People use GIS (geographic information systems) technology everyday. Thanks to smart phones, getting to your friend’s new apartment or finding that new restaurant is easier than ever. But GIS technology does more than tell us how-to-get-where. For any group utilizing mass transportation, GIS can be used “to optimize…daily fleet movements.” Governments use GIS to develop “disaster decision support systems” in case of an emergency. Some even use GIS to find gold deposits in the Yukon.
THE SPATIAL TURN
But how do historians use GIS?
To answer this question, it’s necessary to first discuss the “spatial turn” in history. In short, the spatial turn, like most “turns” in history, is a movement among academics to shift approaches. For spatial historians, the shift involves an increased focus on the historical implications of space, place, and landscape. Spatial historians analyze the ways in which historical actors identify, define, interpret, and engage with space. The spatial turn inherently brought about an increased use of maps, which is where GIS comes in.
The capabilities of GIS allow historians to pinpoint their analyses on digital maps to convey history in a non-textual way. By using GIS, spatial historians not only allow learners to engage with digital tools themselves, but they often provide new insights to various histories. For example, spatial historian Anne Kelly Knowles uses GIS technology to show how Nazis strategically placed concentration camps close to industrial centers to use prisoners as a labor soure.
Jumping continents and traveling backward through time, Knowles introduces new insights on the American Civil War as well. Using GIS technology, Knowles is able to reveal what Robert E. Lee could see from his vantage points during the Battle of Gettysburg. Knowles’ findings reopen discussions on Lee’s decisions during the battle, sending waves through the historiography.
Historians like Knowles use their historical understanding of space, coupled with modern GIS technology, to reinterpret history. In fact, GIS is so prominent in spatial history that some historians wonder if it may be the future of digital history as a whole.
It is true that GIS allows historians to create digital mediums for exploring historical spaces, but claiming that it is the foremost digital approach to history may be a bit of an overstep.
MAPPING: INHERENTLY GIS?
The reality is that not all historical mapping projects use GIS, and not all have to. GIS is useful in certain projects, such as those cited above, but GIS is also criticized for occasionally “promoting positivism, ignoring complexities, and disregarding uncertainties.” The exact nature of GIS projects, which require precise coordinates, runs the risk of over-exacting the often nuanced aspects of historical events. Assuming that precision inherently brings about certainty is incorrect.
So do mapping projects have to use GIS? Can the spatial turn incorporate historical works that analyze space without latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates? Can space still be “an explicit part of historical analysis” without using exact locations?
MAPPING AND MY OWN WORK
For my own sake, I hope that not every spatial project uses GIS. The reality is that I do not know how to use GIS. Furthermore, I do not know whether my research surrounding sport stadia will yield specific GIS coordinates. Stadiums themselves are fixated, and as such would be easy to pinpoint. But what about urban dislocation as a result of the stadiums? Are coordinates relating to where individuals move after stadium construction as readily available? If not, my project will have to use mapping and imaging in a different way.
Richard White, discussing the Stanford Spatial History Project (SSHP), noted that “Religious spaces – like libraries, art galleries, sports arenas and graveyards – are more than locations or buildings. They represent a particular lived experience.” The question is how can I convey the particular lived experience brought about by sport arenas?
Many historians have discussed the geographical implications of sport, but seemingly none have utilized digital mapping to convey their spatial interpretations. Despite White’s inclusion of “sport arenas” in his argument and the abundance of stadiums and arenas–and controversies surrounding them–close to Stanford, none of SSHP’s projects deal with sport arenas.
The combination of a lack of digital and GIS know-how on my part, and a lack of readily available examples to learn from, make me feel as though I’ll have an uphill battle utilizing digital tools to engage with spatial history and sport stadia.
However, one possibility jumps out at me.
In my research, I have some planning documents about the positioning, design, and structure of the Orlando Arena. Likewise, I have numerous examples from newspaper sources that show how Orlandoans defined the arena as a space for elites, shielded by “lush gardens” and “fountains” from the “crime-riddled” Parramore neighborhood.
Perhaps there is some way I can use photographs, maps, and discourse to convey my interpretation that the stadium is used as a fulcrum for identity construction and exclusion.
THE NEED FOR COLLABORATION
In his article, White claims that the SSHP could not be possible without collaboration. White says that “The scholars involved in the Spatial History Project can write books by themselves, but they cannot do a spatial history project on the scale they desire alone: we lack the knowledge, the craft, and ultimately the time.”
Last week I proposed the idea of collaborating on a project together as a class, or at least in larger groups. People in class looked at me like I had ten heads. This is fair, considering that we all want to do our own research and work toward completing our theses while pursuing our individual passions. In fact, I myself was adamant at the beginning of the semester that individual projects were best.
However, the more I read articles like those of Ayers and White, and listen to those in our department like French and Lester, the more I wonder: what do I hope to get out of this semester, and how might collaboration enable me to learn more?
Consider this concluding segment of today’s blog post a last-ditch plea to the class to consider collaborating on a project together — not one that any of us proposed individually during our flash-pitches, because it’s inherently unfair that four of us work for a semester to complete the thesis project of one. Rather, let’s come up with something feasible together. Why not a project that uses mapping, GIS, spatial theory, and digital tools to convey a history of UCF? All the archives are right on our campus, as are the experts and the storage capabilities (RICHES might like a project like that — Dr. Lester mentioned that they don’t yet have much on UCF).
My fear is that working individually, though helping each of us chip away at the goal of completing a thesis, will limit the overall quality of our projects and the amount of digital know-how we can gain from working together.
With that being said, I am okay to work alone — I’ll be able to turn out a decent digital project (I hope) and it will give me an opportunity to explore more of the spatial elements of my thesis. The same, I think, will be true for all of our projects.
However, if we broke into two or three groups, we could collaborate more (as Ayers, White, and others urge us to do) and come up with better projects.
Think about it.