Using GIS in Historical Research

Boram Jeon

Traditionally, research in humanities has been solo efforts rather than collaborative academic works with other fields or skill; however, the advance of the Internet technology leads a number of researches in various fields to incorporate with a variety of skills and expertise. To be specific, humanities educators started determining to adopt computational analysis of textual sources, digital modeling of historical data, and transforming from traditional materials to digitized content, which enables users to access information beyond time and space. These computer-based educational technologies, digital library, open access, and digital institutional repositories perform as the vital role in the advance of digital humanities and the evolution of digital humanities (Mattison, 2006). According to the definition by Frischer (2009), digital humanities is the application of information technology as an aid to fulfill the humanities’ basic tasks of preserving, reconstructing, transmitting, and interpreting the human record (p.15). Digital humanities allow users to access a variety of information resources, and contribute to creating novel research method. The Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), one of the organization involving in digital humanities, support digital research and teaching across arts and humanities disciplines, and computer-assisted research, teaching, creation, and dissemination in order to realize goals of digital humanities (Retrieved from Additionally, many academic institutions; there are UCLA, Duke, Stanford, King’s College London, have focused on infrastructure, tools, and services to support humanities scholarship in digital environments (Borgman, 2009).

Technology in History Research
About Geographical Information System (GIS)
For decades, geographic information system (GIS) plays a great role in applying to problems in environmental and land management. Through the 1970s and 1980s, a wide range of fields has begun to employ GIS. Combining original academic area with geographical data encourages researcher to interpret and recreate their own research that it is not possible to think with traditional views, which generates a variety of historical GIS projects such as Global and Historical GIS project. In terms of applying GIS as tools of research in other fields, there are a number of ways; it is possible to structure, visualize, and analyze space, spatial behavior, and spatial change, which can benefit historical study (Gregory, Kemp & Mostern, 2003)
Many people or publications state the definition of GIS. The meaning of GIS could divide into two fields: a generic definition and a definition applying to a specific area. First of all, according to the generic definition, GIS integrates hardware, software, and data to display all forms of geographically referenced information with the organizing principle for collection, storage, analysis, and presentation of information regarding spatial location (GIS for Housing and Urban Development, 2003). Additionally, in terms of the definition of historical GIS as one of the examples of technology in the humanities, historical GIS means that highly inter-disciplinary subject combining historical scholarship with expertise in using GIS (Gregory & Ell, 2007, p.1).

Using GIS in Historical Research
According to the study by Gregory (2003), many historians realize the benefit of the often hidden or ignored geographic information available to them, and in the field of history GIS is generally used in three ways. First of all, it is a way to discover, manage and integrate historical research resources. In the case of the Perseus Project, this project acts as a pioneer in this regard by integrating several digital libraries and archives. They digitized the Edwin C. Bolles archive of the history of London, including unique printed documents, then created a gazetteer with a map interface and liked to all place names information in all the archival materials in order to integrate resources (Smith, Rydberg-Cox & Crane, 2000). Mapping between geographical information and these resources allows users to search information by spatial location. In addition, using geography as medium for publishing performs to create comprehensive and rich contexts for historical discovery. The Valley of the Shadow project at the University of Virginia that allows user to compare two communities – Northern and one Southern in the American Civil War with thousands of original letters, diaries, newspapers, and so on. In this project, many resources about the Civil War became more ricer, and interactive in showing the movements of various locally-formed military regiments, which helps users to understand the lives of these soldiers or their families, by adding time and space together (Retrieved from Lastly, Using GIS performs as an analytical methodology to understand spatial relationships. For example, the project about railroad by Richard White, mentioned later provides new tool to analyze relationship between the growth of the transportation in 19th century and the growing economic in the U.S. by incorporating both statistic data and spatial location information. It is helpful to search the field of history because it is important to examine the relationship between the cultural growth and the development in a specific area within history resources.

About the Spatial History Project
The Advance of the Spatial History Project
The Spatial History Project is regarding historical GIS. This project is being conducted by the Spatial History Lab at Stanford University where is a collaborative community of scholars involving in creative visual analysis to further research in the field of history. This project has the purpose to work together on projects at the intersection of geography and history using Geographic Information System (GIS), which helps researcher related with historical research to better understand the results of new knowledge and historical change in space and time. Also, the research by the Spatial History Project represents the spectrum from economic and technological changes to social and political changes (Dempsey, 2009).
This project team is comprised of a variety of group including principal investigators, staff, affiliates, research assistants, and collaborators. Most of people related with this project team belong to the University of Stanford, and a few people are professor affiliated to other university. Since this project performs that history is analyzed and reinterpreted according to spatial view point in social, cultural, and economic factors, each member is carrying out various roles in the different lines of study; for example, in area regarding computer work, there are visualizing data, the computer graphics or mapping and analyzing early-modern correspondence networks; in the field of history there are environmental history or history of geographical ideas focusing on specific topic, area, period; others represent a variety of fields in order to analyze the interactive relationship between people’s practices including labor in hunting and gathering, or cooperation and history.

Achievements of the Spatial History Project
The Spatial History Project is processing with five ways different form normal historical research; this project is collaborative; it uses visualization, it depends on the use of computers; it seeks openness; it focuses on space. Using GIS in historical research gives this teams creative thinking and problem solving on the technical, and intellectual challenges by applying existing technology in new ways, and by developing custom tools to help people to newly approach to historical resources. To be specific, this team collects relevant data from archives, libraries, and organizations, then they use visual analysis to identify the relation, the pattern, and abnormalities by integrating spatial and non-spatial data. In order to realize digital humanities in history study, this project has created a number of projects and visualization with using GIS (White, 2010).

Current Spatial History Project Research: How the West Was Shaped
The book ‘Railroaded’ by Richard White was published on May 2011. This book describes how the transcontinental railroads, which plays a great role in proliferating the U.S. economy, transformed America in nineteenth century after the Civil War (White, 2011). This project by Richard White aims to study and represent visually how people’s experience of space and time was changed by railroads in the North American West in the 19th century by developing a large database and graphics tools. This paper states outcome of current spatial history project to introduce advantages of using GIS such as visualization based on information on the web site of Stanford University’s Spatial History Project.
Even though many historical materials in the field of history shows various changes in transportation, railroad, and canals, which effected on the decrease of distance between one city and others, these changes are the results from a simple data represented by the line on a map of the continent. In order to overcome the limitation of study on only history, this project creates new computer model that could test whether freight rates by railroad companies, could be explained how changes the sense of cost-space for shipping products related with the increase in the populist movement by dynamic visual statistic map data.
The site of the Spatial History Project links to the complementary website regarding this project of Railroaded, and this complementary website helps readers or researcher to better understand data represented in the book through an interactive footnote browswer, visualizations, and supporting data. Especially, the section of interactive visualizations provides eight statistic map data: the Expansion of the Western Railroad, Transcontinental Railroad Development, Tracing Railroad Directors, Railroad Traffic in Nebraska from Selected, Seeing Space in Terms of Track Length and Cost of Shipping, Exports from Colorado by Station in 1885, Cattle Production in the American West, and Rise of the American Railways Union. These visualizing data makes people to understand analysis resulted from combining geographic materials and textual materials, difficult to gain when people only read book. The visualization of Rise of the American Railway Union 1893-1894, for example, includes various tools such as the map showing the degree of population, increasing dots representing the growth of the American Railroad Union (A.R.U), and the bar graphs.
Railroad Repeats is another example to represent the advantage of combing historical materials with Google Earth, which enable people to explore the photo collection spatially. To be specific, this team collected 364 pictures that Alfred A. Hart took along the line of the Central Pacific Railroad from 1864 to 1869. In order to find the same place in this historical collection, researcher tried to retrace Hart’s journey. People are possible to compare environment around the railroad in the past with circumstance of today in same place through Google Earth (Retrieved from
Advantages of this Project using GIS
According to the news article about this project (2011), Stanford’s Richard White mentions that “developing tools to represent and analyze visually how and to what degree the railroads created new spatial patterns and experiences in the 19th century American West, which was impossible to tell in a traditional way.” Therefore, this project could ask questions that might impossible with traditional historical tools; for instance, “How did the railroads affect settlement in the countries immediately adjacent to the railroads” by using Geographic Information System (Zax, 2011).

The development of technologies based on the Internet encourages academic works to become diverse, and to be able to apply to comprehensive fields. Digital library collection build by a number of libraries in the whole of world enable users to access global information without limitation of space and time, which allows people to recreate knowledge or to overcome the cultural or educational gap (Abid, 2009). According to these trends in digital era, it is possible for the humanities to combine with a variety of technologies or other academic fields, which gives us advantages to allow people to understand general information with comprehensive viewpoint, to use analyzing system newly created for educational purpose or other research based on open-ended criteria in digital humanities. It is not secret that using GIS in historical research is beneficial to history education as well as reproduction of knowledge compared with characteristic of traditional humanities research. Especially, the profit resulting from visualizing historical data with map materials plays a great role in learning or understanding the story in the past, imperceptible but has been influencing on today various aspects involving in the trends of research or economy in society. Thus, even though building database or new computer program to analyze data needs much funding and institutions leading digital humanities has difficulties attracting companies or nation to donate funding, it is important to increase using GIS in historical research because GIS will be a fundamental part of deciding which places to study in detail and determining what their broader significance is (Gregory, Kemp, & Mostern, 2003).

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