Using Spatial History to Make a New Way of Seeing Maps (and History)

My topic for this discussion was maps but the articles I read for this discussion have to do with the use of computers to create spatial history. In the article “What is Spatial History?” Richard White presents the possibility of using computers to see history in a different way. He argues for the use of spatial history, which is literally seeing the same textual history in a new way. The main differences between spatial history and normal history White tells that:
Spatial history uses computers for collaborative work to tell larger historical stories.
It is mainly visual representations rather than text.
The use of computers is necessary.
It’s open ended and can be changed over time.
The focus is on space.

When White talks about space, he means in the most simplest way maps. It’s more complicated than that but essentially space here is the visual representation of a geographic area, which is best presented as maps. So in turn spatial history is presenting historical information and data on maps and other visual representations of space to tell a larger historical story. When history and maps are then combined, history then becomes more than just a story of an event, but the story of event over an area and over time. It becomes the history of a place through a certain time.

Spatial history is created, according to Richard White, through three different forms of space. These forms aren’t completely different and work together to create his idea of spatial history. There is spatial practice, which is human movement across locations. Then there’s representations of space, which is the visual representation of space. This would be normally a map or layout of buildings that show how we represent space. Finally there’s representational space, which is the space that has symbolic association or something is lived and experienced. White best explains this confusing concept as a religious building like a church. Something that is part of physical space but is also experienced or symbolic. When working in together and in tandem, these forms of space can best show a maps or visual areas history.

So then, when it comes to presenting spatial history, White looks to computers and new technology. Specifically GIS, a program that upon first glance may just seem like Google Earth, but is in fact a sophisticated way to layer information on a real world map. GIS’s ability to visually layer information over images of the real world make it a prime tool for the creation of spatial history. Geographic and historical maps, lines and data points can be overlaid on real world images to create a historical story in the real world. The best example presented in the article were sample layers on the history of Rio de Janeiro between the 1840s and 1870s. Over a real world image they added four layers:
A historical map of Rio de Janeiro
A digital street layer with geocoded addresses.
A layer showing property value contours
A 3D contour map of the hills of Rio de Janeiro
All together when laid over a geographic image of Rio de Janeiro, they create a detailed image of the city during the mid 1800’s and the property values of the cities buildings. It then becomes more than just a detailed map though, it creates a number of stories about the city, depending on what you’re looking for. All of the sudden it tells the stories of the various classes of Rio de Janeiro, where the live, and with more research how they lived.

With the idea of greater research we come to Whites final important point. He makes a point to note that spatial history is not just the creation of maps or visual images, but a means of doing research. He argues that the using spatial history to create these images creates new questions about history that otherwise would go unnoticed in normal textual history. That spatial history can reveal new information and ideas about the past that regular history couldn’t.

The second article, titled “Western Railroads and Eastern Capital: Regional Networks on Railroad Boards of Directors, 1872-1894”, is an example of spatial history at work. Given only a small three paragraph introduction about the nature of Eastern Boards of Directors controlling Western Railroad Companies, you are then thrown into a visual story. Your given a map of the United States that has been color coded based on a geographic area. Clicking on a specific geographic area reveals a plethora of information on that area’s relate to the topic. For example, clicking on New York (on the map it’s New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) reveals a network map of New York Directors to their corresponding Railroad Companies, a bar graph showing the number of New York Directors for each year between 1872 and 1894, and finally extra textual information on the most important New York Directors. In this sense, the map of the United States becomes not only a means of dividing the country into different areas, but a way of telling each area’s story in the greater topic presented. In turn when all the area’s stories are combined it hopes to make a full story of the control by rich men in the East over railroad companies on the West.

So after reading these articles I have three questions that I think would be good for discussion.

1.Does spatial history seem like a good way of telling an entire story or idea of history, or does it seem more like a visual way of backing up (or inspiring) a textual story?
2.Would spatial history be an easy way to teach history to younger generations or is it too complicated and only useful for historians?
3.Do you think spatial history will be accepted by most historians or is the regular way of presenting history too ingrained?