Putting History in Its Place

June 2017

How digital mapping changes the way we see the past

When Paul Jaskot, a historian of architecture and art at DePaul University in Chicago, started researching the design of Nazi concentration camps, he confronted immense stacks of archival materials. The Germans, after all, were meticulous record keepers—and the data included construction drawings, freight manifests, and purchase orders. How could he possibly mine information from such a diverse and exhaustive trove of primary source documents? Too much information can prove as daunting as too little.

For help Jaskot turned to Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a computer-based data management tool that integrates geographical and spatial information with all sorts of other data. GIS mapping techniques can overlay enormous amounts of seemingly unrelated information onto a map. When the right questions are posed, surprising new answers often arise.

“Honestly, at first I was skeptical that this would be productive,” admits Jaskot. But within days of teaming up with Anne Kelly Knowles of Middlebury College, a historical geographer and GIS pioneer, he began to see that this technology could help him shed new light on how the horrific Nazi death camps operated and what daily life was like for both inmates and their SS guards.

“Everyone knows there was a lot of construction at Birkenau in late 1943,” he says. But the new map he built with GIS enabled him to watch the camp change day by day in a chaotic frenzy of construction. As his research team visualized the information on building materials, forced labor, and the exact locations under construction, Jaskot suddenly made the connection that the period of intense construction at Birkenau coincided with the majority of wartime escape attempts from the camp. A coincidence? Perhaps, but it raises historical questions that Jaskot believes are well worth pursuing.

The Holocaust mapping study will soon take its place alongside a growing number of GIS-based projects offering new details on well-known historical events. Knowles’s three-year analysis of the Battle of Gettysburg, for instance, has yielded new insight on battlefield decision making. Time has changed Gettysburg’s physical features and topography, making it difficult for modern researchers to reconstruct what field commanders actually observed on those early July days in 1863. Were there views obscured by trees or vegetation, for instance? What exactly did Gen. Robert E. Lee observe from his post in the cupola of a Lutheran seminary atop Seminary Ridge, as he looked in the direction of Little Round Top, one of the key sites of battle?

GIS can prove extremely helpful in answering these and other questions. Historians have long debated, for example, why Confederate Gen. James Longstreet took so long to move his men into a position from which to attack Union forces on July 2. The GIS study suggests that Longstreet’s decision was reasonable, given how exposed his line of approach would have been. The mapping also indicates that Lee probably could not see how many men the Union had gathered against his army. His limited sightlines may well have contributed to his fateful decision the following day when he ordered Pickett’s Charge. “Historians can now go back and—armed with this new evidence—think again about what may have influenced Lee’s decisions,” says Knowles.

New Take on the Dust Bowl

To describe GIS, Knowles uses the analogy of a child’s flip book that builds layer upon layer of information pertaining to a specific spot on the globe. “The actual location is just the beginning,” she explains. Census data, weather reports, agricultural activities, geological information, voting records, public health files, railroad fares, birth announcements, land sales—the list of data that can be layered onto a GIS map is limitless. And GIS compiles not only information about a particular space but also information over time—making it possible to visualize changes occurring over months, years, and even centuries if enough data are available. Patterns of cause and effect can emerge that often go unnoticed in traditional archival-based research.

The University of Saskatchewan’s Geoff Cunfer used GIS to challenge the long-accepted scenario that the Dust Bowl was caused on the Great Plains in the 1930s by overfarming driven by a rapacious agricultural system. By employing the tools of GIS, Cunfer could look back before the Great Depression and analyze a much larger geographical area than previously surveyed. He discovered that dust storms had been a feature of prairie life for many generations. Aggressive farming may well have contributed to the dust storms of the 1930s, but it was not “the sole and simple cause of the Dust Bowl.”

The University of Virginia’s Center for Digital History has created an interactive website that demonstrates the power of GIS for everyday users. “VisualEyes” (www.viseyes.org) includes maps, images, charts, and text that enable the exploration, for example, of Thomas Jefferson’s travels in Europe, or the study of patterns of slave ownership in Texas across time. Another University of Virginia researcher, Benjamin Ray, has used GIS technology to map the geographical pattern of accusations during the Salem witch trials of 1692 (etext.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft). The epidemic-like spread of accusers led Ray to a deeper understanding of religious and social tensions in Salem and surrounding communities.

Industrial Revolution Reexamined

Knowles’s most recent project traces the evolution of the U.S. iron industry from small colonial-era forges to Pittsburgh’s giant steel mills. By mapping and layering data about coal deposits, fuel sources, iron ore deposits, labor forces, developing technologies, and transportation links from 1800 to 1868, she has created a “hybrid combination of history and geography” suggesting that industrialization in the United States was not nearly as rapid nor as consistently successful as often thought. While GIS mapping techniques helped her paint a nuanced and complex picture of the Industrial Revolution, she says that GIS technology alone would not have been enough. “The GIS database is just raw information. You have to be a historian to know which questions to ask.”

According to Richard White, founder of Stanford University’s Spatial History Project (www.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/viz.php?id=379), some historians remain skeptical about GIS, uncomfortable with what they see as a departure from traditional, analytic, and narrative-based history. “In some ways, we’re still in the missionary phase,” he says. “This is not the end of normal, narrative history,” he tells his colleagues. “It’s an add-on.”

Powerful computer technology is now lifting history off the printed page and into three dimensions, providing vivid new ways to glimpse into the past. But as historians and geographers both will attest, the ability to see history in its place generates just as many questions as answers.