Comments for 9/30/2010

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A tool for the future, being shaped today.

Knowles’ Placing History presents a series of essays that present GIS as a useful tool for asking new kinds of historical questions and push for the acceptance of the tool by historians and educators. The examples chosen to represent specific applications, however, raise a couple questions that do not seem to me to be answered in the general essays. Due to GIS’ nature as an evolving tool, I am willing to accept that some of these answers are not yet available or will soon be irrelevant in the face of changing situations, (or that my questions are ultimately derived from my own ignorance).

It seems to me that the process of constructing a GIS database and organizing it into a useful structure takes a not insignificant amount of time, with the current tools. This, it seems to me, is going to wind up relegating GIS-based research to it’s own projects rather than being a tool that can easily be incorporated into related research that combines Historical GIS with more traditional forms of analysis. This seems to be further exacerbated by the fact that it requires a not insignificant level of specialized training. I know some people in class work professionally with GIS: How much training does it take to grow comfortable with one’s mastery level, at least enough to feel capable of using it for an independent project?

I think that, for the moment, HGIS is going to be more of a project in and of itself rather than a tool. Most importantly for it to evolve into further usefulness and acceptance is for it to continue to be used, as widely as possible, to build a platform of techniques and useable information. This also has the benefit of contributing to the development of easier to use tools in the software itself. Finally, I think two or three iterations of computing and display technology will lead to a much-enhanced ability to use the options that GIS gives to historical research. I think that GIS has a ways to go before it ultimately evolves from being an arc welder to a claw hammer in terms of its universal usability, but it’s a direction that historians need to go and furthermore a direction they need to help in shaping in order for the discipline to continue to advance and grow.

Atlas Evaluations

The effectiveness of an atlas seems to be subject to quite a few competing pressures. They are both aesthetic and functional works, the competing pressures of which combine with the need to limit costs (As pointed out by Jeremy Black in Maps In History) to dictate the layout and richness of an atlas. An atlas’s character is dictated by these pressures and the available content. An atlas that is primarily intended for use as a reference work, such as Hewes’ Scribner’s Statistical Atlas of the United States does not need to focus on the aesthetic factor, and is set up on a strict grid system of rectangular text and maps. It uses the absolute minimum of color in order to convey its information.

from Scribner's statistical atlas of the United States

Everything is rectangular, and arranged in columns. The absolute minimum color is used.

By way of contrast, Derek Hayes’ Historical Atlas of the United States is an aesthetic object. It is a functional work describing the history of America and the process of cartographic evolution in America. The combination of many different styles of maps, along with variation in scale and color and a willingness to break from a strictly rectangular grid create an atlas with a much higher aesthetic value. One good example of this is the section “Voyages to the Northwest.” Because some of the maps used in the section depict the coastline but have large volumes of empty or irrelevant space, the passage uses that space rather than leave portions of the page blank, as can be seen in the example below.

from the Historical Atlas of the United States

Use of otherwise dead space in a rectangular layout.

There are two important facets of this willingness to go beyond a strictly measured grid pattern in the layout. The first is that it enlivens the atlas, and the second is that the text always remains organized in columns and the main text is almost always arranged so that it has a vertical left edge, an important allowance for readability. Hayes’ atlas is a large, full color, heavy, and expensive volume, but it has two things going for it. First, the way it examines cartography alongside history allows it to use already-existing maps rather than creating maps exclusively for the atlas, reducing costs. Second, because it is an aesthetic work rather than simply functional, it has value beyond the information printed on its pages. While Scribner’s atlas could be replaced by a database of charts and associated analysis, Hayes’ volume has a collective value, which leads me to think that it represents the future course of atlas creation, if one exists.

Returning to a study of the specifics of an individual atlas article, the interactions between the text and the maps (and occasional other illustrations) is immediately apparent as the source of an atlas’s value as a distinct work. A single topic generally varies between 750 and 1500 words per page devoted to it, including the footnotes associated with individual maps. The maps are directly illustrative of the text, not simply for direction but intimately connected to the text by either analysis or direct reference. The footnotes are smaller and in a different font than the main text, to separate them from it. In the Hayes atlas, the background color is chosen to complement or contrast with the maps, as shown in the examples below.

From the Historical Atlas of the United States

Use of contrasting pink and green.

From the Historical Atlas of the United States

Use of complimentary green colors

Making a stand-out and successful modern atlas, then, involves balancing three parts on the creator(s). One part is the part of the historian and analyst, crafting the framework that conveys the intent of the atlas. The next part is cartographic understanding, both in support of the first part and in order to chose or create the appropriate maps in order to illustrate and create the structure of that framework. The final part is that of the artist, blending the aesthetics of text, graphics, and layout to create a harmonious final product that must, in order to excel as a stand-alone work, be more than the simple sum of its component parts.

Comments for 9/16/10

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Power of Maps, or the Maps of Power?

The readings for this week elaborate on some things briefly touched on in a book Ruel and I read for our Monday class, Empires of the Atlantic World by J.H. Elliott. Elliott is more focused on other aspects of the time period (which is rather obvious from the title) but he spends some time discussing interactions with the natives, and even all of an entire page (in a 400+ page book) on cartography. It was interesting to see an expanded view of mapmaking in at least a portion of a region I had just studied earlier in the week. I also admit that I was tempted to engage Ruel in a discussion on how the maps that were specifically created for the book may have been constructed to serve the author’s needs, but it wouldn’t have been quite appropriate for the class discussion on Monday. Might make an interesting side project later on in the year when I have the time, though!

Back to the more immediately relevant. Reading chapter 6 in Harley’s The New Nature of Maps, I could not help but wonder how Indian mapping of the “social geometry” that he discusses on p178 is similar to the way modern maps are used to depict a wide variety of things other than the simple spatial relationships between locations, especially maps such as those produced by the Worldmapper Team that distort the geographic space in order to depict other relationships, like population or wealth. It is a pity that more native maps did not survive for analysis.

Thinking about this topic raises another question in my mind. Specifically, how much of this mapmaking is about depicting not geographic information, but in reality power and relationships. Even the European style of mapmaking is ultimately founded on the importance of land ownership in determining social structure in their society. The additional emphasis placed by colonists (both in New England and throughout the Americas) on Civility and Christianity explained in the Elliott book also makes the restructuring of the land with European places and European names take on a whole new aspect. How much of it was driven by the process of creating or even imposing a European social and power structure on the land, even in a illusory manner through the production of maps?

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The Map as a Text

J.B. Harley, in The New Nature of Maps and Denis Wood, in Rethinking the Power of Maps, are both looking at a similar problem in the general view of maps, as presented by cartographers themselves. Specifically, they seek to separate the map from the realm of impartial observations and place them squarely where they belong, with any other created object or idea, as objects to be analyzed not only for the information they present but for the ideas and constructs that influence them and those that use them. I find it intriguing that cartographers resist the concept that all the maps they construct present social constructs as inherent aspects of their nature, as Harley references in chapter 5. (p. 162) My own experience in using many different kinds of texts, including motion pictures, architecture, cartoons and paintings, naturally inclines me to look at any created object (regardless of the intent of the creator) as a potential text for understanding the context of its creation.

David Woodward’s introduction to Art and Cartography, on the other hand, emphasizes a different facet of the understanding of maps and the cartographic process. By discussing the nature of maps as an aesthetic (ie, artistic) object in addition to or alongside the scientific observation of cartographic rules, he presents the map as an object of both function and form, much like a public building’s architectural construction has both aesthetic and functional aspects. This in no way contradicts the arguments presented in The New Nature of Maps and Rethinking the Power of Maps. In fact, it reinforces them, as the understanding of maps as a scientific object grants it a certain degree of cultural enshrinement that inhibits their examination as a historical and sociological text.

Another point of interest to me, though frankly of secondary importance to understanding the point of the authors, is the different way in which they approach the crafting of their argument. Harley feels to me to be much more intellectual and less antagonistic than Wood, whose grammatical and linguistic choices distracted me from an otherwise reasonable argument. His use of ellipses and italicization for emphasis feel like a blatant attempt to strike a more conversational tone with his reader, and some of his choices have very interesting (and not very complementary) subtext, at least to my reading. One egregious example of this is the section header, in chapter 2, “But then Maps are Myths.” (p. 72) While Wood goes on to explain exactly what he means by this, his word choice has cultural connotations of inaccuracy, superstition, and irrelevance to the modern. While Harley encourages his readers to seek out and understand the secondary texts of maps and use them to place maps in context, Wood seems to actively distrust maps and their creators.