Mapping Out a New Methodology to Study History

Redlands, California — Did poor farming practices cause the Dust Bowl in the 1930s? Was yeoman farming in colonial Concord, Massachusetts, environmentally unsou…
Redlands, California — Did poor farming practices cause the Dust Bowl in the 1930s? Was yeoman farming in colonial Concord, Massachusetts, environmentally unsound? What could Confederate general Robert E. Lee see at Gettysburg from where he stood? Historians and history students can consider these intriguing questions and others using geographic information system (GIS) technology, said Anne Kelly Knowles, editor of Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship. The book contains five essays that cover issues such as the advantages and challenges of using GIS to study history; why it’s important to apply spatial statistics when working with GIS; and how future historical research may be supported through the use of object-oriented databases, which better handle information related to time and space.Five scholars describe in case studies how they’re using GIS to study different aspects of history such as the 1930s Dust Bowl in the American Great Plains, the Civil War battle of Gettysburg in 1863, China from 222 B.C. to 1911 A.D., and even colonial New England husbandry. The book comes with a CD-ROM to help introduce students to GIS in historical scholarship and includes PowerPoint presentations, videos, GIS projects, and map layers. The book also includes GIS software, ArcExplorer—Java Edition for Education, which can be used in conjunction with the GIS projects.Placing History aims to inspire professors, students, and professionals in history-related fields to think geographically about the past and to imagine how GIS might help them pursue interesting questions. “What we hope both the essays and the CD will do is show everyone how vivid history can be when you apply geospatial methods to studying it,” said Knowles, an associate professor of geography at Middlebury College in Vermont.Amy Hillier, editor of the digital supplement, said she and Knowles wanted Placing History to provide hands-on GIS experience, too.“Ultimately, GIS is something that you sit down and do,” Hillier said. “You can read about it and you can write up your results. But to do historical mapping, you really need to make maps. We have enough information for people to do some basic GIS exercises. Most people already have rich data. We want to show them how they can start to think spatially and how the tools work, so they will go out and turn their own data into map layers and make their own maps.”The case studies provide fascinating examples of what can be learned using GIS. For instance, Knowles and her research assistants at Middlebury College used a GIS method called viewshed analysis to create a digital landscape that helped them simulate what Lee, who led the Confederate army, could see of the battlefield at Gettysburg from various vantage points such as the Lutheran Seminary cupola.In another case study, historian Geoff Cunfer questioned the commonly held assumption that the Dust Bowl was mainly caused by farmers plowing up fields in the 1920s, stripping away sod that protected the topsoil. Using GIS to study a wide region, he found that dust storms also occurred in areas where the land was uncultivated. Cunfer concluded that the storms are a normal part of the plains ecology, occurring during extended dry periods.“What [Cunfer] found by using GIS to study weather and soil conditions and population and many other factors . . . was that the dust storms were most severe, concentrated, and regular in the areas that had the most severe drought,” Knowles said. “Farming had the weakest relationship to the incidence of dust storms.”Knowles is a historical geographer who has edited volumes of essays on historical GIS including Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History (ESRI Press, 2002). Her first book, Calvinists Incorporated: Welsh Immigrants on Ohio’s Industrial Frontier, was a study of the influence of Welsh Calvinist religion on immigrants’ involvement in American capitalism. She is now writing Hard as Iron: Geography, Labor, and Technology in the Struggle to Modernize the U.S. Iron Industry, 1800–1868.Hillier is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, where she teaches courses on the application of GIS in city planning, urban studies, and social work. Her research has focused on GIS applications in redlining and housing discrimination, affordable housing, and public health. She has published articles in the Journal of Housing, Journal of Urban History, Journal of Planning History, and Pennsylvania History.Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship (ISBN: 978-1-58948-013-1, 336 pages, $49.95) is available at online retailers worldwide, at www.esri.com/esripress, or by calling 1-800-447-9778. Outside the United States, contact your local ESRI distributor. Visit www.esri.com/distributors for a current distributor list. Interested retailers can contact ESRI Press book distributor Ingram Publisher Services.

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Posted on: 07 January 2008 • 11:44am

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