Putting History in Its Place

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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.