Anne Kelly Knowles and Amy Hillier define Historical GIS (geographic information systems) as “an umbrella term covering the many ways researchers are using geospatial technologies and analytical techniques for historical research and teaching” (Placing History, XIII). Historical GIS, according to Knowles, encompasses aspects of geohistoire, historical geography, and spatial and digital history (7). Historical GIS can be used, for example, to examine and visualize landscapes and infrastructures, and connecting these landscapes and infrastructures to larger historical narratives and examinations. A great example of this is Geoff Cunfer’s exploration, in chapter four of Placing History (“Scaling the Dust Bowl”), of the causes of the Dust Bowl. Cunfer uses spatial analysis to demonstrate that the contributing factors to the Dust Bowl were not fully the product of the over-development of land as previously argued, but instead, he argues that the dust storms were “a normal part of southern plains ecology, occurring whenever there are extended dry periods” (118). Cufner’s use of spatial analysis of the Dust Bowl is also an example of what GIS has meant for the discipline of History and how it has changed historical scholarship. It has proven a way to examine data in different ways, and examine different types of data. Knowles’ project, “What Could Lee See at Gettysburg,” is also a great example of using a combination of maps and other materials to argue that Lee’s line of vision may not have been what it was once thought to be during the Battle of Gettysburg, demonstrating a new insight into the battle.
While Placing History discusses the implications of GIS for the discipline of History, I think in the last ten years since the book was first published the field of History has utilized GIS to the point where GIS and the use of GIS in the field of History does not necessarily have the obstacles or trepidation surrounding it as it may have had at that point in time. For example, Placing History argues there was an “absence of spatial questions in history” (288). However, I think more and more, spatial questions have become prevalent in the field. I think since the time Placing History was published over ten years ago, there have been a lot of strides in the field of History with GIS, the utilization of maps, and spatial data. Not only has this been demonstrated in Placing History with the projects from 2008, but also what projects, labs, courses, and more has come since then. The University of Central Florida’s Department of History is a great example of this. Not only is the certificate in GIS offered by the University encouraged, but digital tools like GIS are encouraged outside of the certificate as well.
In regards to the offering of the certificate in GIS, I think this brings up the value of teaching GIS, especially in the classroom. It is important to acknowledge that GIS does require learned skill sets, which without these skill sets, can pose challenges. However, these challenges can be met and conquered through collaboration, as well as through teaching GIS, whether in in GIS-specific classes or incorporating GIS in other courses. Teaching GIS teaches students (and others) new technical skills that further their research. Additionally, and as mentioned above, teaching GIS allows for learning new ways of thinking analytically and thinking analytically with the use of visuals. GIS allows for individuals to incorporate visuals to further their argument and research, like the Dust Bowl and General Lee projects. Without the visuals in both these projects, would it have given the same impact without the visualizations? I would argue likely it would not have been as impactful because the visuals are really a driving force behind the research and arguments of each project.
Hillier, Amy, and Anne Kelly Knowles. Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship. EsriPress, Inc., 2008.