What I thought of the readings:
This week’s topic of spatial history built upon last week’s discussion of data mining and visualizations, exemplified by Franco Moretti’s work Graphs, Maps, and Trees. Delving deeper in to the “maps” aspect of visualization, the readings this week show how historical topics can be enhanced, explained, modeled, synthesized, etc. through the use of spatial visualizations. It is important to note for our discussion–as emphasized by Richard White–that these digital visualizations are not simply static illustrations accompanying text, but can be dynamic visual aids which allow the user/reader to understand how events unfold over time and space, to ask new questions, and to scrutinize assumptions.
Todd Presner presents a rich spatial history resource, HyperCities, which allows many users to create mapping projects through its interface. Presner makes the important point that HyperCities differs from simple, commercial mapping projects in that rather than focusing on information like traffic, weather, and commercial interests, these visualizations’ main focus is humanities scholarship related to “urban, cultural, and historical transformations of city spaces.” Projects ranging from presenting the history of Los Angeles from prehistoric times until now to the mapping of protests in Iran’s 2009 elections show how HyperCities in particular, and spatial history in general, has the ability to present a breadth of scholarship in dynamic and innovative ways.
Presner’s emphasis on spatial history and visualization as legitimate forms of humanities scholarship is also addressed by Jo Guldi and Martyn Jessop. Although she does not directly address visualizations, Guldi explores the “spacial turn” in a myriad of scholarly areas, explaining how in fields as diverse as psychology, anthropology, history, and art history, scholars between 1880 and 1960 came to reflect on humans’ “nature as beings situated in space.” Rather than continuing to concentrate on great personalities, for example, historians began to focus on history as a function of nation or city, and later, as a function of region or center/periphery. Jessop shows how graphic aids to humanities scholarship are not actually new or out of blue, but rather have a long history, ranging from early modern Kunstkammern, to museums, to film, to theater. For Jessop, digital technology has simply created a new medium for visualization.
Trying it out myself:
Jessop’s assertion that humanists have a lack of education in visual literacy certainly hit home for me as I was attempting to use the various tools this week. Visualizing events in space has never been a particular strong suit of mine. I remember reading Michael Shaara’s Civil War novel The Killer Angels in middle school and hating every minute of it; I couldn’t makes heads or tails of Shaara’s descriptions of troop movements, which at the time, seemed to make up the entirety of the book. (If someone had made a nifty visualization of the book back then, maybe I could’ve gotten into it!) Trying to use many of the tools this week brought back that same sense of frustration. Neatline, for example, has a very steep learning curve. I really couldn’t figure out how to do anything effective with the site; their demos only showed what masters were able to create, but did not show how novices could learn to use the tool. I tried to perform the simple task of plotting my birthday in time and space, but couldn’t even figure out how to do that.
I was a bit more successful with GoogleEarth, where I made a map of some of the museums I visited this summer in the Netherlands. However, as Presnor points out, I am not sure that GoogleEarth on its own is really a digital humanities tool, though clearly some other digital humanities sites, like the historical maps repository at David Rumsey Maps Collection have made use of its data.
Clearly many of the spatial visualization sites on this week’s tools are very useful and can help scholars produce some unique and intellectually rigorous projects. I think, though, that I would need a lot more training in order to produce something worthwhile.