Musings on Digital History

Mapping History

I have long heard about mapping projects being the next big thing in history and in the humanities, but I guess I never fully appreciated what that meant, and how one maps a project.

GIS stands for Geographic Information System, which is a “framework for gathering, managing, and analyzing data. Rooted in the science of geography, GIS integrates many types of data. It analyzes spatial location and organizes layers of information into visualizations using maps and 3D scenes. ​With this unique capability, GIS reveals deeper insights into data, such as patterns, relationships, and situations—helping users make smarter decisions.”1

This week, we got into the weeds with a program called QGIS, a free and open-source software. While it definitely takes some getting used to, and can be somewhat finicky if you have made an error, the opportunities for mapping multiple data sets to look at historical trends is pretty incredible. In the demo for this unit, we looked at data related to London, its neighborhoods, and then also mapped statistics related to the plague onto it. The next example which we did on our own, was actually quite relevant to a volunteer project I am working on with the Fairfax County NAACP related to voter registration and voting at the local level. It was cool to get some clarity regarding earlier election results in the county, and to see how it has changed in the present.

I have to say, this whole mapping project was a serious challenge for me, but I am still working on it! I first downloaded the incorrect version of the software, so I experienced some serious frustrations when it came to trying to get the data to visualize in the way the tutorial said it would. Once I got it to work, after downloading the correct and more stable version, I was able to see how powerful this program really is, but I still feel like I have only scratched the surface. Once I made it to the independent tutorial, I found a little more success, but I think it is going to take me more time to really figure it all out. Most of my work does not really involve mapping, but I would like to become proficient in QGIS because it is a powerful tool way to visualize geographic data.

The way data is visualized, and one’s color palette choice is incredibly important, as I learned. I think a lot of the style choices—colors, shading, etc, REALLY affect how the data is interpreted by the viewer. For example, I used olive green and brown for some horrible reason and the results were NOT PRETTY. If you use two separate colors that do not look good together, or are too bright, or too similar, the points you are making end up not being well understood. In the future, I would maybe start by planning out the color scheme before diving in.

Mapping projects allow us to see trends or unlikely similarities between distinct sets of data. And mapping is becoming a common tool for researchers across disciplines, from geographers, to historians, to ethnomusicologists! For example, the New York Times published a mapping project which showed the similarities between districts which had been red-lined, and the heat island effect that these same areas are facing. In another project, a colleague and friend of mine, Dr. Allie Martin, uses mapping to study the musical and sonic effects of gentrification in DC over time, which includes how gentrification affects music cultures, including DC’s GoGo Music and the traditions of buskers and street musicians. Her projects also have an aural component in relation to the maps, which is an important part of how she shares her research. Daniele Salvoldi explores how mapping has allowed researchers to attempt to reconstruct sites in ancient Nubia, by using archival materials spanning geography, history, natural history and ethnographic source materials2. Having personally researched musical instruments excavated in Meroe in Nubia, I think this type of project is incredibly important, and might help us figure out why Greek musical instruments were excavated at the tomb of a Nubian queen. By using data points from so many different areas, the possibilities for understand the past are endless.

In efforts related decolonizing museum collections, I could see mapping projects being a useful way to visualize the geographic makeup of a museum collection, especially as it pertains to gaps in collections. Or to see how a collection has been built over time, and being able compare geography and dates to political and social unrest to see if that may be why a given object is in a museum collection half way across the world.

Susan Grunewald writes that

Digital mapping works best in conjunction with more traditional sources. It can be crucial to making research conclusions, but not without the context and evidence of the standard building blocks of historical studies. Indeed, GIS mapping and the traditional methods and sources of history are symbiotic. As my research process shows, initial mapping work can help scholars refine their research questions and navigate information contained within written documents and oral testimonies.3.

I really appreciated this succinct take on how mapping projects can help guide research, and can help point researchers in new directions. But I think we also need to be careful not to infer meaning about a situation purely based on the map we create. I think we, as humans, want to organize and make sense of ourselves and our pasts, but meaning that we derive from a given set of data on a map may be coincidental, so I think we need to proceed with caution. I think the map is one in a set of tools at our disposal to find meaning in our pasts.

  1. []
  2. Daniele Salvoldi, “A Historical Geographical Information System (HGIS) of Nubia Based on the William J. Bankes Archive (1815-1822),” DHQ 11.2 (2017). []
  3. Susan Grunewald, “Beyond the Archives: What GIS Mapping Reveals about German POWs in Soviet Russia,” Perspectives on History, February 26, 2019. []

3 replies on “Mapping History”

I too share your frustrations with QGIS, but it’s quite fascinating to see the final product. I agree with your point about choosing the right colors when creating a map. I find that it’s good to use the same color, but different shades. You can see a real difference in the “heat map” sort of look.

Like you, I had some difficult getting use to GIS at the beginning. However, now I see that it is a really great resource. I have never really thought about mapping too much, but it can be great visualization tool for looking at data. I agree with Grunewald’s statement. This type of mapping of data is best used in conjunction with other research and traditional sources. It is a great tool for visualizing the data to draw interpretations from or display the complexities of an argument. I agree you with though, we have to be cautious about inferring too much from these visuals.

Jaymey, I am glad you quoted Grunewald saying: “Digital mapping works best in conjunction with more traditional sources. It can be crucial to making research conclusions, but not without the context and evidence of the standard building blocks of historical studies.”
This is important as it shows that she did not see her map-project as the alpha and omega of this WWII project, more data might also be necessary to support what the maps define. So, as you, I also do think that we need to proceed with caution in our research with the maps. And not only with the maps, technically.

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