geographic information – most commonly used for making maps – that allows users to input, store, and analyze a huge range of spatial data in a mind-boggling number of ways. Personal aside: I have a been using GIS software for about two years – I employed it extensively in my undergrad research and took a geology class constructed almost entirely around ArcGIS analysis.)) Broken into chapters comprised of individual studies conducted by a variety of scholars, it’s the more modern version of Knowles’s 2002 volume, Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History. The chapters of Placing History range from the quantitatively analytical “Scaling the Dust Bowl” and “Mapping Husbandry in Concord: GIS as a Tool for Environmental History,” to the more big-picture, theory-based “Combining Space and Time: New Potential for Temporal GIS.”

Originally I was planning on finishing all of the chapters before I posted a review of the volume as a whole, but I was too blown away by the introductory chapter of the book, “GIS and History,” written by Knowles. She gives both a wide-ranging and deep analysis of the field. Knowles begins the chapter with the optimistic assertion that, “scholars’ use of geographic information systems (GIS) is changing the practice of history.” From there she gives a brief history of the field, then delves into its current state. I think her greatest accomplishment in this chapter is to balance the obstacles to historical GIS with its huge potential for innovation and scholarship.

On the obstacle end, she writes that one major impediment to historical GIS is the fundamental divide of time vs. space – history is largely a study of subjects within a temporal framework, whereas GIS works largely within a spatial one. And she admits that, “For all practical purposes, historical GIS remains an ad hoc subfield that scholars discover serendipitously.” One reason may be a common complaint of historians concerning geography: that maps are too often seen as stand-alone, objective vessels of information. Instead, Knowles brings up the great point that any serious use of historical GIS requires rigorous examination and discovery of spatial source material, as much as any historian would need to employ in utilizing any diary, letter, or tax record for their research.

Nevertheless, Knowles does a great job of clearly outlining both the advances that have been made and the possibilities for the future. I agree with her basic outlines of the three types of historical GIS currently used:

1. History of land use and spatial economy, ex. outlining agricultural shifts in response to economic or environmental changes.

2. Reconstructing past landscapes, ex. analyzing Robert E. Lee’s line-of-sight (what he could see) during the Battle of Gettysburg.

3. Infrastructure projects, ex. scientists compiling historical landuse datasets in order to track global warming.

In actuality, though, it is nearly impossible to generalize the range of possibilities for historical GIS. The major constraint is really one of imagination and resources – are people aware of all its possibilities, and do they have access to the software/expertise. Finally, she struck a real personal chord in me with her observation that “The most exciting thing about historical GIS is often the ‘eureka’ moment when someone sees data mapped for the first time.” Much like discovering a long-sought after name or date or reference within a manuscript or microfilm, suddenly witnessing your hard work take a physical, visible shape on a computer screen is truly special.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the case studies and writing up a brief review, but for a superb introduction to the field of historical GIS, I couldn’t ask for anything better than what Knowles has produced in the opening chapter. At some point I would like to write a post solely dedicated to brainstorming ideas about the ways GIS could be utilized for history in particular and the humanities as a whole, in the vein of PhDinHistory’s blog post, “What I Would Like To See in Text Mining For Historians.”