Blog Post #4- GIS and Spatial History

A recentish screenshot of a spatial history digital project I am currently working on for my master’s thesis. I have a lot of work yet to do!

This week, my “History in the Digital Age” class is learning more about GIS/spatial history. Our professor asked us to read Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship, edited by Anne Kelly Knowles and Amy Hillier, in order to gain a better understanding of the topic. The 2008 book contains ten essays which include case studies that highlight the potential opportunities and possible issues pertaining to GIS and spatial history.

If you are not a digital historian, an archaeologist, a geographer, or a fellow classmate of mine, you might be asking yourself, “What is GIS?”

As Anne Kelly Knowles and Amy Hillier explain in the book’s preface, GIS stands for “geographic information systems”. It is essentially a computer software that allows for the visual analysis of information in a geographic context. Historical GIS, or HGIS, is an approach to the study of history that uses GIS based methods. GIS is often used in historical research to uncover patterns, trends, or relationships. According to the book, historical GIS scholarship has certain defining characteristics. First of all, geographical questions often drive the research. Geographical data provides some of the historical evidence. In addition to text, HGIS makes historical arguments through the use of maps, images, graphs, and tables. Historical GIS is increasingly utilized in historical research in order to visualize or reconstruct places, spaces, or landscapes. With GIS, historians are permitted to not only better understand hidden patterns and relationships, but also to examine changes that have taken place over time.

In the book, Anne Kelly Knowles asserts that GIS is a “superb tool” due to the possibilities it offers through its mapping components. As Knowles points out, GIS offers innovative mapping options and allows researchers to geographically visualize information derived from census records, surveys, and other methodically collected data. However, Knowles also describes GIS as somewhat “problematic” for historians. Knowles claims that the precision of GIS, a feature that makes it so attractive for use in scientific and statistical analysis, is challenging for historians because “it can make it an awkward instrument for historical research when sources cannot easily be reduced to entries in a tabular database.” Knowles also notes that GIS is problematic for historians because of its visual and mathematical characteristics. Historians are not inclined to accept visual images as sources of evidence, and they are not overly interested in the quantitative methods that were so heavily featured in the short-lived Cliometrics turn of the 1970s. Knowles refers to an “epistemological divide between geography and history” as another problem for historians who wish to use geospatial methods in their research.

As Amy Hillier explains in Chapter 3, GIS can be used to identify a specific historical question. Hillier recommends that those who endeavor to use GIS as an analytical tool should first ask themselves questions such as, “What is spatial about this research? Why does space matter? What relationships does the map reveal? How else can the same data be modeled?” Hillier affirms that those who are interested in integrating GIS into scholarship will inevitably have to deal with doubts and anxieties, but those who dare to explore it will acquire technical abilities, develop analytical skills, and learn valuable lessons.

While there are some limitations pertaining to the use of GIS and other spatial components in research, digital tools offer innovative ways to study and present spatial history. Historian Fernand Braudel himself would appreciate the limitless possibilities presented by the integration of digital tools and spatial history. Historical GIS/spatial mapping components allow researchers to explore a variety of historical topics in ways that would not be possible using traditional tools or methods. For example, in Chapter 4 of the book Geoff Cunfer explains how GIS technology enables researchers to answer age old historical questions concerning the causes of the Dust Bowl by using extensive county by county agricultural data, weather information, personal accounts, and newspaper articles as evidence.


“Fleeing a dust storm”. Farmer Arthur Coble and sons walking in the face of a dust storm, Cimmaron County, Oklahoma. Arthur Rothstein, photographer, April, 1936. (Library of Congress)

Finally, I would like to conclude my blog by mentioning my own foray into spatial history. My digital thesis project “Mapping the Song Collecting Journeys of the Federal Writers’ Project in Depression-Era Florida” uses digital tools to explore the spatial dynamics of folk music in Florida during the 1930s and 1940s. My project heavily features a mapping component in order to highlight not only the music that was made by ordinary Floridians, but also to showcase the cultural diversity, the geography, and the social aspects of Florida during that time. I do not think that my project would be possible or useful without the application of digital tools and the inclusion of an interactive map of Florida. I am excited by the possibilities that spatial and digital history offer for my research topic. I am amazed at how my thesis idea concerning Florida folk music has been brought to life. Incorporating digital tools into my research has allowed me to implement visualizations and interactive mapping tools that help answer my historical question about the Federal Writers’ Project and their song collecting expeditions in Florida during the Depression.

Knowles, Anne Kelly, Amy Hillier, eds. Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship. Redlands: ESRI Press, 2008.


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