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Reviewed by:
  • Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship
  • Damon Yarnell (bio)
Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship. Edited by Anne Kelly Knowles. Digital supplement edited by Amy Hillier. Redlands, Calif.: ESRI Press, 2008. Pp. xx+310. $49.95.

Has GIS changed history? What does the future hold for historical GIS? The essays in this practical, provocative volume offer nuanced answers from a variety of perspectives in the geographic information systems community. On such core questions, however, the contributors agree: GIS has played a significant role in the so-called “spatial turn” across the social sciences, and the influence of GIS will continue to expand in the future—as GIS software grows more accessible, as digital infrastructure extends the digital domain, and as “generation Google Earth” builds careers in the academy.

Placing History presents work originally offered at the “History and Geography” conference at Chicago’s Newberry Library in March 2004. Reflecting the themes of the conference, editor Anne Kelly Knowles has organized the volume around two types of contributions, methodological essays and case studies. The methodological pieces range widely, but each covers its [End Page 256] territory in satisfying depth. Knowles recites a brief intellectual and technical history, documenting a diverse lineage that includes both Fernand Braudel and aerial photography. Robert Churchill and Amy Hillier explore the possibilities for GIS in liberal arts education, describing student projects on topics such as the “vicious geography” of urban prostitution and the social features of expressway construction. (Hillier is also the editor of an instructive companion CD-ROM. By focusing on the printed text I have perpetuated the very disciplinary divide Placing History seeks to bridge, since historians tend to privilege books and geographers engage more readily with visual media. Don’t let me lead you astray: explore the CD.) And Peter K. Bol describes some of the challenges he faced as the leader of the China Historical GIS project, an undertaking which encompassed more than 2,000 years of administrative history. In one particularly interesting section, Bol explains how he negotiated a potential conflict between Eurocentric values embedded in maps built out of bounded “polygons” and a Chinese spatial sensibility based on hierarchical “points” and “networks” (p. 29).

The case studies reflect the interests of some of the earliest adopters of historical GIS, scholars interested in land-use patterns. Here, the volume benefits from the contributions of Brian Donahue and Geoff Cunfer, both authors of award-winning monographs in the history of agriculture. Together, these chapters demonstrate how GIS can provide new insights on well-established historical topics. Donahue, for example, uses maps, land grants, and property deeds to build layered digital models which contradict the widespread opinion that colonial New Englanders were bad farmers. In place of inefficiency and waste, Donahue finds an intricate system of land distribution that was stable and well-suited to the local terrain. Cunfer’s project is likewise revisionist. He refutes arguments that have attributed the dust bowl of the 1930s to intensive cultivation or capitalist exploitation with a statistical survey of the historical expansion of cropland in the Great Plains. Cunfer demonstrates that the incidence of dust storms correlated not with “the big plow up” (p. 109) but rather with cycles of drought, a finding he buttresses with a cache of eyewitness dust-bowl accounts dating to the 1850s.

As these chapters suggest, Placing History will offer immediate interest to agricultural and environmental historians. Recent essays in this journal by J. L. Anderson, William Boyd, and others demonstrate the vitality such scholarship offers historians of technology. Likewise, specialists in urban history and infrastructure will find much of value here. Statistical mapping is well established in urban studies, and urbanists—including Amy Hillier—have published GIS studies in the Journal of Urban History. (Indeed, Shannon Jackson examined the influence of GIS in urban planning in the April 2008 issue of Technology and Culture.)

Two other audiences may also turn profitably to Placing History. Specialists in information technology will find a lively dialogue among expert [End Page 257] practitioners. Chapters by Ian Gregory and Michael Goodchild, in particular, delve into technical aspects of GIS work...


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