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When Historians go to a Geographer’s Conference…

We all like to talk about interdisciplinary work. In fact, “interdisciplinary” (or even better: “transdisciplinary”) is a buzzword that PhD students are advised to sprinkle over their grant applications. As a second-year PhD student in history, I found myself intrigued by the many promises of interdisciplinary work. Yet… when it came to implementing those theoretical claims, I sometimes struggled to find support or collaborators in other departments. 

Fortunately, this changed this year when I was invited to join a panel of historians who were presenting their research at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) in New Orleans. The panel was entitled “Rethinking Archives through Digital Mapping” and was intended to spark a conversation between geographers and historians on how we use archival materials, methods of data visualization, and mapping software. 

The panel was inspired by an observation by geographer Anne Kelly Knowles, who pointed out that “history’s classic mode of communication is narrative, while geography finds its most distinctive expression in the visual, synoptic presentation of evidence in maps.” Knowles argues that joining historical and geographical inquiry leads to fresh insights, and she posits that HGIS (historical GIS) might help to transform our understanding of history. But historians, including art historians, who turn to computational analysis continue to experience disciplinary discomfort with the approach even when it requires them to examine archives or other collections of historical documents in fresh ways. Historians’ longstanding preference for text and distrust of data-driven visualizations likely fuels this discomfort. In our historian-led panel at the AAG, my colleagues and I presented our research which focuses on archives and other collections of historical documents, material long considered the purview of historians. We wanted to show how humanists’ turn to computational analysis has reshaped understanding of historical documents and the information or data the documents contain. 

This was my first time attending the AAG, and my first thought was: Wow, this thing is huge! Several thousand scholars, professionals, and students visited the conference, and the area around the main hotels on New Orleans’ Canal Street was flooded with people wearing the green badges identifying them as attendees. At most of the history conferences I had attended before, panelists usually presented a (more or less) polished version of their research. The organizers of our AAG panel, however, encouraged participants to speak about some of the methodological problems we encountered in our projects or those we were still struggling with. To be honest, at first I felt a bit uncomfortable with this approach (after all, getting up at a conference and saying “here are all the things I haven’t figured out yet” seemed a bit counter-intuitive for a humanist). 

Fortunately, I decided to silence the doubting voice in my head and went on to rewrite the talk I was about to give, entitled “Mapping Colonial Louisiana: Settlement Patterns and Ethnic Integration in Spanish Louisiana.” Instead of discussing at length the (preliminary) results of my research, I talked about the methodological problems I encountered when I started this project: how I collected colonial census lists and tried to account for missing documents and apparent misrepresentation; how I tried to locate colonial settlements in the eighteenth-century Mississippi Valley before realizing that the river had changed its course several times; how I struggled with locating and mapping indigenous settlements; … and many more. When it was time for the Q&A, the benefits of this type of talk became instantly obvious: many of the geographers in the room came forward with advice, sharing tips and tricks from their own work, or pointing out relevant literature on the methods or software I was using. Ultimately, the AAG was one of the most helpful, productive, and inspiring conferences I have been too, and I’m looking forward to continue this line of interdisciplinary work. 

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