- Historical GIS Research in Canada ed. by Jennifer Bonnell and Marcel Fortin
This is a collection of thirteen spatial-history projects of places in Canada, all by Canadian authors. The projects cover a nice range of scales, time periods, regions, and topics—everything from the membership of a single church in nineteenth-century Toronto to the development of the national electrical system over the last hundred years. The collection is split roughly evenly between urban and non-urban topics, and the authors mix demographic and environmental analysis in a variety of ways. Despite this diversity, the volume is nevertheless unified by a shared commitment to the promise of Historical GIS (Geographic Information Systems)—or more [End Page 1006] narrowly, the specific program ArcGIS (sharing interactive maps)—as a powerful new tool of research and communication. The general approach closely follows the precedents set over the last fifteen years by Richard White’s group at Stanford, Ian Gregory’s work in the United Kingdom, and the edited volumes by Anne Kelly Knowles.
The result is a good encapsulation of the current tensions in Historical GIS research. The broadest goal here is to pose new kinds of spatial questions and to revisit old questions with a new methodological lens, but the authors freely admit that much of their research is still preliminary. Part of the issue is that Historical GIS often relies on massive multipurpose databases, and these GIS infrastructure projects are still being assembled. But the larger concern is that GIS simply requires a lot of time and expertise, and the learning curve is steep. As a result, the emphasis so far—both in this book and elsewhere—has largely been at the level of digitizing and analyzing particular sources rather than making strong positive arguments.
Indeed, the main contribution of this volume is its many detailed examples of how to work with a variety of spatial sources, each of which poses its own challenges. Historical maps must be properly transformed in order to be overlaid and compared, census and immigration statistics must be matched with present-day place-names and analyzed for systematic bias, and aerial photographs must be carefully interpreted by a trained eye. There is no question that GIS can be invaluable—even indispensable—for extracting new information from this material, but it is also clear that these are difficult sources.
Although never stated so baldly in the book, the overall lesson seems to be that clever scripting or automation will go only so far, and good Historical GIS usually requires manual, brute-force analysis. This should not be surprising to anyone with experience in humanistic GIS, but it is still a useful reminder. Measuring changes in urban tree cover requires outlining the canopy of every tree, and connecting Chinese immigrants to their origins requires interviewing elderly Chinese relatives with knowledge of old place-names. Working with spatial sources also requires multidisciplinary collaboration among librarians, geographers, historians (both academic and public), and hard-working students. GIS is a powerful tool, but it requires patience.
This collection is also a useful reminder of two current shortcomings of Historical GIS. First, in-depth analysis of sources does not inevitably lead to new historical arguments. The authors make many interesting observations—some of which challenge prevailing interpretations, some of which do not—but these in turn only raise additional questions. For GIS to be truly useful, it must be combined with other methods, and the sources should be picked to match the questions, not the other way around. Second, by positioning Historical GIS as an exciting new research method, there is a risk of ignoring earlier work in historical geography and cartography. [End Page 1007] This is especially true here, since the multivolume Historical Atlas of Canada is widely acknowledged as one of the best historical atlases ever produced, and it is an important precedent for this collection’s approach to scale and landscape hybridity. Historical GIS would only be strengthened—both intellectually and institutionally—by seeing it as the successor to a...