Spatial History

[This post is a reading reflection written for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. This week’s readings were Richard White, “What is Spatial History?, David Staley’s “Historical Visualizations,” and Phil Ethington’s Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge]

Of all the the subfields of history, spatial history benefits most from the emergence of digital tools. As Richard White humbly points out, the spatial turn in history is a turn and not a discovery. Historians, he mentions William Cronon and Fernand Braudel in particular, have used spatial analysis in works before long before the emergence of the digital humanities. In fact, geography, a discipline founded on analyzing space, could lay claim to spatial history before historians. This spatial turn, then, represents an acceptance of interdisciplinary methods, whether historians realize it or not. Like text analysis, which often brings literary methods into historical analysis, spatial history, especially spatial analysis with digital tools, brings geographic methods into historical analysis.

Perhaps most importantly, and again like text analysis, spatial history, though used before the computers, was revolutionized by the creation of digital tools. With tools that can analyze and visualize massive amounts of data, spatial analysis becomes possible in a variety of more ways. White references the ability of digital tools to present sources “that would be too opaque or too unwieldy to use without computers.” Though technically possible without digital methods, digital tools make analysis that would be impractical, not only practical, but enticing.

David Staley reminds digital humanists, that visualizations cannot be simply an “add on,” but need to be a fundamental part of the research project from the beginning. White’s conception of particular sources being especially suited for visual communication rather than textual communication fits nicely into Staley’s argument that visualizations are an integral part of research and scholarship, not a fun afterthought. Staley hammers this point home writing in his conclusion, “Visualizations are not illustrations.” Spatial historians do not use pictures and visualizations merely because they can, but because they must, in order to properly argue about space, show places and spaces.

Phil Ethington’s project is a longstanding example of using the digital medium for spatial, and his case also urban, history. Ethington takes wonderful advantage of hyperlinks, building a truly multilinear narrative. However, Ethington also engages in spatial history, most obviously in his sections “Locations” and “Maps,” but also throughout his project, as he explores landscape, icons, and panoramas. His section on Panoramas particularly interested me as a piece of spatial history. Like White’s humility in discussing spatial history, Ethington knows panoramas are not new. Instead, he uses the “old” feature of the panorama to analyze the spaces of Los Angeles.

The digital humanities may be “new.” However, the sources and many of the methods are not. Instead, the digital medium allows scholars to process data in new ways. Humanists still have to analyze the data themselves. The computer is simply a tool. Therefore, the “new”-ness of the digital humanities comes from the way the computer is used as a tool, such as in the analysis of large numbers of sources and visual presentation of findings.

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