Online Musings of a Public Historian

Posts tagged ‘Digital Media’

There’s a Map for That: Spatial History in the Digital Age

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?

Review: Biography Through a Digital Lens

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2003; 343 pp.

Homepage for the Creation of Anne Boleyn website,

Homepage for the Creation of Anne Boleyn website,

  Most scholarly works on Anne Boleyn are biographical ones, tracing the details of her life (with particular emphasis on her time as Queen of England and her death by beheading) through the consultation of various primary sources: letters, diaries, documents of state, et cetera. Drawing upon a mixture of traditional “hard” primary sources and modern digital-based methodologies,  Susan Bordo’s The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen brings a fresh angle to the already dense body of literature surrounding the elusive personage embodied by Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII and mother of Queen Elizabeth I. 

The Creation of Anne Boleyn differs from the traditional narrative model in Bordo’s examination of both Anne’s life and the changing cultural representations of her as society evolves. Divided into three parts, the book begins with Bordo’s own retelling of Anne Boleyn’s experience.  Here, she examines the usual batch of primary sources used by scholars and fiction authors alike, coupled with an investigation into the manner by which such individuals manipulate these sources to present a specific image of Anne to their audience.  Next, Bordo includes a second section exploring the shifting representations of Anne’s character in popular culture, from contemporary accounts through the first half of the twentieth century. Picking up where the previous section leaves off, the final chapters of The Creation of Anne Boleyn focus on popular notions on Anne in late-twentieth and early twenty-first century society, specifically her portrayal via film and online.

From inception to publication, The Creation of Anne Boleyn serves as an exemplary representation of the digitized research process.  The project’s origin within an email correspondence between Bordo and an English journalist (Bordo xii) is, itself, indicative of the increasingly expansive influence of digital media in modern scholarship.  As an American author writing on an English subject, Bordo conducted much of her research digitally via online communication and database collections of images, text transcriptions, and articles (Bordo, 117).  The book itself is accompanied by both a Facebook page and a WordPress blog, meant to chronicle the research and production processes, as well as provide a forum for readers to contribute to discussions and offer feedback.  This use of social media as a means of directly connecting with the public allowed Bordo to work collaboratively with her audience, and to incorporate their input into the final product.

Bordo’s extensive use of digital tools in The Creation of Anne Boleyn puts a unique spin on the traditional narrative featured in most other scholarship surrounding Anne Boleyn.  In fact, the completion of the book itself would have been considerably more difficult without the aid of digital media.  Some of Bordo’s strongest writing features in her analysis of the perpetually-changing cultural representations of Anne over time.  Much of that research involved watching a number of films about Anne (many of which are, I’m sure, are available for viewing or rental on streaming sits such as Netflix) perusing other popular blogs and websites, and online interactions with audience members, whether in the form of formal interviews or casual Facebook conversations.  The wide variety of digital means through which scholars can connect more easily not only with their topic of research, but also with the public, opens several new doors in terms of the production and presentation of scholarly works.  With its combination of such digital aides and traditional methodologies, The Creation of Anne Boleyn offers readers a glimpse into what increased digitization holds in store for the research process, along with an interesting view of the production and publication of scholarly works in the modern digital age.