Introduction to Digital Humanities

RELI/ENGL 39, Fall 2015, University of the Pacific

The Many Wonders of Spacial History

To sum up what I gleaned from our latest readings, spatial history in and of itself is a pretty nifty concept. What spatial history essentially boils down to is presenting history through a means of visualization, of tangible spaces that can be traced through passing time. Instead of simply learning about historical events through a written resource, spatial history allows for an in-depth exploration of significant spaces.

A lot of this historical exploring comes through digital maps. The article by Jenna Hammerich talks about a few different spatial history projects, one by Colin Gordon that uses a layered digital map to track the development of St. Louis throughout the 20th century, and another called “The Dutch in the World”, in which Julie Hochstrasser is working on creating a visual catalog of 17th century Dutch trade sites. Hammerich talks about both these projects through terms of GIS, or geographical information systems. In using these systems to construct spatial visualizations, both Gordon and Hochstrasser are providing a means of delving deeper into the histories they are researching. Without digital maps and other visuals, the scale of St. Louis’ growth or the trade influence of the 17th century Dutch would just be a few statistics or remarks on paper. Having something visual to explore history through, particularly if it’s an interactive visual, gives historians a greater understanding of and connection to whatever they’re studying.

Both readings touched on one of the biggest differences between conventional history study and spatial history: collaboration. The chapter by Zephyr Frank talks a lot about this from the introduction on. He constructs spatial history research in the context of a lab, full of scholars from different backgrounds who have to work together to create something visual and instructional. Looking at history through a spatial context brings all kinds of people into the same realm of study, both in the case of select groups of historians, and communities interested in the things a historical visualization might display. Frank states that spatial history is essentially based on movement, meaning that space and time can be looked at through a lens of history’s progression through geographical space. This is also where the collaborative aspect of spatial history comes in, as many people are needed in order to construct something with digital technologies that requires varied areas of expertise.

Another aspect of spatial history that I found interesting was the lack of hierarchical thinking that goes into it. Generally speaking, traditional historical studies tend to follow a timeline of events, going from oldest to most recent. Spatial history allows researchers to break away from that rigid mold, and instead provides a web of connections that can be made between historical events, spaces, etc. Frank cited Scott Saul’s website called Richard Pryor’s Peoria as an example of “horizontal thinking”, aka looking at all kinds of historical aspects in tandem with one another. I took a peek at Saul’s website myself, and the whole thing is stuffed with visuals, including digital maps of places that were significant to Richard Pryor. This sheds light on Pryor’s life from several different directions, rather than the one that would come from, say, a biography of him. In using spatial history like this, Saul gives us a richer idea of Pryor’s life, and all the various influences that made up the whole. History is divided into many different slices, and spatial history allows us to look at all of the slices in relation to one another, rather than just on their own, or looking at them as one solid whole.

A map of North Washington Street, taken from Scott Saul’s website, Richard Pryor’s Peoria.

4 Comments

  1. Your blog post was excellent in my opinion !!! I thought u summarized the reading very well and also incorporated your own opinion about what you kind of got from the reading as well so I found it very unique and interesting !! Great job!

  2. Your blog post was excellent in my opinion !!! I thought u summarized the reading very well and also incorporated your own opinion about what you kind of got from the reading as well so I found it very unique and interesting !! Great job,,

  3. I like how you defined spacial history and described its effectiveness. I think that a visual representation can shed more light on a topic than just analyzing it from a written text. These visual representations have become so advanced, 3D for example, that we can utilize this technology to reexamine objects from the past. Overall, I took out the same points from the readings as you, but I really enjoyed your idea that spacial history breaks a traditional “rigid mold” of hierarchical thinking.

  4. I thought your post was really accurate in the way that it broke down the readings and got straight to the heart of what spatial history is. As someone who is personally interested in history, I think it’s extremely progressive to have the ability to find out the significance of a place with the aid of GIS and other spatial history technologies. I find it very interesting that the spatial history technologies can discern multiple layers of the history of one place, acting to broaden the historical context as well as allowing it to be compared with the other historical events that may have occurred in the very same place.

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