A Historian’s Guide to Making Use of GIS

According to Knowles’  Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship, despite of the fundamental characteristics of GIS that make it difficult for historians to use, the use of GIS will exponentially increase over the next decade. This is because GIS require expertise visual and mathematical characteristics, which “count[s] against the technology for many historians”, while they are nonetheless a powerful tool for mapping out datasets related to geographical locations. What is more, since history has become a logocentric study, and therefore prides itself the use of words and meanings to interpret an event, GIS seem alien. Closely related to this is that there is a divide between history and geography. The need to defend and justify one’s own area of expertise is evident, as historians and geography scholars distinguish themselves by studying the “when” versus the “where.”

In order to understand the reasoning behind using GIS in history, we must first define “historical GIS.” Knowles lists 4 characteristics:

  1. Questions related to geography drives historical inquiry.
  2. Historical evidence is driven by geographical evidence.
  3. Evidence is structured and analyzed within one or more databases. Such databases should record location and time.
  4. Historical arguments show patterns of change over time.

Therefore, the successful application of GIS in history includes the works of McCornick, who used GIS to find connections between people and locations of 300 AD to 900 AD Europe, as well as Seibert, who indicated urban boundaries and physical features of Edo-Tokyo.

What other historical inquiries could we come up with that require the use of geographical evidence? Here is some food for thought:

  • The relationship between economic centres and topography
  • The relationship between the evolution of social networks and geographical locations
  • The relationship between the likelihood of war against other states and natural geographical features/resources

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