Blog #3: Introduction to the Spatial Turn and Mapping Tools

This week, my “Digital Tools for Historians” class required us to look more deeply at GIS (geographic information system) and Spatial History. First of all, you might ask me, “What is Spatial History?” I have had a difficult time finding a precise definition, even in an article called “What is Spatial History?” by historian Richard White. The author seems to define spatial history as the study of the movement of people and goods across time and space. You might also wonder about the definition of GIS. Well, I recently learned that GIS is essentially a digital tool that maps, visualizes, and analyzes spatial relationships, trends, and patterns.

I have to admit that I am new to the topic, so it was helpful to look back at the historiography to gain some understanding through our readings this week. We were assigned several readings by Anne Kelly Knowles, a geography professor who is a prominent figure in the field. In 2000, she wrote an article called “Historical GIS: The Spatial Turn in Social Science History.” In 2002, she edited a book called Past Time, Past Place, in which she advocated the use of GIS in historical research. In 2008, Knowles wrote Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship. Knowles has been called a pioneer for, among other things, her examination of the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg during the Civil War. In the digital project, geographic information and other historical data come together to recreate Robert E. Lee’s point of view during the infamous battle.


While reading Past Time, Past Place, we were also introduced to the work of Benjamin Ray, the director of the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive at the University of Virginia. Ray’s digital project examines the reasons why witchcraft charges spread so quickly in 1692 across twenty five communities in Essex County, Massachusetts. When Ray plotted the witchcraft allegations on a digital map that showed the development of the cases over time, he noticed that the claims against the accused spread in a virus-like pattern. By mapping the evolution of the Salem witch trials, Ray also noticed that the moment at which the accusations began to spread rapidly was when the Reverend George Burroughs was accused on April 20, 1692. The works of Knowles and Ray are examples of ways in which spatial history, GIS, and other mapping tools can be used to visualize history in new ways.


I have been thinking about how I can utilize GIS or other mapping tools in my project. Of course, at the moment all I have are mere ideas as I am new to using digital tools in my historical research. My thesis idea is just coming together and I do not know yet what my final project focus will be (other than the folk music collecting of the WPA in Florida during the 1930s). I am still researching the topic and planning trips to various archives, so I am not sure exactly what I will be mapping, but I do have ideas. There is still a lot to learn, but I look forward to the research.

Lunch wagon for bean pickers, Palm Beach County, Florida, 1937.
Lunch wagon for bean pickers, Palm Beach County, Florida, 1937.

Since I have decided to try to focus on the WPA folk music findings in Florida in the 1930s, I am presently researching WPA folk song expeditions and thinking about how I could use mapping tools to trace the steps of the song collectors in the state of Florida. For instance, perhaps I could research exactly where Zora Neale Hurston, Alan Lomax, and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle collected Florida folk music for the Library of Congress in 1935. Folklorists like Alton Morris, Stetson Kennedy, and John and Ruby Lomax also had their own folk music collecting trips in Florida with the WPA. Did they just stumble upon the music or did they seek it out in certain places? Perhaps mapping that information would offer some interesting insights about Florida folklife or indicate where the collectors themselves thought folk music and folk traditions lived in Florida. It is just a mere idea, but an intriguing one, anyway.

Photo of Bill Tatnall taken during Lomax-Hurston-Barnicle recording expedition to Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas, 1935.
Photo of Bill Tatnall taken during Lomax-Hurston-Barnicle recording expedition to Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas, 1935.
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Agricultural Worker’s family near Belle Glade, Florida, 1937.

Pondering this topic led me to a book titled Soundtracks: Popular Music, Identity, and Place by Chris Gibson and John Connell. The book examines the ways in which music is spatial and is often connected to particular geographical locations. Like the authors, I believe there is a significant connection between music, space, and identity. I think an examination of Florida folk music would reveal something meaningful about life in Florida during the 1930s. I hope that adding a spatial dynamic to my thesis project could possibly tell me more about that connection. We shall see.


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