VUW Spatial History Workshop (7 July 2012)

Last Saturday I attended a spatial history workshop organized by Sydney Shep, Marsden scholar, book historian and printer at Victoria University of Wellington. Geography is not a field I know much about, but I do recognize the parallels between representing complex or vague geographic phenomena and, say, incomplete historical data sets. I’m also deeply interested in both the spread of specialized knowledge and new ways of describing knowledge networks to academic and lay audiences. (This 2010 guest post for my husband’s blog on data visualization probably best illustrates my extremely limited relevant experience.) Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to learn from the wisdom of others and hope to pass on some highlights from a fascinating and inspiring day.

The very phrase ‘spatial history’ evokes the problematic way we tend to view history and geography as disparate subjects: as though study of the past does not out of necessity examine the intersection of time and place. That is, both historians and geographers concern themselves with change, measurable in space with the passage of time. All history has a spatial component. In his 2007 article, “Placing the Past: ‘Groundwork’ for a Spatial Theory of History” (Rethinking History 11.4), Philip J. Ethington argues that

All human action takes and makes place. The past is the set of places made by human action. History is a map of these places.

The past thus exists not in time but in space. Shep’s opening and closing talks emphasized the need to connect narrative and qualitative experience with quantitative information. When we talk about space, she notes, we need to preserve why it’s worth talking about — acknowledging the connection between location and identity. Brief presentations throughout the day reinforced these points. A quick rundown with links:

Ocean Mercier, a lecturer at Te Kawa a Maui, the School of Maori Studies at VUW, discussed introducing basic GIS skills to first- and second-year university students and the subsequent development of a digital atlas, which documents their work. Mercier says that the students arrive prepared to critique maps and identify their shortcomings (whether technological or otherwise). They’re accustomed to finding their own (hi)stories mis- or under-represented, if they appear at all. Proposed ideas include the notion of mapping through song: how might this look, or sound?

Fellow VUW history postgrad Alexey Krichtal described his research into the Liverpool cotton trade in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. His data set is remarkable; because most pre-1819 Port of Liverpool books have not survived, Krichtal has relied upon newspaper sources. Only two years out of the forty-five he’s examining are missing. With the logs for approximately ten thousand ships among his primary sources, Krichtal recognizes the centrality of geography to his research, which encompasses Portugal, the west coast of Africa, Brazil, the West Indies and southern and eastern U.S. ports in addition to Liverpool. His challenge is to incorporate tables and maps that convey the scope and variety of the trade without diminishing underlying meaning. He hopes to showcase, for instance, seasonal patterns and common shipping routes, as well as significant changes, like the way Portugal’s role in the cotton trade essentially disappeared after Napoleon invaded that nation. How does a commodity in motion define place? This question led to a brief discussion of commodity biographies such as Mark Kurlansky’s Salt that lend agency to inanimate objects.

History Programme Senior Lecturer Simone Gigliotti is one of nine academics working on Geographies of the Holocaust, a U.S. National Science Foundation-funded project that attempts to combine quantitative data and qualitative experiences, extrapolating from fragmented data to create a narrative. One aspect looks at the displacement of Auschwitz inmates over a four-day period after being liberated by the Red Army, asking whether we can map the experience of suffering. What can we know with certainty about the experiences of these people? Another part of the project examines the Budapest ghetto, which was unusual in bringing the ghetto to the people rather than the reverse. The visualizations for Geographies of the Holocaust are well worth a look, as they explore symbology in a loaded context and answer very challenging questions. When, for example, does an evacuation become a death march? Is it a spatial or temporal process? One striking but problematic representation of the gradations of experience depicts changing comfort levels as people moved between places.

Gigliotti’s presentation really highlighted for me the critical importance of the relationship between visual representations and written research. These images are not meant to be standalone expressions of complicated ideas, but instead should work in tandem to assist understanding and promote the sharing of knowledge. Their utility in storytelling is undeniable, but it’s also important to recognize the variability of visualizations: familiar formats like maps find us on solid ground, whereas newer forms of expression may require a ‘settling in’ period before we comprehend them fully. Gigliotti referenced the Spatial History Project at Stanford, citing the need to contest academic assumptions and develop new conclusions. This is particularly crucial when considering an event as complex and emotionally fraught as the Holocaust, when the act of commemoration so often supplants historical representation.

Mairéad de Róiste, a geography lecturer and GIS specialist at VUW, described her experience working with two farming families on New Zealand’s east coast before running a session on geo-rectifying historical maps. It sometimes feels like academics have a tendency to devalue non-scholarly knowledge, so I found her emphasis on personal relationships unexpected and inspiring. De Róiste respected the familiarity of the farmers with their own land, its geography and challenges — like the steep southern slopes that become boggy in the colder months — and treated GIS as a support tool. Theirs was an open dialogue that recognized the value of different types of knowledge in an effort to illuminate hidden histories and understand the processes that led to what we see now. Just as changing the colors used in a map’s legend can identify blind spots, communicating with other perspectives results in unexpected conclusions.

Simon Burrows, professor of modern European history at the University of Leeds, discussed his role in organizing and executing the STN Project, which maps the French book trade across Europe between 1769 and 1794 utilizing the business records of Swiss publishing house STN. It was a treat to gain insight into the planning process behind an online database that geographically (and politically) links together books, events and clients/booksellers. Burrows and his colleagues opted for a two-tiered-plus system that allows STN users to search by lower territories (e.g. provinces) and sovereign territories (countries), but also overlying categories such as the Holy Roman Empire, ecclesiastical lands and papal territories, even the category of university towns which the book trade would have favored. They dealt with distortions and gaps in the data by allowing numerous options — illegal trade, gender, place of origin, original language/translations — as filters. Burrows describes STN as an interpretational-relational database, noting that the very act of reading data often requires interpretation. The STN Project is designed to accommodate those layers of uncertainty.

It’s a pretty incredible resource, and I recommend clicking on the link and exploring it yourself. It’s possible to browse, say, alchemical works and compare with associated keywords — distillation, books of secrets and medical remedies all pop up. Here’s a comparison of alchemy and chemistry book sales. (Other categories include ‘amorous adventures’ and ‘futuristic tales.’) You can also update options to reflect only female and mixed-gender booksellers. I was surprised by how many women were involved in the book trade as head of business.

Finally, Ross Woods, a literary critic and lecturer in Spanish at VUW, discussed his recent experiences at the (Canadian) University of Victoria’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute. His particular interest is in the relationship between literary landscapes and mapping culture. Woods approaches literature as everything that has been published, not merely what critics define as literature. He claims, for instance, that mapping the path of Don Quixote would not constitute literary criticism. But what would? At the heart of his work is the belief that every story is a spatial practice.

Maps are part of the creative process, oftentimes preceding the texts for which they serve as references — or inspiration. This brought to mind one of my favorite works of literature and labors of love, Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, about which I’m proud and slightly ashamed to say I know more than many countries that exist in our world. But how does this relate to digital storytelling? Woods proposed an assignment whereby students analyze a text and produce not an essay but a map that conveys the same information. Given what I wrote above on the symbiosis of visual and written research, I think that, ideally, this task would incorporate both and offer more insight than an essay alone.

Woods suggests that digital resources are more suited to large-scale bibliographic work than deep reading of individual texts. Extraction of linguistic data is one rather objective example; comparing authorial and literary geography, by contrast, is a good deal more subjective. But take, for example, geography within picaresque travel literature or voyaging/expeditionary tales. How might we represent patterns or themes within these genres? How does cartographic representation complement and contribute to other means of expressing these relationships? Woods hopes it would lead to different ways of thinking about the texts as well as their contexts — the environments that produced them. Other thought experiments included the possibility of book covers as semiotic translations of their content. This was attempted with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; I have to confess that I think this is attainable only on the individual level — that is, someone could create a semiotic cover translation of a book that perfectly maps onto that person’s understanding and interpretation of the book in question. Exercises such as this give us the opportunity to bypass traditional iconography and thwart visual expectations, removing tropes and gaining new perspective on literary content.

The projects we learned about on Saturday ran the gamut of cartographic intent. They ranged from the still-private development of ideas — like my husband’s audio-geotagging experiment from a few years back — to fully realized databases suitable for public consumption. And all benefit from a close examination of the final goal at each step of the process: What do you, the creator/planner/organizer, hope to achieve with this? When incorporating spatial history or any other aspect of what we now call digital humanities, it’s vital to remain faithful to the narrative dimension, to unpack the meaning of each visual representation. What is this visualization actually telling me? What does it add to the information it contains?

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One Response to VUW Spatial History Workshop (7 July 2012)

  1. Pingback: Spatial History down under | frenchbooktrade

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