Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship

The reading this week, Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship, edited by Anne  Kelly Knowles is a not only a collection of essays by digital historians in the field, but also a collection of projects and studies conducted by these scholars. Placing History challenges us as historians to take GIS seriously, rather than just a fancy mapping technique. This collection showcases the potential of GIS software by introducing the reader to key studies that show the usefulness of the approach. These studies range from the reconstruction of Robert E. Lee’s view at Gettysburg to using historical mapping and data to find new causes of the 1930s Dust Bowl.

GIS is a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface. This system allows for patterns, trends, and relationships to be seen and understood by the viewer, rather than imagined when read in a monograph or article. Anne Kelly Knowles addresses the potential downfalls for the historian using GIS, many of which cannot be helped except with time. The relationship between time and a single point on a map is a dilemma for historians using GIS software, as what needs to be represented at that single point can be constantly changing. Some concepts that historians deal with cannot be placed on a map also, like the influence of nation groups and resistances. Not only are some parts of research hard to display visually, the source base is sometimes difficult to work with. A historian using GIS must have sources that correspond to a place, or have spatial data. Typically, we use qualitative sources or quantitative sources, but they rarely have thick spatial data. The need for a technical and mathematical understanding of the software also will temporarily limit historians due tot heir lack of training in this area.

In Cunfer’s “Scaling the Dust Bowl” is a perfect example of how GIS software is used to move a traditional historical argument forward. Cunfer engages and adds to Donald Worster’s classic causation of the Dust Bowl: capitalistic over-development and intense plowing led to the environmental events of the Dust Bowl. Cunfer believes that is is important to recognize that drought in the area had an enormous effect on the events. He uses traditional newspaper sources and other primary source accounts, but places them in GIS to expand the scope of his study, moving from a case study to a regional analysis. He uses GIS to place these reportings and recounts of dust storms on maps of the southern plains by decade, showing that these storms are just a natural occurrence.  He concludes that dust storms are a natural part of the southern plains ecology, but the over-plowing and production present in the 1930s definitely contributed to the storms with added effect.

I think the most interesting problem/question presented by the researches is the need for the understand of your sources and your research questions. GIS is not a catch all for all research, you must have specific types of data and specific questions to produce an engaging and important scholarly work through GIS. Covered in each case study, but explicitly stated in “Teaching With GIS,” the user must have a deep understanding of the primary sources they are using, and must develop and obtain research questions and spatial sources to support the argument through a GIS application.

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