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For decades, the "spatial turn" has shaped and been shaped by the thinking of scholars and students in American studies in regard to the production, meaning, and experience of space and place. The "digital turn" soon followed and intertwined with the previous twist: "The recent embrace of GIS and other digital tools by the traditionally technology-averse disciplines of English and history is connected to the theoretical recognition of the importance of spatiality."1 Thousands of mapping projects using geographic information systems in the digital humanities have become increasingly online, interactive, and critical over the years.2 What is the state of GIS in the digital humanities, and what is next? In other words, where are we? And where can we go from here?

Geographic information systems can best be described as computer software to design maps and the spatial analysis of geospatial data, that is data that include a location.3 GIS is therefore a tool used to produce maps and not a method unto itself; to describe GIS as a method implies that the software will collect the data and evidence for the research project and conduct the analysis. The display and analysis of geospatial data (i.e., data that include a location) revolve around the selection and application of colors, symbols, and spatial statistics to identify patterns, themes, and trends. While the term spatial humanities has sometimes been used to describe the use of GIS in the digital humanities, it also evokes a broader meaning of the study of geography in the humanities. I use the term DH GIS to refer specifically to GIS in the digital humanities.4

The approach of GIS projects in the digital humanities often repeats Karen Kemp and Ruth Mostern's assertion that GIS was designed in a way to require "scholars to change their methods to suit technology, rather than making the technology work for them."5 In this brief essay, I draw on my experience as a cultural geographer and digital humanist to address what I identify as the five major issues/possibilities for the state of DH GIS. I build these five points from examples of DH GIS. The purpose of digital humanities is not merely the production of data visualizations or archives alone but the critical production [End Page 641] and analysis of these materials. As such, I argue that digital humanities scholars in American studies are in a unique position to contribute to the growth and development of GIS and, in so doing, the growth of spatial thinking in and beyond the humanities.

Reworking GIS beyond the Military and Corporate Industrial Complexes

As Caren Kaplan and others have noted, GIS was created as a military technology and is now also equally embraced as a tool to further capitalism:

Two primary ways in which militarization operates in U.S. contemporary culture are the pervasive use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the primary model of data collection, sorting, and storage in use for over thirty years, and the practice of so-called target marketing, a geographically based form of classifying neighborhoods through subsets of demographic information.6

Building from Kaplan's arguments, Siva Vaidhyanathan carries this point farther and adds that "technologies that we purchase as tools of access, choice, opportunity, and freedom, Kaplan asserts, actually acculturate us to an invisible rigidity by keeping us always logged on, always present and accounted for."7 Collection of mobile geospatial data has transformed target marketing to what you have bought, liked, posted, and read. In 2017 Republican members of Congress introduced bills that would prohibit the collection, storage, access, and distribution of geospatial data regarding race or public housing, including the US Census.8 The ASA and other organizations signed statements condemning these bills, which have not passed.9 Corporations the likes of Target also issued complaints, as they rely on geospatial data to map and, therefore, spatially profile target markets, using race, class, gender, and other census data, as well as data from other sources.10

I add that choosing to accept the affordances and design of GIS-as-is only replicates the militarization and corporatization for which this software was created. The University of Richmond's Digital Scholarship Lab's "Renewing Inequality" website includes maps, graphs, and videos of oral histories regarding the racist and classist history of urban renewal.11 The collaboratively developed companion site, "Mapping Inequality," conducts similar mapping and statistical analysis of US redlining, as well as historic maps.12 While both projects use GIS to support social justice—which has been a use of GIS since the advent of the software—using GIS for DH-specific projects, including historic maps not drawn with the accuracy of modern maps can prove, at [End Page 642] times, impossible.13 Vincent Brown's "Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760–1761: A Cartographic Narrative" makes use of maps from that period but draws the paths of revolt directly on top of them.14 Many ancient and medieval maps were drawn with landscape, 3-D views that did not and could not perfectly attend to scale. New and easier-to-use technologies, algorithms, and tools need to be created to reinvent GIS beyond its militarized and commercial past and present.

Developing a Technological Imagination, and the Resources Required

As scholars in the social sciences and humanities alike have (fairly) bemoaned, some GIS software is complex and requires a great deal of training and support. As a result, many of the maps produced by DH GIS lack complexity and "share a common limitation in that they tend to rely on the analysis of point-based cartographic representations."15 GIS is made up of points (locations of buildings or cities), lines (rivers or roads), and polygons (lakes and nation-state boundaries). In other words, DH GIS scholars are sometimes unable to make use of the richness of the software.

Recent research has also begun to address patterns of movement, such as the Spatial History Project's "ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World," which has afforded breakthrough understandings around ancient transportation and political economies shaping and shaped by them. Innovation in DH GIS requires a greater number of collaborators with which to embrace new technology and further hone a DH-specific spatiotechno-logical imagination. Another powerful example is Dana Byrd's collaborative work with a digitally savvy student and GIS lecturer Eileen Johnson to create a 3-D model (using GIS) of the first town of freed slaves in South Carolina. An art historian, Byrd was able to bring Mitchelville to life and allow users to virtually walk through the past of a people whose history was often destroyed or unrecorded.16

Crossing the Qualitative–Quantitative Divide

Stuart Dunn writes that "humanities discourse has always formed and transmitted concepts of place."17 However, geohumanities research has primarily dwelled on text, images, video, performance, and archival evidence, while the social sciences are painted as objective because of their use of "data." The false binary between qualitative–quantitative and evidence–data requires interrupting. Researchers across disciplines have long dwelled in the interstitial and [End Page 643] debated space between quantitative and qualitative projects.18 Here, relying on a technological imagination becomes imperative to discursively shift from a framework of "evidence" to one of "data," while also allowing different ways of gathering and structuring research to produce digital projects, namely, through spreadsheets that include categories and variables.

A project mutually qualitative and quantitative, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP) drew on a mixed-methods approach to qualitative storytelling through oral histories and quantitative spatial analysis to show the effects of displacement and gentrification because of the technology boom. The AEMP, in the San Francisco Bay area, won the 2016 ASA Garfinkel Prize in Digital Humanities for its "Narratives of Displacement and Resistance" site. Ian Gregory and Alistair Geddes argue that if GIS software is

able to cope with qualitative sources, then not only will it become applicable to a much wider range of fields within historical research, but it will also become usable across many other subjects within the humanities—potentially in any humanities discipline where geography is seen as relevant.19

In other words, bridging the qualitative and quantitative divide returns to my first point: DH GIS has the power and the responsibility to shape the future of GIS itself.

A Conversation with Critical GIS

To date, only three articles mentioning the digital humanities have appeared in the two flagship US geography journals, and of the three mentions of GIS in American Quarterly, only one of these articles addresses GIS at any length.20 A burgeoning series of conversations and approaches within geography, critical GIS is the reflective assessment, ethics, and critique of geospatial data in GIS algorithms or spatial analytics, software and hardware selection, design tools and elements, data sources and availability, data structures, and the maps that come from them, with a particular eye toward using GIS on behalf of social justice.21 At the same time, DH GIS insights into historical geography would further the role and prominence of historical study in the field.

The politics of software selection are part of the critical GIS debates. A recent project by Caleb Elfenbein and his students, "Mapping Islamophobia," provides the viewer with two main maps: sites of reported Islamophobia and sites that record American Muslim responses to the hatred, harassment, and violence in counter-Islamophobia actions and spaces. The site relies on Carto to host its interactive, embeddable maps. A long-term favorite DH GIS project among [End Page 644] many historical geographers, "The Atlas of Early Printing" relies on Google Maps and other tools to produce an interactive map that allows users to see the spread of early printing through fairs, trade routes, universities, and so on. Yet, if a reader looked at either site, could she, he, or they recall what software was used? Could a reader do the same for other DH GIS sites without reading the documentation? And how many scholars read the technical documentation?

Many scholars lack the technical acumen, funds, or time needed to learn and deploy more complicated GIS software—let alone to read about it—so that many projects rely on the partially free (with limits on functionality or data size) Carto, Mapbox, or Google Maps, the last of which also possesses the license to use the data you upload. Alternatively, educational technologists and institute workshops tend to teach ESRI's ArcGIS, Tableau, or the Neatline package for Omeka. What is left out of this equation? Free and open source software such as QGIS, OpenStreetMaps, R, or Scalar: DH GIS is in an especially rare position to demand and create more free, open source, and even more accessible software that fits its needs.22

Projects of Public Humanities on Behalf of Social Justice

The majority of DH GIS projects are produced for online consumption, and these projects often receive the most attention when they examine issues of social and spatial justice. Maps are incredibly popular and therefore are accessible to larger publics, and digital maps and geoweb projects are a huge proponent of public humanities in their proliferation. In more recent years, the Holocaust Geographies Collective (HGC) provided previously unavailable insights into the historic geographies of murder, violence, and genocide across Europe and the Soviet Union.23 In the HGC's "Budapest Ghetto" project, Tim Cole and Alberto Giordarno write, "Alongside the binaries of concentration v. dispersion and absence v. presence, we work here also with a series of other productive binaries: center v. periphery, visibility v. invisibility, accessibility v. inaccessibility."24 The HGC unpacks these important analytic terms by bringing the atrocities of the Holocaust to bear in real-world geographies. Anne Kelly Knowles, a member of the HGC, also created the "Decisive Moments in the Battle of Gettysburg" map, which sparked significant national interest and was featured on the Smithsonian website. These projects of public humanities reveal the range of possibilities open to scholars.

Linking back to many projects I have mentioned above and others I referenced in my footnotes, Sarah Bode recently wrote that "digital mapping has changed our understanding and access to issues regarding race, segregation, [End Page 645] and social justice in the United States."25 Other matters of injustice are equally confronted in these maps. Because of the power of maps, DH GIS projects promote education, conversation, and representation on behalf of the common good in the public sphere.


As David Cooper and Ian N. Gregory stated, "There is a move towards using GIS technology to highlight the imbricated relationship between the locatedness of everyday life and the spatialities of cultural practices."26 The production of maps and other data visualizations related to history, literature, and the arts is an important contribution in and of itself. However, the most significant impact of the digital humanities is that step farther: the critical analysis of the data visualizations and archives that come from its research. Much has come of DH GIS projects, and time will reveal the future places we will go together.

Jen Jack Gieseking

Jen Jack Gieseking is a queer-feminist cultural geographer engaged in research on co-productions of space, gender, and sexuality in digital and material environments. He is presently finishing A Queer New York: Geographies of Lesbians, Dykes, and Queers, 1983–2008, which is under contract with New York University Press. He is assistant professor of geography at the University of Kentucky. Jack can be found at or @jgieseking.


1. Amy Hillier and Anne Kelly Knowles, eds., Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship (Redlands, CA: Esri, 2008), quoted in Tim Cresswell and Deborah P. Dixon, "GeoHumanities," in International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology, ed. Douglas Richardson (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), 6; David A. Smith, Ryan Cordell, and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, "Infectious Texts: Modeling Text Reuse in Nineteenth-Century Newspapers," in Big Data, 2013 IEEE International Conference on Big Data (IEEE, 2013), 86–94; Anne Kelly Knowles, Tim Cole, and Alberto Giordarno, eds., Geographies of the Holocaust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).

2. For the most complete list of DH GIS projects, see John Levin, "DH GIS Projects," Anterotesis (blog), March 16, 2011,

3. In this essay, I use GIS to refer to geographic information systems. The term GIS can also represent geographic information science, which is the study of the data, data structures, and algorithms used to capture, organize, analyze, and represent geospatial information.

4. Since 2013, the creation of the GeoHumanities Special Interest Group of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organization was founded with a heavy focus on the role of technology. Another relatively new term, the geohumanities, is more wide ranging on how the humanities produces and transmits concepts of space and place, and does not require a digital approach. See Tim Cresswell, Deborah P. Dixon, Peter K. Bol, and J. Nicholas Entrikin, "Editorial," GeoHumanities 1.1 (2015): 1–19; Michael Dear, "Practicing Geohumanities," GeoHumanities 1.1 (2015): 20–35; GeoHumanities, "GeoHumanities Special Interest Group || Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations," GeoHumanities, 2018,; see also David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris, eds., The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); Ian N. Gregory and Alistair Geddes, eds., Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS and Spatial History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).

5. Karen K. Kemp and Ruth Mostern, "Spatial Vagueness and Uncertainty in the Computational Humanities" (paper presented at the First COSIT Workshop on Spatial Vagueness, Uncertainty and Granularity, Ogunquit, Maine, January 2001), 1, quoted in Matthijs Kouw, Charles Van Den Heuvel, and Andrea Scharnhorst, "Exploring Uncertainty in Knowledge Representations: Classifications, Simulations, and Models of the World," in Virtual Knowledge: Experimenting in the Humanities and the Social Sciences, ed. Paul Wouters et al. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 89–126.

6. Caren Kaplan, "Precision Targets: GPS and the Militarization of U.S. Consumer Identity on JSTOR," American Quarterly 58.3 (2006): 694.

7. Siva Vaidhyanathan, "Introduction Rewiring the 'Nation': The Place of Technology in American Studies," American Quarterly 58.3 (2006): 561.

8. Mike Lee, "Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act of 2017 (S. 103)," Pub. L. No. S. 103 (2017),; Paul Gosar, "Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act of 2017 (H.R. 482)," Pub. L. No. H.R. 482 (2017),

9. American Studies Association, "ASA Signs on to Letters Opposing Proposed HUD Legislation," American Sociological Association (blog), March 2, 2017,

10. Faine Greenwood, "In the Age of Trump, We Need to Protect Map Databases," Slate, May 11, 2017,

11. Digital Scholarship Lab, University of Richmond, "Renewing Inequality: Urban Renewal, Family Displacement, and Race, 1955–1966," Renewing Inequality, 2017,

12. Robert K. Nelson et al., "Mapping Inequality," ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers, American Panorama, 2017,

13. Elizabeth (budde), "Failing to Map Historical Maps," October 20, 2017,

14. Vincent Brown, "Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760–1761: A Cartographic Narrative," Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 2017,

15. Patricia Murrieta-Flores, Christopher Elliott Donaldson, and Ian Norman Gregory, "GIS and Literary History: Advancing Digital Humanities Research through the Spatial Analysis of Historical Travel Writing and Topographical Literature," Digital Humanities Quarterly 11.1 (2017),

16. Dana Byrd, "Tracing Transformations: Hilton Head Island's Journey to Freedom, 1860–1865," Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture 14.3 (2015),–1865.

17. Stuart Dunn, "Praxes of 'The Human' and 'The Digital': Spatial Humanities and the Digitization of Place," GeoHumanities 3.1 (2017): 88.

18. Alan Liu, "Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?," in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 490–510,

19. Gregory and Geddes, Toward Spatial Humanities, 175.

20. Debra DeRuyver and Jennifer Evans, "Digital Junction," American Quarterly 58.3 (2006): 943–80; Kaplan, "Precision Targets"; Vaidhyanathan, "Introduction Rewiring the 'Nation'"; Ian N. Gregory, "Different Places, Different Stories: Infant Mortality Decline in England and Wales, 1851–1911," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 98.4 (2008): 773–94; Jen Jack Gieseking, "Size Matters to Lesbians, Too: Queer Feminist Interventions into the Scale of Big Data," Professional Geographer 70.1 (2018): 150–56; David O'Sullivan, Luke Bergmann, and Jim E. Thatcher, "Spatiality, Maps, and Mathematics in Critical Human Geography: Toward a Repetition with Difference," Professional Geographer 70.1 (2018): 129–39.

21. For more on critical GIS, some of the key and current works include the following texts: Mei-Po Kwan, "Feminist Visualization: Re-envisioning GIS as a Method in Feminist Geographic Research," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92.4 (2002): 645–61; Marianna Pavlovskaya, "Theorizing with GIS: A Tool for Critical Geographies?," Environment and Planning A 38.11 (2006): 2003–20; Nadine Schuurman, "Formalization Matters: Critical GIS and Ontology Research," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 96.4 (2006): 726–39; Michael Brown and Lawrence Knopp, "Places or Polygons? Governmentality, Scale, and the Census in the Gay and Lesbian Atlas," Population, Space and Place 12.4 (2006): 223–42; Brown and Knopp, "Queering the Map: The Productive Tensions of Colliding Epistemologies," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 98.1 (2008): 40–58; Jeremy W. Crampton, Mapping: A Critical Introduction to Cartography and GIS (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011); Taylor Shelton, Ate Poorthuis, Mark Graham, and Matthew Zook, "Mapping the Data Shadows of Hurricane Sandy: Uncovering the Sociospatial Dimensions of 'Big Data,'" Geoforum 52 (2014): 167–79; Craig M. Dalton and Jim E. Thatcher, "Commentary: What Does a Critical Data Studies Look Like, and Why Do We Care? Seven Points for a Critical Approach to 'Big Data,'" Environment & Planning D: Society & Space (May 2014),; Ryan Burns and Jim E. Thatcher, "Guest Editorial: What's So Big about Big Data? Finding the Spaces and Perils of Big Data," GeoJournal 80.4 (2015): 445–48; Agnieszka Leszczynski and Sarah Elwood, "Feminist Geographies of New Spatial Media," Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien 59.1 (2015): 12–28; Matthew W. Wilson, New Lines: Critical GIS and the Trouble of the Map (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Luke Bergmann and David O'Sullivan, "Reimagining GIScience for Relational Spaces," Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien 62.1 (2018): 7–14; Ryan Burns, Craig M. Dalton, and Jim E. Thatcher, "Critical Data, Critical Technology in Theory and Practice," Professional Geographer 70.1 (2018): 126–28; Craig M. Dalton, "Big Data from the Ground Up: Mobile Maps and Geographic Knowledge," Professional Geographer 70.1 (2018): 157–64; Craig M. Dalton and Tim Stallmann, "Counter-Mapping Data Science," Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien 62.1 (2018): 93–108; Jen Jack Gieseking, "Operating Anew: Queering GIS with Good Enough Software," Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien 62.1 (2018): 55–66; David O'Sullivan, Luke Bergmann, and Jim E. Thatcher, "Spatiality, Maps, and Mathematics in Critical Human Geography: Toward a Repetition with Difference," Professional Geographer 70.1 (2018): 129–39.

22. Gieseking, "Operating Anew."

23. Anne Kelly Knowles, Levi Westerveld, and Laura Strom, "Inductive Visualization: A Humanistic Alternative to GIS," GeoHumanities 1.2 (2015): 233–65; Tim Cole, Alberto Giordano, Paul Jaskot, and Anne Knowles, "Welcome to Holocaust Geographies Collaborative," Holocaust Geographies Collaborative, 2017,

24. Tim Cole and Alberto Giordarno, "Budapest Ghetto," United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (blog), 2007,

25. Sarah Bode, "Mapping Racism and Assessing the Success of the Digital Humanities," History from Below (blog), October 20, 2017,

26. David Cooper and Ian N. Gregory, "Mapping the English Lake District: A Literary GIS," Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36.1 (2011): 90.

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