“The Spatial Humanities” Book Review

Bodenhamer, David J., John Corrigan, Trevor M. Harris, eds. 2010 The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Historians rely on and use maps–there is no getting around that. But other than location, might maps and the different technologies used for creating them provide historians and humanists with other useful data? That is the broad question this book attempts to answer. The Spatial Humanities is a collection of essays written by participants at an interdisciplinary workshop aimed at reaching a better understanding of the possibilities with GIS (Geographic Information System) as a tool for humanists. The authors include historians, geographers, scholars, a religionist, and an archaeologist. (pp. 8) Each chapter explores the possible uses for GIS in the humanities, as well as presents the current and potential problems with implementing GIS into humanities scholarship. More importantly, this book was an excellent exercise in interdisciplinarity as the whole process of collecting thoughts, ideas, and data, and then putting them into words, required the input of scholars, humanists, and scientists.

Historian Edward L. Ayers contributed the first chapter where he discussed place, space, and time, and the different interpretations and meanings those abstractions hold. He pointed out that the world is not stable with occasional changes, like is traditionally depicted, but instead always changing–socially, politically, culturally, etc. (pp. 17) The challenge, he asserts, is to present a visual and representational picture of that moment in time and place that is accurate. How can a historian present a certain event in history at a specific place on the globe, with accuracy, when so many changes take place over the course of time? Geographers deal with that exact same dilemma only in the physical sense as the earth is constantly changing, as well. It is this similarity, he writes, that makes geography a natural “bridging discipline.” (pp. 14) Ayers further goes on to point out that, “Our brains like seeing patterns…because maps of time take advantage of our ‘multimodal cognitive system’.” (pp. 22) He presented The History Engine as an example of a way to integrate GIS technology into humanities scholarship. This student body of work utilizes geocoded episodes that represent space and time. (pp. 21) Ayers sets the stage for GIS/Humanities collaboration.

David J. Bodenhamer, also a historian, provided the second chapter, “The Potential of Spatial.” He presented the reader with the tension at the heart of the debate of whether GIS could be a useful tool for the humanities. He stated, “GIS was a corporate product, designed to solve corporate problems, such as route logistics or market analysis.” (pp. 30) In other words, GIS was thought to be too logical and science-y for interpretive uses like the ones necessary for the humanities. GIS technology could only provide cold numbers and data, was the argument. However, it piqued enough interest that historians and archaeologists were the first to try it–with satisfying results. (pp. 33)  Bodenhamer writes, “…human activity is about time and space, and GIS provides a way to manage, relate, and query events, as well as to visualize them, that should be attractive to researchers.” (pp. 34) He goes on to explain how a “deep map” can be “visual and experiential,” two main ingredients when interpreting history. (pp. 40) Bodenhamer presents the main problem and suggests, not necessarily answers, but approaches to this new technology.

The rest of the book was quite technical but the idea that GIS could only broaden the humanities’ horizons was successfully conveyed. Archaeologist, Gary Lock, in his essay, goes deeper into “deep maps,” and the data layers of GIS. Professor of Geography, May Yuan talks about mapping text. In a collaborative effort, geographer and geologist Trevor M. Harris, geographer Jesse Rouse, and geographer Susan Bergeron discuss the Geospatial Semantic Web where they suggest that, “the Geospatial Semantic Web,…is capable of providing the core of a humanities GIS able to integrate, synthesize, and display humanities and spatial data through one simple and ubiquitous Web interface.” (pp. 141) Other authors include historian John Corrigan, digital humanists Paul S. Ell and Ian Gregory, and founding director of the GIS graduate program at the University of Redlands, Karen K. Kemp. The authors of this book unanimously agree that GIS could be a very useful tool to the humanist.

The book was well written and presented, albeit at times, heavy on the technical jargon. I thought the authors made brilliant connections and pointed out legitimate problems, one of which was mentioned early on that I found interesting and relevant. In chapter one, Ayers points out, “Historians have not been leaders in defining practice theory, but they have recently taken up discussion of the approach.” (pp. 17)  History is highly interpretive and that is why defining the practice is so hard. However, I can see why a solid practice theory would facilitate the use of GIS and History could be seen as more of a science, rather than a humanity. Finally, GIS is still emerging and grasping it now, rather than later, I believe, is a smart move for anyone serious about presenting humanities related information to the public.

  1. A Different Way to ‘Do History’ | Emma's History Blog

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