Online Musings of a Public Historian

For centuries, maps have been consistently viewed as valuable resources in performing historic studies.  Moving beyond the more traditional functions of tracing boundaries and locating specific sites or landmarks, practitioners of spatial history use maps and the information presented within them not as supplemental source material, but as a means of adding additional perspective in examining the past.

In his essay on Stanford University’s Spatial History Project, Richard White describes the basic premise of spatial history as

“the sense that changing spatial patterns…best explain the pattern of changes [within a given space] over time.”

This mindset regarding the study of history through examining the power of place has long existed within academia,  as illustrated by the works of 19th century engineer Charles Minard, particularly his map tracing the progress (and deterioration) of Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1861:

Charles Minard's Carte Figurative of Napoloeon's 1861 March on Russia

Charles Minard’s Carte Figurative of Napoloeon’s 1861 March on Russia.

In recent decades, technological advances and the increasing availability of digital tools have assisted in expanding the field’s capabilities.  Imaging software, GPS services, and countless other innovations allow spatial historians to examine a variety of sources, from the geography of the moon to the spread of McDonald’s restaurants throughout the United States.

Study of colors present on the moon's surface

Study of colors present on the moon’s surface.

The Contiguous United States, visualized by distance to the nearest McDonald's.

The Contiguous United States, visualized by distance to the nearest McDonald’s.

Spatial history certainly adds unique perspective to our understanding of the relationship between space and time.  Through studying maps, whether contemporary or historic, digital or traditional, we can gain incredible insight into the attitudes prominent in a given time period and the manner in which humans view and measure their surroundings.  Of course, spatial tools of study( (like all source materials) inevitably have their flaw, particularly  their potential for manipulation and inaccuracy.  As such, while clearly a useful and continuously advancing methodology, spatial studies are at their most effective when used in conjunction with other tools.

What do you think? What can we learn from maps that we cannot from solely looking at text? Does spatial history assist us in gaining a more accurate understanding of the past?

Comments on: "There’s a Map for That: Spatial History in the Digital Age" (3)

  1. EricAtAmerican said:

    Great post. You tweeted not too long ago of a video that showed the changing European borders. This can tell us, with little context, of the relationships between countries that have persisted for 1,000 years.

  2. I am curious whether you think spatial history is more subject to manipulation and inaccuracy? Can you point to an example? Also, how do you think it may tranform the way we think about the past?

  3. Alex, you say that “As such, while clearly a useful and continuously advancing methodology, spatial studies are at their most effective when used in conjunction with other tools.” Do you think that maps need that extra layer of interpretation/scholarship in order to fully function as digital tools? Or can maps stand out on their own? For example, would the map of Napoleon’s army be unhelpful without all of the explanation text, or do you think it could function with just the numbers and labels?

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