This past Wednesday the Harvard History Department held a seminar entitled “What is Digital History?” Three of the four faculty presenters - Vince Brown, Maya Jasanoff, and Kelly O’Niell - demonstrated ways of using mapping to enhance pedagogy in an undergraduate classroom while the fourth, Emma Rothschild, shared how she used a tool called Gephi to visualize the connections between historical actors and the wider world in the small town of Angueleme in France. I left the seminar thinking about the similarities and differences between using mapping techniques for teaching, scholarship, pubic history, and for social and political activism. I also have since been pondering what kinds of problems arise from using digital mapping in the study of history and what sorts of digital literacy are required to address them.
When presenting a visualization of embarkations and disembarkations of slave ships as growing circles linked to locations on a map of Africa and the Americas, Vince Brown was careful to address the potential problems of reifying the hollow artifact of a slave traders’ record by animating them. While showing certain possibilities for a new aesthetics of imagining the kinds of information contained in what Brown suggested we call a “captabase” (rather than database) – the nearly 35,000 voyages compiled by David Eltis and David Richardson – for example, he maintained that historians not be deluded by the empiricist’s certitude. In terms of teaching, the question becomes how we best equip students to move beyond simply applying new tools and get them to interrogate the historic material and the technology simultaneously in order to question the underlying assumptions, to mentally reverse-engineer the digital mapping techniques they use.
Some graphic representations of the slave trade moving from the coast further into the interior of Africa, for example, are based on the assumption that the names of slaves who were disembarked from slave ships interdicted by the British were accurately given and recorded (as those names are then linked by historians to ethno-geographic regions in Africa). Yet, there is reason to believe that slaves might strategically exploit slavetraders’ stereotypes – that “Coramantee” slaves were likely to revolt, Angolan slaves were especially suited to the cultivation of rice, “Igbo” slaves were likely to commit suicide, etc. – in a context heavy with fear of recapture. Here is just one example in which it would be important for students to spot the problematic assumption before taking an arrow depicting the growth of the slave trade into interior regions of Africa as “fact.” The more general question is: to what extent do visual representations of historic trends render more seemingly objective that which is inherently subjective, messy and necessarily complicated?
Perhaps the most commonly used tool for historic mapping in academia is GIS, although the most easily accessible tool is probably Google Earth. Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis provides some good examples of the kinds of work being done with historical GIS and the Association of American Geographers (AAG) has a Historical GIS Clearinghouse and Forum where they have usefully summarized many major mapping projects led by large research universities and other institutions. Using GIS, images of historic maps can be plotted along the parameters of latitude and longitude, and manipulated in order to synch up with ArcView and other GIS softwares that then allow historians to overlay multiple layers of information. There are a growing number of online programs which allow users to create their own maps and do not require expensive software (or offer expensive software free of cost). WorldMap is a good example of one such open source tool that can be used for any region of the globe, whereas SocialEplorer provides an example of a program that has both free and subscription versions but is limited in scope to the United States.
These ever-new and more powerful tools for historical mapping raise issues of equity and access. When I was teaching high school in East Los Angeles, for example, I had to search for ways to teach students how to do the same kind of things I had been able to do using ArcView GIS in college because our high school did not have the such software. Social Explorer provided a solution, and my students created projects that related digital mapping to contemporary issues in their own neighborhood (here is a more detailed description which forms one chapter of Geography and Social Justice in the Classroom for those ineterested). Although I had generally understood the census as being used historically as a racist classificatory system and means of oppression – for red-lining practices, housing segregation, immigration quotas, district gerrymandering, and the like – through these students’ projects I saw first hand how young people who could use the demographic census data in an empowering way. To me, the more general question becomes: who will have the resources and skills to produce and interpret digital maps in a way that is meaningful not only in the history classroom but beyond?
Although there is always so much more to discuss, maybe we can begin by taking up these broad questions. To summarize: my experience with historic mapping has left me wondering:
- (i) What are the similarities and differences between using historic mapping for teaching, for scholarship, for public history, and for political action or social justice?
- (ii) What sorts of problems are created by the use of digital mapping and what kinds of digital literacy are needed to address them?
- (iii) To what extent do visual representations of historic trends render more seemingly objective that which is inherently subjective, messy and necessarily complicated?
- (iv) Who will have the resources and skills to produce and interpret maps in a way that is meaningful in history classrooms and beyond, and what is at stake in terms of identity formation – how “we” understand “ourselves” and people like “us” in the past – and in terms of social and political activism in the present?