The Humanities Are Going Digital & Spatial

Mapping the Salem Witch Trials Benjamin Ray, the director of the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive at the University of Virginia, wondered why witchcraft charges spread so rapidly and widely in 1692, affecting 156 people — 15 times more than in any other incident — across 25 communities in Essex County, Mass. When he plotted the accusations on a digital map that showed their progression over time, it struck him that the way in which they spread mimicked that of a disease. The image at right is a single screen shot taken from an interactive map that traces the sequence of accusations from February through November 1692. It shows the moment at which the accusations began to spread rapidly, when the Rev. George Burroughs was accused on April 20, 1692.

Every day brings increasing proof that the humanities are going digital and spatial.

As today’s NY Times article on digital maps of the Gettysburg battlefield points out, “advanced technology similar to Google Earth, MapQuest and the GPS systems used in millions of cars has made it possible to recreate a vanished landscape. This new generation of digital maps has given rise to an academic field known as spatial humanities. Historians, literary theorists, archaeologists and others are using Geographic Information Systems — software that displays and analyzes information related to a physical location — to re-examine real and fictional places like the villages around Salem, Mass., at the time of the witch trials; the Dust Bowl region devastated during the Great Depression; and the Eastcheap taverns where Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Prince Hal caroused.”

“Mapping spatial information reveals part of human history that otherwise we couldn’t possibly know,” said Anne Kelly Knowles, a geographer at Middlebury College in Vermont. “It enables you to see patterns and information that are literally invisible.” It adds layers of information to a map that can be added or taken off at will in various combinations; the same location can also be viewed back and forth over time at the click of a mouse.

On another front, David Rumsey, whose collection of more than 150,000 maps is one of the largest private map collections in the United States, recently announced his intention to donate it to the Stanford University Libraries for long-term preservation and scholarly access. With his growing online collection of more than 26,000 maps, available to all in high resolution and with expert cataloging, Rumsey is one of the most visible and important modern distributors of historical treasures for the common good. As Rumsey argued recently in his this week in his keynote address Reading Historical Maps Digitally: How Spatial Technologies Can Enable Close, Distant and Dynamic Interpretations to the Digital Humanities 2011 Conference

Maps are dense, complex information systems arranged spatially. While they share similarities with other visual artifacts, their uniqueness as spatially arranged visual information both allows for and demands special digital approaches to understand and reuse their content. Georeferencing, vectorization, virtual reality, image databases, and GIS-related tools all work to unite our eyes, minds, and computers in new ways that can make historical maps more valuable and accessible to humanists concerned with place and space over time.

Geographic Information Systems Help Scholars See History –

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