Spatial history analyzes how people move. Instead of time being the conceptual focus of historians, spatial studies investigate how people move, use, create, and designate space for different purposes.
While not a new area of study for historians, spatial history in large part takes backseat to the study of temporal, or time based studies. Commonsensical enough, history is rooted in temporal studies, changes in things over time. But spatial history continues to be an area of discussion. Maps, graphs and charts popularized in the twentieth century introduced the spatial analysis and a sense of geographical awareness that was inconsequential to the Rankean, traditional-political narratives of history.
Digital programs provide movement to maps, graphs and charts that more accurately show temporal and spatial change in a region or other geographical location. Rather than a single, static map, digital technology can create ones that move, fluctuate and become a better visual representation of a concept than a flat, 2-D chart or graph. Dr. Burton is working on a project with Jonathon Hepworth, a current Master’s student, conducting a study on the migration patterns of Southerners amongst different areas in the South. The map is largely digital and combines temporal and spatial analysis of the South as a region. Most important, the project uses new technology to visualize these changes over time and raises questions of why southerners are moving, where they are going, why they choose to stay in the South, amongst others. The visualization and the project in general, stimulates discussion, interpretation and analysis.
A large component of digital history is visualizing concepts and drawing conclusions among those concepts. I do agree with Dr. White’s conclusion that digital history is essential in providing a new research methodology to spatial analysis, but I feel he downplays that digital history is not only about making things visual, I believe that the visual element makes it more accessible to non-scholars and opens up the field to new viewpoints, interpretations, and can better communicate information to those unfamiliar with graphs, charts, etc. In large part it is about redefining or adding more to illustrations to make them more easily communicable.
Programs like HyperCities emphasize region, namely population centers. These open collaborative tools are valuable to new interpretations by determining distinctive regional characteristics and provide comparison between cities around the world with different economic, political, cultural, social conditions amongst others. It also allows people to contribute to historical conversation at the local level. Again, technology aimed to provide more voices to historical conversations. An interesting aspect are the challenges to sustaining a program such as HyperCities, surprisingly, technological limitations abound with the increase of popularity and the more people use the program present challenges to the sustainability to the program. Certainly a supercomputing center can address these challenges but I was most taken aback by using a private company, e.g., Google, that after a period of hosting the information is either rolled over to property of Google or lost without a way to back it up. What it shows is the importance of supercomputing in the future, that large collaborative programs will need to be technologically supported for. Additionally, any worry of an oversharing, or redundant information due to the open nature of contributors is kept in check by an editorial board. Certainly this is an organization that caters to the professional historians when it comes to value and quality of information.
The development of programs like ARCGIS and Google Earth have made spatial history a more prominent area for collaboration throughout multiple disciplines. The 2009 GISHSS brought to light a more critical approach to spatial studies that emphasized cross discipline collaboration and the application of the same technologies to serve several, differing fields. These different fields can be set to serve not only historical functions, but evidence for current issues of people, place and time, and serve to highlight areas of deficiency. For example, looking at neighborhood income averages in relation to health care costs and availability. These types of studies can show present problems and shift government policy to fixing these issues.
Critical spatial thinking is addressed in easily to handle technologies. Digital advancements to better visualize spatial information can more easily be interpreted by the viewer which then translates to a better application of understanding spatial information in general. Geographers Goodchild and Janelle highlight the lack of critical spacial thinking by students. However, some of the issues I think can be placated by more easily accessible geography and spacial analytical tools, e.g., ARCGIS, Google Earth, etc. While I do acknowledge ARCGIS can be confusing and clunky, these tools can be used to simplify programs and lower level spatial problems to help students begin to understand more spatially. Certainly I think some of these things are developed in graduate school and in terms of American history, I think regional studies of the United States are even studied at the undergraduate level. Understanding the U.S. as a nation of regional differences is fundamental to understanding its history. I certainly agree with Fairchild and Janelle’s conclusion that critical spatial thinking is important, yet I think the way to teach how to think this way is being developed in the programs outlined above. Additionally, the current and to some extent previous generations’ exposure to visualization of digital technologies assist in thinking more critically, thus, the more technologically savvy generations are picking up on modes of thinking subconsciously while exploring digital-visual-graphic representations of documents, maps, and those forms of learning are being applied to other more traditionally temporal modes of thought.