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"Geohistories" by Douglas Richardson

Introduction from Section IV of GeoHumanities: Art, history, text at the edge of place, pp. 209-214.

From within the constellation of the humanities disciplines, geography has enjoyed its longest and deepest traditions of interaction with history. Historical Geography has been practiced with distinction by geographers for centuries,1 and many historians have contributed texts with geographical grounding and dimension that have made them classics in the study of geography.2 Work in landscape representation and analysis also has long generated fruitful zones of engagement between geographers and historians.3

While cognizant of previous collaborations, this book seeks to better understand new interactions between geography and the humanities at their current growing edges. During the past few years, significant new forms of interaction between geographers and historians have begun to emerge. The Geohistories section which follows explores multiple dimensions of recent efforts between geographers and historians to integrate historical/geographical research agendas using spatial analysis and new geographic technologies, and the potentially transformative implications of this work for both history and geography. This rapidly evolving cross-disciplinary zone of intellectual and technological creativity, referred to here as “Geohistory,” relies heavily on historical geographic information systems (HGIS) to combine space and time for collaborative research and scholarship. Large-scale geohistory projects worldwide are now sparking substantial debate and fundamental re-evaluation of historical research methods and interpretation, and are revealing new possibilities for better understanding our past.

It may reflexively appear counter-intuitive, or at best peripheral, to portend a role for geographical technologies in relationship to the humanities, and especially to the practice of historical scholarship, as technology in recent years has been highly suspect in the humanities, and at various times in geography as well. Technologies are often considered inherently reductionist or as levers of power; they are approached warily and dismissively by many in the humanities whose training and methods of working traditionally have for the most part not encompassed technological approaches. They are also generally absent from the rich traditional methods of historical scholarship and research, which include narrative, metaphor, story-telling, presentation of multiple perspectives, and careful sourcing of extant historical texts or other artifacts to discern patterns and meaning from the bewildering complexity of bygone time, with all of its inherent ambiguity and uncertainty. Even the several much touted Digital Humanities initiatives have primarily been limited to simply scanning and digitizing historical texts and images, for use in traditional ways, with little thought given to how integrative digital technologies such as GIS might substantively or qualitatively impact scholarly research. The aversion to technology in scholarship by many in the humanities is understandable as a product of disciplinary tradition, style, and training, yet puzzling still in some ways as technology is an inseparable aspect of culture, and of history itself.

However, recent interactions between geographers and historians suggest that fundamental new approaches to historical scholarship may indeed now be underway. Historians are starting to understand key aspects of GIS, such as its ability to integrate, analyze, and visualize large amounts of both spatial and temporal data, from multiple disciplines and sources, and its ability to move across multiple scales, both spatially and temporally, or geographically and historically. This ability to combine time and space in one integrated system has profound implications for research in both history and geography.

Many historians are just now beginning to grasp the significance of incorporating a spatial dimension across multiple scales into historical research, despite the barriers of disciplinary tradition and training to its adoption in history. Yet several collaborations described in this book illustrate just how synergistic these early transdisciplinary collaborations have been, and hint at their future potential. One prominent historian has argued, for example, that “of all modern information technologies, GIS may have the most potential for breaching the wall of tradition in history,” noting that, “its ability to integrate disparate information drawn from the same place at the same time allows scholars to simulate the complexity of history.”4

Not surprisingly, however, there still remain significant obstacles to better understanding these new technologies and how they can build upon the traditional strengths and methods of both geography and history. The introduction of radically new technology or ideas into established disciplines is almost always perceived initially as challenging to or displacing of traditional disciplinary strengths. On the other hand, for many leading historians and geographers, the new geographic technologies instead have proven to be a means to revitalize, strengthen, and diversify these same disciplinary traditions. Just as technologies such as the microscope or DNA sequencing have each revolutionized research, education, and applications in biology, and in so doing made the work of Linnaeus and Darwin ever more important to modern science and to modern medical applications, so too the new geographic technologies such as GIS and interactive GPS/GIS have the potential to extend research horizons in traditional areas of geography and history. Seemingly disparate trends within disciplines often have a habit of eventually finding synergy and compatibility, as is increasingly the case of GIScience and critical theory in geography.5 Similarly, history’s traditional methods and strengths will not likely be threatened by historical GIS and geospatial technologies, but rather will find new intellectual terrain and extended research frontiers in which to operate.

These new engagements between geographers and historians hold collaborative interdisciplinary promise beyond the sharing of methods and technologies. By their very nature, the geographic technologies such as GIS also facilitate interdisciplinary research collaborations with other colleagues throughout the university. As Stanford University historian Richard White notes, “Recent advances in geographical information system technologies promise a way out of the problems that historians have faced in tackling the historical construction of space. These new techniques allow scholars to explore spatial variation without getting boxed in by a single cartographic representation. …GIS creates the possibility of extending spatial analysis beyond the local scale …We can tell more complex stories more clearly and coherently …Spatial history not only creates the possibility of history becoming more collaborative, it virtually necessitates it.”6

For geographers it is also clear that geographic technologies are integral to the intellectual core of our discipline, and that an understanding of their evolution and impact is essential to understanding the history and philosophy of geography as a discipline. Our ways of thinking and doing as geographers have been and will continue to be intertwined with advances in technologies which, while neither intrinsically good nor bad, in the best of hands help us to see beyond, to integrate the disparate, to visualize complexity, to communicate the remarkable commonplace as well as the merely extraordinary, to bridge continents and disciplines, and to create understanding of and in our world. The same might also be said to be relevant to the goals of history.

As historians are now discovering, historical GIS allows historians and related scholars to ask new questions from new perspectives, and to integrate and analyze large amounts of historical data that previously remained impervious to traditional historical methods alone. As Civil War historian Ed Ayers demonstrates in the following essay, Mapping time, which examines the location and frequency of lynchings in the American South over time, the use of geographic technologies such as GIS can have a profound effect on historical research, and create radically new understandings and interpretations of our past.

Often coupled with traditional methods of historical and geographical analysis, the number of major international historical GIS projects continues to expand. Examples of such projects include the China Historical Database; the Great Britain Historical GIS Database; the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Libraries; the Hawai’i Island Digital Collaboratory for Humanities and Science; the U.S. National Historical Geographic Information System; the Holocaust Historical GIS Project; and many others. Although the field continues to grow, scholars still face many core theoretical and conceptual challenges. For example, in this section’s concluding essay, What do humanists want? , Peter Bol outlines the complex ontological and linguistic issues still to be resolved to understand the meaning and significance of geographic places and of place names over time and space, and their correlation with events of varying duration and geographic location across multiple temporal and spatial systems of measurement.

Other essays in this section explore the contours and emerging possibilities of these new interactions between geography and history, and illustrate the philosophical, cultural, methodological, and technical work underway, based on cutting edge research in the Geohistories and various specific project implementations.

Trevor Harris and colleagues, for example, note the fundamental tension between history’s narrative traditions and geography’s spatial and analytical approaches to understanding the world and events, and support approaches to interpreting experiential and personal histories into Historical GIS research in their essay Humanities GIS: place, spatial storytelling, and immersive visualization in the humanities.

In his perceptive essay, Spatiality and the social web: resituating authoritative content, Ian Johnson describes challenges to authoritative content in History and Geography, how these converge in Historical GIS research, and provides insight into the opportunities and obstacles which the rise of user-generated content present. Karen Kemp explores the representation of cross cultural knowledge in the context of geographic information science and historical GIS projects, through a geocollabratory with indigenous peoples that is experimenting with ways to interact native Hawaiian epistemologies, cultural traditions, landscape concepts, and other ways of knowing and engaging the environment with concepts of Western science and, in particular with GIScience and systems. Amy Hillier shows how Historical GIS may be used in education and in interactive community outreach, based on her work in developing the W. E. B. Du Bois historical GIS education project in Philadelphia.

Authors von Lünen and Moschek illustrate the use of GIS for cultural-geographical and historical analysis of Limes, or Roman Empire fortifications along the Rhine Valley of Southern Germany, while Robert Schwartz, Ian Gregory, and Jordi Marti Henneberg provide a compelling example of the ways in which National HGIS projects can generate a font of historical research at the local and regional scales. In this case study, the Great Britain Historical GIS provides the foundation and context for detailed research on the historical development of Wales.

Many of the prominent scholars represented in the Geohistories section of this book were also present at a seminal Geography and Humanities Symposium organized in 2007 by the Association of American Geographers (AAG) and co-sponsored by the University of Virginia.7 Discussions at the Symposium underscored the pressing need for a volume such as this, examining the experimental and growing edges within new zones of convergence between geography and the humanities. Also recognized at this Symposium was a need for the creation of ongoing interactive “places” and resources for those engaged in these transdiciplinary zones, including in particular an online forum for geographers and historical researchers who are exploring geographic technologies to address the significant challenges involved in creating GIS-based historical archives, or who are conducting historical research using GIS. Many established national historical GIS programs, as well as incipient HGIS research projects around the globe remain isolated with no common thread to pull them together, or to link comprehensively with other efforts underway. To address these needs, the AAG, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), has created a Historical GIS Clearinghouse and Forum8 to provide a global inventory of existing HGIS projects and programs, and an interactive discussion forum for leading researchers and students in this area of research. The AAG HGIS Clearinghouse and Forum provides an exchange venue to facilitate standards development, to allow other interested researchers to draw on best practices or identify common pitfalls to be avoided, and to discuss topical and regional interests as well. Most importantly, it also encourages and fosters on-going critical thinking and debate among geographers and historians around the many key theoretical and conceptual issues still unresolved regarding the fusion of spatial and temporal methods and information in our research.

The Historical GIS Clearinghouse and Forum is maintained by the AAG, but available also via links from many other university and related websites, including those of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Library of Congress. By funding this project, the NEH has placed itself at the forefront of an important and growing trend at the nexus of historical and geographical research, and we are grateful for their support. Readers of this book who wish to continue to follow or participate in these collaborations between historians and geographers are invited to use this website as a portal to understanding new developments in this realm.

So what will be the future of our collective Geohistories interactions? The precise trajectory of such dynamic and creative processes as those in the Geohumanities is hard to project with any certainty, but the potential is clearly significant. Historian Bodenhamer and others see outcomes for history as both a means and as a medium. As a means, historical GIS would serve as a powerful new tool for analysis of historical evidence, giving geographical context and depth to their interpretation. As a medium, he suggests that, “historical GIS offers the potential for a unique postmodern scholarship, an alternate construction of the past that embraces multiplicity, simultaneity, complexity, and subjectivity.” It may have its greatest impact “not as a positivist tool but a reflexive one: integrating the multiple voices and views of our past, allowing them to be seen and examined at various scales; creating the simultaneous context that historians accept as real but unobtainable by words alone … In sum, historical GIS offers an alternate view of history through the dynamic representation of time and place within culture. This visual and experimental view fuses qualitative and quantitative data within real and conceptual space.”9

Amidst much speculation and intellectual hard work, however, there is one certainty. Historical GIS is destined to be the common ground of a long marriage between the disciplines of geography and history, if for no reason other than that so many conceptual, research, and mutual interdisciplinary challenges remain to realizing its full potential. Creating massive national scale historical GISs, or even the equally intriguing tiny but highly textured neighborhood and personalized historical GIS projects, are engagements still in the embryonic stages of their development. The new historical methods, narratives, and stories they will generate are just now becoming apparent, and we can only imagine today what the ultimate outcome of this will be in the years ahead. The authors of this section address the evolving and highly creative new ways of interacting between these two old friends, geography and history, coexisting and in conversation for millennia as two of the oldest disciplines of study and research, as we embark on revitalizing and re-energized new collaborations, fresh with promise and laden with enormous new potential for understanding not only our past, but each other.



1  D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History , 4 vols, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986–2004; C. E. Colten and P. J. Hugill, T. Young, and K. Morin, “Historical Geography,” in G. L. Gaile and C. J. Willmott (eds), Geography in America: At the Dawn of the 21st Century , New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 
2  F. Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Centuries, 3 vols, London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1979; F. J. Turner, The Signifi cance of the Frontier in American History, 1893.
3  D. E. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998; S. Schama, Landscape and Memory , New York: Vintage Books, 1996; S. Daniels, D. DeLyser, N. Entrikin, and D. Richardson (eds), Envisioning Landscapes, Making Worlds: Geography and the Humanities, London: Taylor & Francis 2011.
4  D. J. Bodenhamer, “History and GIS: Implications for the Discipline,” in A. K. Knowles (ed.), Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship, Redlands: ESRI Press, 2008, pp. 222, 225.
5  D. Richardson and P. Solis, “Confronted by Insurmountable Opportunities: Geography in Society at the AAG’s Centennial,” The Professional Geographer 56(1), 2004, 4–11; D. Richardson, “Foreword,” in S. D. Brunn, S. L. Cutter, and J. W. Harrington, Jr., Geography and Technology , Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004, pp. xi–xii; M-P. Kwan and T. Schwanen, “Quantitative Revolution 2: The Critical (Re)Turn,” The Professional Geographer 61(3), 2009, 283–91.
6  R. White, “Foreword,” in A. K. Knowles (ed.), Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship, Redlands: ESRI Press, 2008, pp. x–xi.
7  D. Richardson, “Geography and the Humanities,” AAG Newsletter 41(3), 2006, 2, 4.
8 GIS/index.htm (accessed May 17, 2010). 
9  D. J. Bodenhamer, op. cit., pp. 230–31.