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.

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5 Responses to A tool for the future, being shaped today.

  1. rosendof says:

    Knowles seems to have your critique in mind when she refers to GIS as a “practice”. By avoiding the term ‘method’ or ‘field’, it sort of seems like a cop out. If it is examined as indeed a practice, it take a lot of practice to get good at that practice. (A very bad pun, I admit, but too easy).

    The ambivialence of historians also is part of the problem. They don’t like mathematical or social science-oriented quantification. Thus, the historical discipline would have to get more comfortable re-introducing those elements into historical analysis, if at all possible and/or desirable.

  2. rkpalmerjr says:

    There is definitely a learning curve to working with GIS specific software such as ESRI’s ArcMap. I never really got truly comfortable in ArcMap until I started using it day in and day out at work. Now it’s like second nature. GIS’s capabilities are so complex and far reaching that I imagine there are very few people out there who have worked with GIS long enough and in enough different environments, to have been able to master those capabilities as a whole. That being said, the basics of GIS aren’t that complex. If you know the difference between raster and vector, points, lines, and polygons, and understand the concept of layering (same as in illustrator and photoshop), you’ve already got a good start. I mean honestly you use GIS everyday without even realizing it. Google Earth is essentially very basic, free GIS software. You can’t do much with it in terms of analysis, but it is a GIS application none the less. Same with all the other online map services, Yahoo, Bing, etc. Quite frankly the biggest hurdle (much more so than training I think) to the more widespread use of GIS among historians is cost. GIS is not cheap. I think if more historians were able to access GIS and utilize it on more of a widespread basis, the demand for and application of GIS in historical research would grow immensly.

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  4. mbestebr says:

    “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.”

    I think that this comment is what I took away from the readings as well, and it seemed to me like the various historians and cartographers writing the articles were demonstrating this kind of isolation while desperately trying to say that this didn’t have to be the case. I found myself rather torn about whether or not historical GIS could and should be incorporated into works.

    I generally cannot stand the way historians do not respect the explanatory power of images, either leaving them out completely or relegating them to a small and removed section of the book. Because of this I want to see historical GIS incorporated thoughtfully into traditional narratives. But this has several difficulties – including specialized tools in creating the data which you mentioned, but also, will historical maps just become the new quantitative table?

    I can’t stand reading histories from the 1970s with all of their charts and tables showing me numbers of god knows what. I always skim them. Will the kinds of data created through historical GIS just be the new table to skim past?

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