Blog, Clio 1

Spatial History

Globe at the Austrian National Library

As an introduction to spatial history, we read “What is Spatial History?” by Richard White and “Putting Harlem on the Map” by Stephen Robertson. I love urban history and its attention to the meaning and experience of space, so I was interested to know more about spatial history. I ended up feeling very conflicted.

White describes a number of examples of what he considers spatial history and makes the argument that, “visualization and spatial history are not about producing illustrations or maps to communicate things that you have discovered by other means. It is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.” As interesting as his examples are, I don’t think he fully succeeds in making the case that they really are doing research. He does not provide any concrete examples of conclusions or revelations drawn from spatial history; he mainly makes generic statements like, “Comparing different relational spaces allows us to ask more complex questions and hypothesize connections about the geographic space.”

I find Robertson’s case for spatial history a little better. He explains that, “GIS organizes and integrates sources on the basis of their shared geographic location—in the case of an urban setting, their street address. Working with addresses involved thinking about Harlem on a much smaller scale than had other scholars.” Certainly one could use addresses and work on this smaller scale without mapping, but I can see the value of using it as a thinking tool in this case. Through his mapping, Robertson cites several examples of things he has gleaned from mapping: attention to the white presence in Harlem; awareness of racial contests for space that occurred in Harlem, especially in the context of traffic accidents; and how blacks moved around the city, especially how far they had to travel to work and how often they changed residence. Yet Robertson also explains that, “By their very nature, the maps created on the site raise questions rather than answering them, and they could not simply stand on their own online,” as if admitting that mapping itself actually does very little as a means of doing research. Robertson concludes by saying that, “Trying to understand those maps draws me down to the level of individual places and to the relations between them, into the web of locations in which individuals lived their lives—where they resided, worked, and spent their leisure time.” Even if mapping is not a replacement for traditional research, I don’t see the harm in doing it if it can draw your attention to your sources in new ways. There is also another obvious added benefit: the ability to attract funding.

Although it does seem to be the case that mapping as a form of research rarely does more than confirm suspicions gathered through traditional research, I still believe that there is room for experimentation with mapping. If scholars begin to realize that it doesn’t actually offer much that they couldn’t do otherwise, I’m sure we’ll move on from it. In the meantime, I don’t see it as something that will cheapen historical scholarship.