Digital Fitness History

Minor Field Readings, Part 4: Space

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I’m a few weeks behind with this blog post about our minor field readings meeting on Space in Digital History. For this meeting we read a variety of works that discussed Geographic Information Systems (GIS), spatial history, the possibilities and and the complexities of presenting historical material geographically using digital technology and methodologies.

GIS has been around for years now, yet historians have never embraced it like geographers have. Partly, as many of the authors point out, this is because of the software’s need for exact data rather than fuzzy or general information. Geographic coordinates must be exact rather than general which poses a problem for historians who don’t have exact data. Further, the software doesn’t handle change over time, a necessity for historians, well. In the Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship Bodengier et. al. discuss the limitations that GIS has “privileged a certain way of knowing the world, one that valued authority, definition, and certainty over complexity, ambiguity, multiplicity, and contingency….” [1. Bodengier et. al, ix]. This edited volume containing influential voices in the field of GIS, calls for and discusses the ways that GIS must move beyond the quantitative to the qualitative in order to appeal and be of use to historians. However, the emergence of the semantic web, Google Maps and other APIs, as well as Geolocated mobile devices have appealed more to historians looking to geolocate their work.

The works that discuss GIS put mapping and some of the larger theoretical questions about mapping into context for us, but I found the several digital history projects that we looked at and read about more useful. In Stephen Robertson’s work on Digital Harlem, one of the first digital history projects to utilize google maps, he discusses what the technology allowed him to do that traditional methods couldn’t. Spatial history allows historian to map large quantities of data onto relatively small spaces and integrate different kinds of data onto one platform allowing them to visualize the complexities and correlations on a scale not possible without digital technology.

In addition to Robertson’s article on Digital Harlem, we also read about several other digital history projects which use mapping in a slightly different way. In Mapping Texts the authors created a platform that allows users to interact with the data both quantitatively and qualitatively by combining mapping and visualization. The platform’s two views “Mapping Newspaper Quality” and “Mapping Language Patterns” allow the user to interact with digitized newspaper archives in a new way. The mapping portion of the interfaces, Torget states, “facilitates grouping, discovering, analyzing, and making sense of patterns with the dataset.” In Torgets description of the uses of the visualizations included in the Mapping Texts interface, he also taps into the potential and possibilities that mapping holds for historians. While this project is an attempt to reshape the way we interact with archives and an attempt to make searching these datasets more effective, it’s also an excellent example of the appeal of combining mapping with other types of visualization.

We also read Cameron Belvin’s article, “Space, Nation, & Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston”, which appeared in the latest issue of the Journal of American History. Belvins uses named entity recognition on the digitized Houston Daily Post corpus and asks “How did newspapers construct space in an age of nationalizing forces?” One of the many things I like about Blevin’s article is his clear description of his methodology and his articulation of the promise of digital history. He states:

Technology opens potentially transformative avenues for historical discovery, but without a stronger appetite for experimentation those opportunities will go unrealized. The future of the discipline rests in large part on integrating new methods with conventional ones to redefine the limits and possibilities of how we understand the past.

Blevin’s research utilizes Named Entity Recognition to analyze hundreds of millions of words in the Houston Daily Post. Through representing the places discussed within the newspaper from 1894 to 1901 he argues that the HDP “produced regionally distinctive space in an age of national forces” (126). Blevin’s article is a prime example of the ways spatial history and mapping, in particular, can be combined with visualization and used as a research technique that allows historians to study sources on a scale that is impossible without digital technology and methodologies.

It is hard to believe we’ve almost finished our minor field readings.  Next week we move on to topic modeling–a topic I’ve been looking forward to discussing all summer. As we move away from our discussion and readings about Space, I’m continually struck by the idea that we are in a moment where visualization has emerged as the way we want to interact and ingest large amounts of data.  While historians tend to be more comfortable with text, spatial history has the potential to allow for explorations of complexity, scale, and contingency in a way that other representations, and particularly narrative, can’t. However, mapping is also useful as a visualization of more complex computational analysis such as named entity recognition.  Plotting numerical or other types of data onto a map allows us to interact with the data in a form that we’re comfortable with and that is easily understood–maps. Digital Mapping can function as both a research tool that allows exploration or as a tool for representing, visualizing, and understanding data derived from computational analysis.

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