3: Geographic Information Systems
One critical tool in facilitating a new wave of spatial analysis is Geographic Information Systems (GIS), run most often through the program ArcGIS, but also available through several other programs (see below). GIS allows users to create multiple layers of information that can be aligned on the same map or spatial field. Historical maps can be scanned and georeferenced — stretched to fit the current map — to allow users to combine and overlay various forms of information to understand how they relate to one another.
GIS “layering” allows for new ways of seeing and viewing data. One graduate student project used GIS to overlay several distinct historical layers: oyster beds, property ownership, and water depth. Another project mapped addresses in Rio de Janeiro to add spatial attributes to data that was otherwise flat, offering new ways of thinking about certain patterns within the built environment. Stanford’s “Mapping the Republic of Letters” project is doing innovative, interdisciplinary analysis of correspondence using metadata (a letter’s date, author, recipient, point of origin, point of reception) in order to get a new view of the formation and changes in the enlightenment network of philosophers, writers, booksellers, their patrons and friends. Richard White’s ongoing project on railroads in the West reimagines nineteenth-century railroad networks based on time and cost (rather than physical distance alone), and offers a more complicated picture of how space was constructed and reconstructed over time, and the larger consequences of those changes.
But ArcGIS, a core tool for many these projects, is sometimes problematic as a tool. Like many “tools” available to humanities scholars, it is can be dauntingly complicated, technical and unwieldy. To produce effective visualizations for publication, maps and data must be exported to other programs, such as Adobe Flash or Illustrator, where they are refined and turned into a more presentable form. The process of doing spatial history, then, can seem at times much like a makeshift contraption—an old rowboat, a flagpole, a bed sheet, and lots of masking tape rigged together to make a sailboat. The teamwork that almost invariably goes into these projects can make the process much more appealing. Spatial history often involves collaborations among students and scholars, each with distinct skills and experience.
In addition, ArcGIS can be prohibitively expensive for independent scholars or those working at institutions that cannot afford software licences. But there are free alternatives to ArcGIS. A number of open-source programs are available for download (see http://opensourcegis.org/), but most of these are less robust and lack the support of commercial ArcGIS software. The most competitive alternatives are Google Earth and Google Maps, which can be used for free. For basic-level analysis of spatial characteristics, these are often quite effective. For instance, in Google Earth it is possible to plot a series of points representing the birth places of early 20th-century Bolivian authors or the locations of major plot developments in War and Peace.
Because ArcGIS and other programs requires extensive expertise, spatial analysis in the humanities often requires collaboration with scholars and technicians outside humanities departments. For humanities scholars who are used to working alone, the prospect of doing collaborative, interdisciplinary work might seem daunting. But many enjoy and benefit from the opportunity to work in groups and pool resources, expertise, and experience. At Stanford, undergraduates, lab staff, graduate students, and professors will often work together on a single project, each offering some piece of expertise toward the larger project.
GIS has its drawbacks, however. Like any tool or language, it can be limiting in its uses and forms of expression. As Richard White explains, “GIS often ends up emphasizing not the constructed-ness of space but rather its given-ness, which is fine if you are setting out to bomb something or go out to eat.” The technology shows its limitations, however, when the purpose is to understand “a wider spectrum of human constructions of space over time.” Because of those limitations, other forms of visualization might be more effective in conveying the strength or weakness of a spatial relationships.
The technical process of spatial analysis is often secondary to the importance of thinking “spatially.” How and where does the object of research move in the world around them? What kind of patterns could be revealed by treating space with as much critical consideration as humanities scholars think about time or language?
Tools, such as GIS, allow scholars new ways of seeing. Spatial history, according to White, is not about “producing illustrations or maps to communicate things that you have discovered by other means.” Rather, it is a way of creating new evidence, highlighting new questions; “It is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.”