Mapping and Historical Analysis

The readings on mapping this week discussed many ideas and issues. Tim Cresswell’s Geographic Thought: A Critical Introduction, explains the history of geography as a discipline and the varying frameworks of geographical thought, including humanistic and Marxist geography. Various authors in The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, such as Karen Kemp in “Geographic Information Science and Spatial Analysis for the Humanities,” elaborated on the different data models for maps, such as raster and vector, and the concepts and language of GIS. Mark Monmonier explained the need to critically assess maps in How to Lie With Maps. The readings also discussed the difficulty of representing space and time in mapping, deep mapping, and the advantages and difficulties of using mapping for historical analysis.

Historical GIS has many advantages and issues worth reviewing. Maps are useful for seeing patterns, making comparisons, changing the scale of analysis, and layering different base maps, timelines, and sources. However, one of the issues discussed across the readings was the tension between qualitative and quantitative data when combining geography and history. History, of course, involves sources of both types. Quantitative data can include census data, agricultural schedules, city directories, voting records, etc. Geoff Cunfer in “Scaling the Dust Bowl” in Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship, expands the temporal and spatial map of the Dust Bowl to argue that the environment, particularly drought, had more of an impact on the great dust storms than did capitalism. The entire “Part One” of Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS and Spatial Humanities focuses on the use quantitative data in mapping, such as Andrew Beveridge’s analysis of racial segregation during the Great Migration. But what about textual sources in historical research, such as diaries, letters, magazines, and newspapers?

In “Mapping Text” in The Spatial Humanities, May Yuan suggests three ways to reconcile this qualitative data with mapping: spatialization, georeferencing and name-place recognition, and geo-inferencing. These methods transform the relevant information in the text document, such as named places in Gazetteers, into tables that are amenable to spatial analysis. Another way to progress in the tension between the two disciplines is deep, or thick, mapping. Deep mapping is a multi-layered map of an area, such as Ancient Egypt, that involves many different source types and timelines. Hypercities creates deep maps of cities or regions and their multi-layered records, providing multiple perspectives of the history. One other project that integrates different types of sources into a multi-layered map is Digital Harlem. This project maps the everyday life of Harlem in the early twentieth-century using mostly newspapers and legal records, layering people, places, and events. The interactive, layered map allows for contextualization of that important urban location.

Mapping is such a useful tool for historians, because it combines space and time, often in a multi-layered and multi-source representation. It can aggregate and display sources across space and time that otherwise couldn’t be analyzed simultaneously.