Digital Scales in Digital Mapping: New Approaches to Linking Cultural Experiences in American History

AHA Session 12
Thursday, January 5, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Room 501 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Matthew Hiebert, German Historical Institute
Matthew Hiebert, German Historical Institute

Session Abstract

The use of maps to visualize information is commonplace. They are capable of facilitating the interpretation of complex events in conveying both narrative and analysis. As such, maps take a center stage in historical research. They serve historians as source materials to study changing notions of space, modes of government, and human understandings of the globe as a whole. And they serve historians to provide new notions of space based on their findings. Recent historiography re-drew spatial boundaries on various scales, recovering and uncovering the transnational origins of the American nation, the Atlantic and the Pacific world, the black Atlantic, and the global North and South.

Engaging these spaces increasingly invites historians to complement their critical readings of historic maps with the creation of maps that visualize their analyses. Their attention to space and spatiality is, among others, inspired by the methods of environmental sciences and its development of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The "spatial turn", with its concern for discerning patterns of human experience, brought historians into conversation with Critical GIS and accompanying GIS and Society. And a growing class of “digital historians” began to converge the traditionally statistical and geopositioning based techniques of Historical GIS with tools that integrate diverse data sets and formats, support narration via animation, allow emendations and new material, and evoke experience and affect. The new representations of space that digital methods make possible thus not only illustrate book chapters; the ascendance of geospatial humanities and the adaptation of its digital tools give rise to projects that involve online databases, websites, and interactive maps that profoundly alter the scales historical research can address.

This session aims to explore the scales of research historians currently engage in the field of American history from the late eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. The panel brings together historians and geographers whose ongoing research projects trace cultural spaces in an effort to link experiences that reveal contexts and chronologies that diverge from the classic frameworks and eras in US history. An important part of this undertaking is the composition of new databases and the reflective adoption of new digital approaches to develop maps synthesizing quantitative and qualitative data. Focusing on the presentation of these maps, the panelists consider both their benefits and methodological problems. From the perspective of some digital humanists, the uptake of Historical GIS within the discipline, for instance, involved a tacit positivist epistemological assumption of the underlying statistical tools, which omit the variability and intricacies of historical processes. Exploring digital methodologies towards visualization at the local, regional, and transnational scale, in urban and rural places, within and beyond the US, the panelists aim to engage an audience interested in digital methods, visuals, and space in a critical conversation about the new directions into which maps are currently taking American history.

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