Digital History: Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and History

For more information about this class and series, see the Intro.

This week we read the essay “GIS and History” by Anne Kelly Knowles. (It’s also the first chapter of the book Placing History). This essay talks about the differences between geographical and historical outlooks. For instance, geographers tend to present information visually and use images in their research, while historians are married to text. The whole description doesn’t put historians in a very good light. They’re portrayed as extremely distrustful of any new technology, of varying worldviews, and of collaboration. (We’ve seen in other readings that historians very rarely collaborate on projects, in comparison to professionals in other disciplines). If it’s true, it’s really sad. We as historians should be embracing new resources and new skills, not sniping at them from afar.

The main content of the article goes into more detail about what actually happens in “historical geography,” especially these three things: “testing historical explanation with empirical geographical evidence; using maps and spatial diagrams to visualize spatial processes and make visual arguments; and a proclivity to develop typologies that pin the stages of historical-geographical change to characteristic manifestation in the built environment or the movement of people, goods and ideas through space.”

Why wouldn’t you want to use those things? Why wouldn’t you want to ground your research in the actual world where it took place? Imagine the things you might miss if you DON’T consider the physical area. There are examples of recreating battlefields to find out what Robert E. Lee’s line of sight would have been, for instance. GIS may seem to complicate a historian’s life, and definitely requires some specialize knowledge to synthesize, but I believe the information to be gained is well worth the trouble.

Our assigned website this week, http://www.gisforhistory.org, illustrates the value of GIS for historians with numerous examples of maps. This site is also one of the best we’ve looked at so far. It’s easy to use and navigate, and its purpose is explicit — a resource for student inquiry into American history. There are comprehensive lesson plans, customizable maps, and additional documents for each one. These maps are a great way to understand the relationships between different pieces of data, and to conceptualize large amounts of data at the same time.

It looks to me like this is one of those things that history’s been wanting to do since the invention of history itself, but hasn’t been able to manage without digital technology. We should be embracing the opportunity to compile and use more information and help the study of history encompass more of the world.


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