Thinking About Space

Historyonic’s post “Place and the Politics of Past” hints at what I find to be the real value behind digital mapping and geo-referencing. Sadly, as the author admits, the technology is still not there yet, so to speak, to be able to capture this capability in its entirety. In fact, the very idea is almost too nebulous to pin down. I am thinking about “networks” and what they might mean for the historian.

The word itself has three definitions–As a noun, it’s an arrangement of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines or a group or system of interconnected people or things. As a verb, it’s to connect as or operate with a network. For our sake, I think of a network as a group or system of interconnected people or things, which is still rather ambiguous. But the ambiguity is, perhaps, a good thing for the historian because it suggests that nothing is out of reach.

Anyway, I find the concept of a “historical network” rather interesting and pertinent to my own project. I am attempting to text mine a database of blues and old time country lyrics in an effort to compare the two. In addition, I want to be able to create a database of place names, meaning various locations like states, cities, towns, and counties, and then build a heat map from that database. The goal is to be able to see which places registered the most “hits” and then create an imagined geography for both the Blues and Old Time music based on those locations.

From these place names, we can then pin people to them. For instance, we can tag each bluesman that sang about Memphis to the city, and we can do the same, to be impartial, for each old time artist that mentions Nashville or Atlanta. What we will then have is data allowing us to see how interconnected each genre’s artists were based on the places they sang about. Who knows, this interconnectivity may even cross genres, revealing that the U.S. South, at least in its music landscape, was much more integrated than we might think.

On a related note, “Toward Critical Spatial Thinking in the Social Sciences and the Humanities” brings up another good point about spatial projects and, in my mind at least, networks. The article suggests that rather than thinking “spatially,” we should really be thinking in”spatio-temporal” terms. As in, we should be thinking about and trying to capture not a static representation of space but a dynamic one, where change over time can be easily visualized and understood. Thinking in this way only enhances our understanding of historical networks. If we can project a supposed network over time and space, can we not then see at what points in time the network changes? For instance, drawing again from my own example, if we can situate “memphis’s blues network” over a timeline, can we not start to see changes in that network over time or across certain time periods, say decades or years? Then, we can start making broader historical conclusions about what caused or even what altered human interaction to space.

I am sure there are holes in what I am trying to do, and I am sure this type of project may be more than I can do in a semester. But thinking about both articles has helped me formulate just exactly what I want to do with my project and where my limits might be.

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Mapping Occupation

Dr. Scott Nesbit from Visualizing Emancipation and Gregory Downs have teamed up to create an incredible resource for studies of the Reconstruction era. As an epoch in American History, Reconstruction is lightly studied in comparison to other historical periods of interest. In fact, I would venture to say that if you asked someone with a general understanding of history, they would know the least about our country’s post-Civil War reunification.

This lack of understanding, in part, stems from the nature of Reconstruction. It was messy. The glory often associated with the Civil War was nowhere to be found. The period was characterized by immense poverty, corrupt politics, and, of course, an intense level of racial violence. Lynchings, disputed elections, and industrial power struggles permeated across the Southern half of the country and into the Northeast and West.

The nature of Reconstruction was also determined by geography. What I mean is that different parts of the South had different reconstruction experiences. The Mississippi Valley and the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, for example, were areas that had very large black populations, making their story of Reconstruction vastly different from the predominately white Virginia or Tennessee. States also regained their political abilities at different rates. Some, like Tennessee, were readmitted to the congressional process shortly after the war, while others, like Georgia, had to wait much longer. In other words, Reconstruction was not a national story. It was state-centered and, in many places, driven by specific localities, making it hard for general histories to accurately explain the history of Reconstruction.

The Army also had a large role in how Reconstruction played out. Serving as Federal agents, the Army was essentially an occupational force dedicated to seeing the policies and procedures of Reconstruction enacted in the Southern states. The only problem was that Military influence across the vast plantation districts and rural counties of the South was logistically impossible. The army was therefore relegated to the areas of need and to Southern cities. In turn, those areas became the sites for the largest percentage of black political involvement.

Picture from Wilson Center of Humanities and Arts
Screenshot of Mapping Occupation. Picture from Wilson Center of Humanities and Arts

Mapping Occupation, a project created by Dr. Nesbit and Dr. Downs, seeks to show exactly where the Federal army exerted its influence. Using mapping technology, the site maps out where the army was located at what specific times. The site also overlays this information over areas that had high black voting percentages, a sign that the Federal army was doing its job and exerting its influence. To take it one step further, the site then overlays this on top of the Southern railways of the time for a better understanding of where the federal troops could get to and how fast they could mobilize in a given area.

Once again, Dr. Nesbit has created a groundbreaking new resource that furthers the understanding of America’s darkest period. To view the site in its entirety, follow the link:


Histories of the National Mall

Histories of the National Mall is a must have for a trip to D.C. As the site explains, ” Histories of the National Mall takes you on a tour of the National Mall’s rich past by offering historical maps, a chronology of past events, short bios of significant individuals, and episodes in the Mall’s history.” Designed in part to be a travel resource, the site is perfectly compatible for mobile devices and on-the-go use.

Based around its interactive map, the site allows one to take a walking tour of the area around the National Mall. The site has pinned all of the monuments and points of interest around the mall and provides a quick historical synopsis of the monument. But what makes the site so interesting and immersive is its treatment of the mall’s History in general. To go along with the monuments, the site has pinned locations around the mall where significant historical events have happened. And by clicking on the pin, a brief historical summation of the event appears.

The site even provides a set of general questions and answers for the user. This feature effectively designates the site as a stand in tour guide. To make the site even more interactive, it also provides the user with a scavenger hunts, encouraging users to find specific, lesser known locations.

Though not suitable for scholarly use, the site is the perfect companion for any trip to the national mall and highlights the ways the digital media can be used in the realm of public history.

To access the site, follow the link below: