Originally posted to my ANU blog.
I’ve found it fascinating to see the ways in which historians are interacting with GIS to add value to historical understanding. It has been fun to play with and see ways you can quite easily import a table of data to Google Maps to give visualisation to the subject.
In terms of Digital Humanities, it is a great example of how the digital can expand the historical horizon. Geoff Cunfer’s article on “Scaling the Dust Bowl” was an example how long-standing assumptions can be questioned and new ideas allowed to enter what were considered settled debates. The reality is that even if the data (and the visualisation of it) changes the findings or not, it allows new angles to question — and see — the past. I think this is an example of the potential of the disruption that is the Digital Humanities and Digital History.
In time, it may well be a given that data and visualisation is considered as much a necessity as a review of the relevant literature in a given area of study. While this may be a difficult hurdle for someone of my generation to get over, it will invariably be ‘par for the course’ for later generations. But this is not to play one off against the other: traditional methods will still have their importance. What these new approaches bring is a way to gain even greater focus on a subject area despite that finite resource that is our time.
One question that comes to mind is whether the digitisation of historical records that is being undertaken at present easily allows datasets to be created that can be used for purposes such as geospatial analysis. I fear a lot of digitisation undertaken is simple conversion of source materials to plain PDF images or similar formats, not the value adding of OCR or text of the digitised source. This slows down the process of taking the digitised historical record and mashing it up in such a way as to provide some analysis. But perhaps that is the reality: historical work will still take plenty of effort and time for sources to be processed into useful formats for analysis and visualisation.