Spatial History

This week’s readings on spatial history and visualization emphasized the point that these historical methods cannot just add to a presentation or research project; they are essential. According to Richard White, these digital tools allow historians to not only perceive new historical relationships but also to ask new questions. This idea that spatial history is another method of research is a great example of the larger question we’ve been grappling with all semester: What can historians do with digital history that they cannot do without it?

I spent some time on Stanford’s Spatial History Project website, browsing all of the research conducted with GIS, with plotting data on maps and manipulating time and space to make arguments about social relations, context, transportation, and disease. All of these concrete examples illuminated for the first time the power of combining digital tools and history to create scholarship.

It is fascinating how many different kinds of history can benefit from using spatial history. I used to think that GIS and mapping only applied to research on transportation and nation formation, but these readings on spatial history tell a different story. Using these tools, historians can advance arguments and questions concerning economics, social relations, politics, crimes, health and disease, ecology and conservation- the list goes on. The Slave Market in Rio de Janeiro shows the movement of slave sellers, buyers, and slave themselves throughout the community in the mid-nineteenth century. The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1850 compares the onslaught of yellow fever and tuberculosis in Rio, combining time and space manipulation with a heat map. Another project, Animal City, highlights the influence and space of animals, both alive and dead, in mid-nineteenth century San Francisco.

Spatial history and visualization excites me to say the least. I’ve started to consider using these tools in my own future historical research about the social history of mental illness in America- to even just generate new questions. I can’t wait to get started. How could every historian incorporate spatial history in their research? Is it fruitful for every type of historian to employ these research methods?


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