AHA Annual Meeting

Map Quests: Scaling the Past in the Digital Age

Chad Gaffield, October 2016

This year's annual meeting theme, "Historical Scale: Linking Levels of Experience," calls on historians to interrelate research approaches to people, communities, countries, and transnational regions. This ambition will surely inspire insights into the infinitely complex ways the specific interacts with the general across time and space. Although the AHA Program Committee stresses that sessions do not have to address each year's theme, "scale" offers historians a timely focus for promising conversations in Denver.

The unprecedented accessibility of digitized evidence and new digital tools is now allowing scholars to link levels of experience in multiple ways. Digital technologies are enabling an increasing number of scholars to consider historical change in light of the "spatial turn" that has become especially important in the rapidly developing approaches of digital history. Since historians have long used maps to support and illustrate interpretations of change over time and space, the appearance of digital technologies that assist in mapping might seem unremarkable. But several characteristics of historians' current engagement with spatial visualizations undermine this preconception.

In this map, George Mason University's Lincoln Mullen shows the distribution of Congregationalist churches in 1853. The red nodes represent congregations; the larger the congregation, the larger and darker the node. Lincoln Mullen/lincolnmullen.com/projects/asch-2015/ First, it is much easier to recognize place as actively contributing to historical experience, rather than serving as a passive or neutral stage. Historical geographer Anne K. Knowles has relentlessly championed this approach since the 1980s. She and a growing number of historians in fields ranging from microhistory to environmental history and migration studies have compellingly made clear "why we must make maps" in historical research.1 Now equipped with numerous digital tools and vast historical data applicable to multiple levels, historians are even better situated to explore the profound and dynamic implications of historical scale through digitally enabled analyses.2

Second, digital technology brings users closer to the experience of mapmaking itself, emphasizing that maps are not mirrors of reality but reflections of human culture. This insight informs not only scholarly assessment of historical maps as evidence, but also our own attempts to incorporate visual evidence in our writing. One result is increased critical and interpretive integration of academic traditions in the humanities and social sciences. While user-friendly Historical Geographic Information System (HGIS) tools invite everyone to make maps, years of intense scholarly and professional debate about cartography have taught us that mapmaking necessarily requires complex decisions about scale, content, and description. Thanks to the work of Susan Schulten and others, we have a better understanding of how "geographical imagination" has informed scholarly and public perceptions of the human and nonhuman environment.3

Third, digital scholarship has helped redefine mapping as an interpretive tool, a way to think through historical evidence. Digitally enabled historical research offers many possibilities for probing change over time at diverse scales that need not be fully determined in advance. Such possibilities provide historians many ways to reassess individual and collective experience around important features of daily life, such as official borders or climatic conditions.

For example, historian Steven Ruggles and his colleagues at the Minnesota Population Center have been building a major research infrastructure that now includes not only all persons enumerated in US censuses during the 19th and 20th centuries but also evidence on the individual level from countries around the world. With collaborators in Canada and elsewhere, this initiative has been linking the records of people across time and space, thereby encouraging unprecedented studies of historical scale, especially for North Atlantic societies.4

Similarly, digitally enabled research is enhancing our understanding of the causal direction of change, whether it's the top-down impact of public policies or the bottom-up spread of new cultural practices. More and more, efforts to integrate evidence from multiple sources in spatial representations enhance the sources' interpretive value. Such possibilities include, for example, new interpretations of the changing multi-level interrelationships of policy, climate, and farm families' strategies on the Great Plains of the United States.5

Yet challenges remain. Scholars are working hard to recognize and respond to the ways in which digitally mediated research includes both familiar and new dimensions. Informed, critical use of digital tools to interpret historical scale(s) is central to projects that geo-reference historical maps or create maps from evidence in documentary sources not created for this purpose. As scholars come to grips with the so-called data deluge, geo-referencing historical data allows them to benefit from mapmaking while they perform research. Linking sources of diverse provenance within and across societies requires sophisticated epistemological care and further illustrates the importance of drawing upon insights and experience across the humanities and social sciences.

In other disciplines, too, practitioners are accelerating their engagement with multi-level research through digitally mediated space. Indeed, historians in many professions now face stiff competition from other fields in the humanities and social sciences, as well as from the natural and health sciences. In the latter, much research moves explicitly from the individual to the societal and back.6 In light of the accessibility of digitized evidence, some historical research is attracting increased interest from the sciences, even inspiring interdisciplinary collaborations.

One impressive example resulted unexpectedly from a large-scale historical project led by Gérard Bouchard, who began reinterpreting the making of Québec by building a digital research infrastructure (named BALSAC). BALSAC mapped individual-level data about family and household within space, with the goal of including the entire population of the province since the settler society of the Saguenay region. The project soon attracted population geneticists who had helped pioneer the analysis of family trees for genetic markers pointing to possible public health issues among populations in specific areas, enhancing prevention opportunities.7

But for now, such large-scale research initiatives are exceptional. The current digital history landscape is mostly fragmented into one-off, short-term projects that reflect current funding levels as well as certain scholarly traditions. In contrast, diverse and connected historical research at multiple levels requires collaborative, long-term participations in a distributed, sustainable research infrastructure. In Europe, this need is being addressed to some extent by Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities (DARIAH-EU), in keeping with the conviction that coming to grips with historical scale is, after all, a collective scholarly ambition—one that this year's annual meeting attendees should reflect upon and highlight.8 The 2017 AHA annual meeting presents an ideal occasion to think through the importance of digital content and digitally mediated space for probing the ways in which individual lives have connected to others, both near and far.

In this sense, the annual meeting promises to contribute to a worldwide effort across research fields to reconcile a renewed appreciation of individual uniqueness and collective experiences with a more sophisticated understanding of small and large linkages of historical change. So let's convene in Denver to take a significant step forward in our historical knowledge and understanding by scaling the past in the Digital Age.

Chad Gaffield is Distinguished University Professor of History and University Research Chair in Digital Scholarship at the University of Ottawa (Canada). His recent publications include "The Surprising Ascendance of Digital Humanities: And Some Suggestions for an Uncertain Future," Digital Studies/Le champ numérique 6 (2015–16).


1. Anne K. Knowles, "Why We Must Make Maps: Historical Geography as a Visual Craft," Historical Geography 42 (2014): 3–26. The best introduction remains Am Hillier and Anne Kelly Knowles, eds., Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship (Redland: ESRI Press, 2008). Also see Ian N. Gregory and Paul S. Ell, Historical GIS: Technologies, Methodologies, and Scholarship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

2. For a valuable bibliography on Historical Geographic Information Systems (as well as other resources), see the website of the HGIS Lab at the University of Saskatchewan.

3. Susan Schulten's important work includes The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880–1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), and Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

4. For a recent example, see Peter Baskerville, Lisa Dillon, Kris Inwood, Evan Roberts, Steven Ruggles, Kevin Schurer, and John Robert Warren, "Mining Microdata: Economic Opportunity and Spatial Mobility in Britain and the United States, 1850–1881," Proceedings of the IEEE Big Data Humanities Workshop (2014), 5–13.

5. Kenneth M. Sylvester, Myron Gutmann, and Daniel G. Brown, "At the Margins: Agriculture, Subsidies and the Shifting Fate of North America's Native Grassland," Population and Environment 37, no. 3 (2016): 362–90.

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

7. Gérard Bouchard holds the Canada Research Chair in Collective Imaginaries and is professor of history and sociology at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi.

8. Humanities at Scale is the current initiative to expand and deepen DARIAH-EU's support for both individual and collaborative projects.

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