Geo-Mapping and spatial thinking in the humanities

Below you will find a polished collection of “field notes” taken while researching Geo-mapping and spatial thinking in Dr. Purcell and Dr. Pandora’s Intro to Digital Humanities course at the University of Oklahoma. Consider the questions of the applicability of geographical thinking in humanities research and the potential benefits of visually presenting information. A later post will focus specifically on visualization, and will hopefully fill in a few of the gaps found in this paper.

Geo-mapping and the Spatial Turn in Humanistic Thinking


Our Reading(s)

Of the required/suggested reading for the unit, I’m most interested in Anne Knowles’ work with mapping Gettysburg from the point of view of General Lee and her work with mapping concentration camp formation during the Holocaust. In the New York Times article “Digital Maps Are Giving Scholars the Historical Lay of the Land”  Knowles states “Mapping spatial information reveals part of human history that otherwise we couldn’t possibly know,” When Knowles visited she posited that one cannot trust any kind of information to reveal itself entirely. These statements taken together speak to her position on the positive aspects of the digital shift in the humanities, but what about the cons?

During her visit Knowles touched briefly on some of the negative issues associated with mapping tragedy. When she mapped Gettysburg she humanized General Lee, or at the very least made his decisions better understood. When she mapped concentration camps, however, she needed to account for more than the perspective of an individual, she needed to collect data to visually represent the growth and shrinkage of the camps in their respective territories, and this required some reduction. And so we see an issue with the interaction of problem and solution. Though she provided an animated map of the concentration camps that nicely showed the growth and shrinkage of main camps and sub-camps (change over time) it also dehumanized the content. How do we remedy that? According to Knowles one way to better represent the complexity of historical events is to present your information in multiple ways. And she did just that, showing us various artists depictions of the same historical incident, some more geographic and some more artistic, this added a much needed human touch to the project. Furthermore, in Geographies of the Holocaust, edited by Knowles and her colleagues, it is stated that in their research they “…began with the broad spatial expansion of camps… first focusing on specific periods identified in Holocaust scholarship, and then on the relationship between the opening of new main camps and the Reich’s shifting political relationships.” Mentioned too are the spatial mapping of gender and the use of forced labor, each referred to as distinct geographies that raise more historical questions.  In this way she allowed room for a convergence of space (abstraction), place (specific), and time (duration).

More Reading and some Lab Work

Though we can view information, collect it, analyze it, and share it, for what reasons(s) do we endeavor to? This is a question of the generative and philosophical natures of the humanities. We question to answer, answers bring even more complex questions, we then adjust and change our methods to answer and question again. In this way we act in a sort of loop-of-growth. A quote that speaks to this point can be found in the selections we read from the book Digital_Humanities: “Digital Humanities is a production-based endeavor in which theoretical issues get tested in the design of implementations, and implementations are loci of theoretical reflection and elaboration.” (Burdick et al. 13) And so, it would seem, we’ve established a reasoning for generating methods to approach question and answer, but what about the intent? Professor Purcell spoke about politics as they relate to map making, asking us to consider what that means with regard to the relationship between map maker and end-user, as well as the effect of editorial control in the process as a whole. If ideology and control have influenced the record of history, and has with maps drawn up by victors or power holders effectively rewritten or irrevocably changed our understanding of history, then it stands to reason that the same may be, and probably is, happening with digital mapping in the humanities. Though I’m no expert, it strikes me that the power of the individual to access and collaborate might be changing the power of the influences mentioned above.

As I’ve learned to appreciate scale as it relates to maps and information throughout the course, I’ve also begun to appreciate the shift in the scales that tend to tip in favor of those with power. Now, many have a chance to speak out against or speak for things that went overlooked because of the isolation of influence in the past. When we took part in georefrencing during our lab I seem to remember Mr. Widener mention the gradual change of long-held names of geographical locations, specifically those with negative racial/social connotations. Though this might be a stretch, it seems likely to me that with the ease of access to tools like GIS that issues like these might more quickly become a thing of the past. (Of course, that would imply that people knew about the tools and cared enough to do the research, and then cared enough after the research to approach those in power to have the issues resolved, but either way the avenue is now open to those with a computer and a connection.) A quote that I think speaks to the power of this area of study in a positive light comes again from the book Digital_Humanities:“…we see this moment as marking a fundamental shift in the perception of the core creative activities of being human in which the values and knowledge of the humanities are seen as crucial for shaping every domain of culture and society.” (Burdick et al.13)

More on the Lab Work

Moving to rectification, I’d like to assess the utility of GIS as I understand it now, which is to say not very well. While in the computer lab, attempting to stretch one of Rumsey’s maps to fit over modern North America, I was enraged by my inability to do it, and almost euphoric when I got it done. Perhaps the sense of accomplishment made me pay more attention, perhaps not, but at any rate I was quite impressed by what I saw. The accuracy of the older map was astonishing considering the time from which it came. GIS as a tool for marking changes in visual representation of the spatial/geographical over time seems indispensable. Though I’m not sure what I could have done with the information gleaned from our lab work, I do see the potential for further exploration. Paul Veith and another classmate mentioned ancient Chinese maps and their emphasis on symbolism as opposed to accuracy. For further research into georectification I’d enjoy attempting to use one of these ancient maps to compare and contrast the representations of modern mapping and old. I don’t have a point here, I’m just interested and respect the tool.


            I’ve rewritten this paper once, and I’ve edited it about four times to try and make it more personal and to make sure it flows well. I’m not sure that I’ve accomplished either task. I even tried mapping the paper, starting with a simple model of a central point surrounded by concentric rings, each ring representing a major stopping or starting point, smaller rings within each of those rings meant to represent my personal additions to the body, and an outer ring, thicker than the others, representing this conclusion. I broke away from attempting to use that, but aspects of the effort are still intact. One reason for the rewrite involved my attempt to separate my analysis of the writing from the body, isolating it to the conclusion. It read dry and monotonous, and that’s not me (I hope). In this way the mapping helped, it helped me realize that the circles had gaps that I could fill with humor or substance at my discretion. It allowed me to take more seriously the points I was trying to make without sacrificing the reflection aspect. And that brings me to how I think I can apply what we’ve learned to what I want to do with my life, that being fiction writing.

When Anne Knowles showed us her students work, the emotional mapping of a man’s diary written during the holocaust, I was awed. Not in the silly I’m-writing-this-for-filler kind of way, the real kind, the left breathless kind. Before taking part in this class I never really thought about geography or spatial visualization. Sure, I had heard of thought maps, but I’d never once considered that I could use visual representation of both the physical and emotional to benefit my writing (I hate outlines, too). But the spatial turn got me thinking. So, prompted by our research, I began a story that I will map as I write, and then again when I’m completed. In the same way that we map to account for and track the growth of an urban area, or to account for and track the diminution or growth of a body of water, so too can we map to reflect the development of a character within a story. By visually mapping the growth of several characters, taking into consideration their geographical and conceptual locations within the story, we can note moments of overlap or recession, benefitting the story as a whole by maintaining the structure while writing and by omitting or editing where appropriate once completed. Geospatial thinking can really benefit in any area of study or personal thought by providing scope and allowing me to commit to theoretical reflection and elaboration of concepts I may well have overlooked, not understood fully, or simply not noticed.







Works Cited

Knowles, Anne Kelly. Geographies of the Holocaust. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Burdick, Anne. Digital Humanities. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2012. Print.

Cohen, Patricia. “Digital Maps Are Giving Scholars the Historical Lay of the Land.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 July 2011. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.

“DiRT Directory.” Ushahidi Platform. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2015



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