Digital (Urban) History

[In lieu of readings for the final class meeting of UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. Each student was to give a brief presentation on the digital humanities in their field.]

As a field built around places, urban history has always been cognizant of space. Beginning with Phil Ethington’s Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge digital urban history has used the digital medium’s visual power to explore space. As an early digital history project, Ethington modeled the digital medium’s visual power for spatial analysis. Building on his Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge, Ethington developed HyperCities, an analysis of space in cities around the globe. HyperCities compares space over time by laying historic maps on top of themselves in addition to present day maps. Likewise, The Welikia Project, which grew out of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Mannahatta Project, explores the ecology of New York City before European encounter, again presenting the past over the present. Most recently, a number of crowd driven projects, like Historypin and WhatWasThere, allow users to upload pictures and place them onto Google Maps’ street view. These projects’ juxtaposition of past and present highlight space’s analytical importance.

Harnessing the digital humanities’ visual power, urban history has taken spatial analysis further. Standford’s Spatial History Project explores space in a variety of times and locations moving beyond the historical representation of places and towards understanding the social constructions of space. Timothy Mahoney’s Gilded Age Plains City examines pace in Gilded Age Lincoln, Nebraska with spatial narratives, fusing traditional text explanations with interactive visuals. What Middletown Read breaks from previous projects centered on visualizing space, using a database of library activity in Muncie, Indiana to explore the city’s inhabitants. Though What Middletown Read is developing a spatial aspect, the project reminds scholars urban history in the digital realm need not be only visual.

The future of urban history in the digital humanities will continue to lay narrative analysis on space, possibly with a move to 3-D modeling. Scholars will continue to attempt to understand how historical actors saw their surroundings both in a literal sense, like the emerging mobile applications that similarly overlay the past and the present, and in the figurative sense of space’s social conceptions, which various projects like the Spatial History Project, Gilded Age Plains City, and What Middletown Read attempt.

Most promising about urban history in the digital humanities, though, is the prevalence of smaller projects in the field. Phil Ethington constructed Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge by himself. Timothy Mahoney’s Gilded Age Plains City evolved from an article. Though Stanford’s Spatial History Project and HyperCities are massive undertakings, more manageable modules comprise the larger projects. Because spatial analysis’ importance to urban history and the digital medium’s visual power, digital urban history has encouraged scholars, even those working alone like Ethington, to produce digital scholarship. The model of smaller scale projects, either as part of a larger whole or individually, will encourage a broader acceptance of the digital humanities as more scholars are exposed to and participate in the digital humanities.