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Author: J. B. Owens
Title: Anne Kelly Knowles's Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
September 2003
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Source: Anne Kelly Knowles's Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History
J. B. Owens


vol. 6, no. 2, September 2003
Article Type: Book Review
URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.3310410.0006.211

Anne Kelly Knowles's Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History

J. B. Owens

Idaho State University

Anne Kelly Knowles, ed. Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press, 2002. xx, 202 pp.; ill.; glossary of GIS terms. Paper. $29.95. ISBN 1-58948-032-5 (pbk.).

At the end of their contribution to this book, Ian N. Gregory and Humphrey R. Southall write, "Using GIS puts mapping at the core of research and data exploration. We will see the past differently as a result" (129). Those who use computers in their research and teaching must read this fine collection of articles in order to understand the full scope of this conclusion.

Anne Kelly Knowles has done an effective job organizing this book for its intended readers, those who need an introduction to the current use of Geographic Information Systems for historical studies. The book excites visually as well as intellectually, as any good GIS book should. Knowles provides a solid introduction to the basic concepts and terms of GIS and to the way the technology has been used by the authors of the various articles, and all of the authors explain well the concepts and methods relevant to the work they present. In addition to the usual scholarly notes, the articles often include information about the hardware and software used, a selected bibliography of print and online resources, and explanations of technical terms, which are frequently replicated in the book's useful glossary. Unfortunately, there is no index, which means that readers cannot move from the glossary back to the article or articles where the terms are used in context nor identify easily where different projects employed similar approaches. Moreover, some terms do not appear in the glossary (e.g., multiple regression), leaving it to the reader to recall which authors discussed this statistical technique. This editorial decision to forego an index denies those who use the book to learn about historical GIS an important educational tool.

It is difficult to review a diverse collection of project reports, and before I say something about the central insights which readers will note about the impact of GIS, I want to introduce the individual articles. After that, I will underline a few of the things that historians will have to learn beyond the techniques for using GIS, which are becoming increasingly easier to master in any event.

Five of the articles deal exclusively with the history of the United States and another with the history of an English colony that became one of those states, and as a historian of Spain and the global Hispanic Monarchy, I am not the person to comment on U.S. history apart from the use of GIS. One of the important things to recognize about the introduction of GIS into historical studies is that the work frequently produces projects which, even if intended as works of research, lend themselves to teaching. Two of the articles focus directly on this application. In "Teaching the Salem Witch Trials," Benjamin C. Ray does an excellent job of explaining how using GIS to organize data about this prominent subject has expanded the questions one can pose and enhanced students' understanding (). David W. Lowe presents, in "Telling Civil War Battlefield Stories with GIS," a fascinating account of how the U.S. National Park Service incorporates GIS in an attempt to educate an interested public about one of that country's most popular historical subjects. Those concerned about employment opportunities for their students will appreciate Lowe's discussion of the role of NPS's Cultural Resources GIS office ().

Two articles focus on using GIS to explain factors that have shaped the characteristics of neighborhoods in major twentieth-century U.S. urban centers: Andrew Beveridge's "Immigration, Ethnicity, and Race in Metropolitan New York, 1900-2000" (), and "Redlining in Philadelphia," by Amy Hillier. Geoff Cunfer does an effective job of showing in his "Causes of the Dust Bowl" how GIS can be used to combine information from the natural sciences with historical photographic and written records to arrive at new conclusions about a familiar problem, and Aaron C. Sheehan-Dean demonstrates in his discussion of the increasingly well-known "Valley of the Shadow" project (), "Similarity and Difference in the Antebellum North and South," why GIS is an essential tool for historians who do comparative history.

Given the importance of period maps, when available, to any historical GIS project, Knowles made a good choice in selecting as chapter one "Historical Maps in GIS," by David Rumsey and Meredith Williams. Because of the emphasis of the outstanding David Rumsey Historical Map Collection () on the Americas, the article offers much to U.S. historians, but it is particularly useful for its clear explanations of how the maps might be employed. Visitors to the collection web site will quickly appreciate that Rumsey makes available a rich variety of maps about all world regions.

Although the article of Lewis R. Lancaster and David J. Bodenhamer, "The Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative and the North American Religion Atlas," focuses on essential topics about the way the combination of computer-mediated communications with GIS-based research is transforming the scholarly environment for historical studies () , Bodenhamer also explains the characteristics of the NARA project (). NARA will especially interest historians because it is innovative as a choice for a GIS project, it deals with the whole of a large country, and it organizes religious data, which can be associated spatially and temporally with a wide variety of other data types to permit richer analyses of many familiar topics in U.S. history.

Because boundaries are important to his project, Beveridge introduces the National Historical Geographic Information System () , which "will digitize all available tract data and boundaries for 1910-2000 and all available county-level data and boundaries for 1790-2000" (67). All who wish to create data series over a long time period, especially for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, often encounter changes in the boundaries of the units to which the data is assigned. Gregory and Southall, in their clear and sophisticated "Mapping British Population History," explain well how "areal interpolation" (another technical term not included in the glossary) is used by the Great Britain Historical GIS Project "to build a flexible net of administrative unit boundaries that could capture the fluid reality of society as accurately as possible for any date and for any of several kinds of units" (120).

Alastair W. Pearson and Peter Collier's "Agricultural History with GIS" presents a technically breathtaking example of how a GIS might be created to bring together information from historical sources and environmental data and how this GIS can be used by analysts in conjunction with statistical techniques to understand, for one Welsh area, who made the investments that transformed British agriculture between 1750 and 1850. For these authors, the "pipe dream" that GIS has made possible is the "ability to visualize patterns in both the human and physical landscape and then go on to analyze relationships between them" (114), and their explanation of how this might be done should excite those dealing with this significant topic elsewhere in Britain, in other countries, and in a comparative context in confronting theses about the inflection of the global economy during the crucial period on which this article focuses (e.g., the works of Andre Gunder Frank, Jack Goldstone, and Kenneth Pomeranz).

Not all of the attention in this book is on such recent subjects. In their discussion of the TimeMap Project () and the creation of a temporal GIS, Lancaster and Bodenhamer present the online publication of the Gans Collection of Sasanian seals from the period 224-642 C.E. Tom Elliott and Richard Talbert, in "Mapping the Ancient World," discuss how the development of a digital version of the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World has provided the Ancient World Mapping Center of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, with "the first step in the creation of a historical GIS of the Greek and Roman world" (155).

Although it does not reveal fully all of the imaginative things he does to visualize spatial data, I have left until last on my list of articles Trevor M. Harris' "GIS in Archaeology" because it does the most to point toward the variety of ways in which GIS might be employed in the future to enhance research and teaching in historical studies through visualization in three and four dimensions. All readers of this journal will want to take the flight down the Ohio River toward the Grave Creek Mound () and read in this article Harris' explanation of how such simulations are created.

These articles collectively communicate a number of important guidelines for the future of historical studies. First, all historians must be instructed in cartographic design, for even those who do not employ maps in their research lack adequate preparation for teaching with digital cartography, which history teachers will quickly be expected to use. As part of this instruction, historians will have to learn about gazetteers and about metadata and their importance for the discovery of existing data sources. Moreover, training in history and the humanities has traditionally emphasized individual research. Therefore, as the use of GIS becomes more frequent, graduate programs in particular will have to prepare students to act in an environment where collaboration in research and publication will be increasingly necessary and where interdisciplinary work will be the norm, and these changes will mean that historians will have to become more effective users of computer-mediated communications than is now the case even among most of those who use email frequently.

When in November 2002, my colleague Laura Woodworth-Ney and I proposed to our History Department the creation of a GIS-based Master's program, we were not adequately prepared for the high levels of anxiety exhibited by some of our colleagues. Myron P. Gutmann does well in the book's preface to indicate the connections between the present use of GIS and an older concern among historians, at least since World War II, with the importance of place. To those for whom GIS technologies are new, overwhelming, and an apparent break with prior historical scholarship, it is important to communicate, as several of these articles do, that the software does not do the analysis, which will continue to depend on the researcher, and that historians must still learn "the traditional methods and techniques appropriate to the analysis of a diverse range of sources" (Pearson and Collier, 114). The use of historical sources carries with it a degree of uncertainty, and scholars must improve on the communication of often "fuzzy" results so that the use of GIS, which is designed for precision, does not lead to publications, including cartographic representations, that convey more confidence than is warranted. Otherwise, such scholarship might produce a new age of phoney positivism.

Finally, it may be true, as Knowles states in her introduction, that "Over the past seven years or so, developments in historical GIS have cohered in a set of common techniques, sources, and issues" (xi). However, I would not want readers of this book to think that the application of GIS to historical studies is somehow limited to the types of project presented here because, as the tools are adapted to other themes, experimentation will likely be necessary. For example, much of the use now is directed toward local and regional history. In his innovative and controversial 1998 book ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley: University of California Press), Andre Gunder Frank argues that the history of any location has been continuously shaped through interactions within a spatially-extensive, ultimately global, context. To describe his "pipe dream" about the analysis that would be necessary to understand such complex processes, Frank employs the metaphor of the three-legged stool, where the legs represent economic/ecological, socio-political, and cultural factors, but he confesses that he has no idea how he could combine these to analyze the history of a particular country or region or of the world as a whole. GIS offers us a means to undertake such multi-variate, multi-dimensional analyses directed toward spatially-extensive comparative studies and world history. As we push historical GIS in this direction, we will likely alter both GIS and the study of history in ways that are as yet difficult to imagine. The possibilities encourage ambition.