Geographic Information System (GIS) is a system that captures, stores, manages, displays, and analyzes information linked to a location on earth. It is often displayed in the way of an intelligent or interactive map that allows users to see results visualized and provides a set of tools that allow data to be analyzed spatially. It has the ability to relate different types of data (quantitative, textual, image, audio) to each other based on a shared location. However, GIS suggests the world is flat, because by presenting a view of the physical environment it is stripping it of the culture.
Historians aim to bridge that gap by attempting to use GIS and spatial history. One project that is working on this is the Republic of Letters which looks at networks. It takes the correspondences by scientific academics and looks at how the letters and ideas travelled through a mapping of exchanges.
The Republic of Letters is made up of case studies, from people like Voltaire, Galileo, and Locke, and are strategic in geographic range and time period. With the range of study, it demonstrates places of intersection.
In mapping Galileo, for example, they followed his social and intellectual networks. During the mapping of his networks a challenge that arose that there was deliberate destruction of Galileo’s sensitive letters because of his trial and condemnation for his advocacy of Copernicus and an accidental loss of letters by heirs who did not preserve them. But there is still information to be gathered. The site provides a number of charts, graphing:
- Number of letters sent by Galileo per year
- Galileo’s recipients
- Calendar of letters sent to destination city
Overall this site seems helpful and is much easier to navigate than other historical GIS sites. It allows for researchers, or those curious, to look at letters and correspondence in a different way. The most common way would just be to read the letters for content, but there is so much more information that can be gathered. With mapping them out this way, historians now have a better idea of how ideas were spread and the networks connecting history. And sometimes the answer can be found by looking at things from a different viewpoint.
With the rapid technological advancements, the fear of being left behind pushed many people (especially those in the history field) to digitize. But while digitizing seems like a simple and good idea, it brought up a lot of underlying issues, which are brought up in Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Digital History. One issue is the idea of “density of data.” This looks at how much and how frequently the original source is being sampled and the breadth and depth of the information gathered in each sample. It also asks the question “should digitized text capture just the letters and words or should it take into account information about spacing, paragraphing, headings, etc?” This reminded me of a story told in Weller’s History in the Digital Age where she mentions a historian in a Portuguese archive who “read barely a word, instead, he picked out bundles of letters and… ran each letter beneath his nose and took a deep breath…” He was a medical historian studying outbreaks of cholera and the letters were disinfected with vinegar, so he was looking at the dates on the letters to chart the progress of the outbreak. So the text could be reproduced, but the scent is lost in digitization, so how can we account for that when digitizing sources?
Digitized sources have to go somewhere, and often that is a website. While that can be a good thing, you have to be very careful because what is thought to be good intentions and a nice design can be a nightmare for someone else. In my opinion, to make a site functional and aesthetically pleasing, it has to be easy to navigate. There should be a clear header and table of contents so that it is self-explanatory to find information. This generally means there’s a home section explaining what the site is for, specific sections for written posts or photographic posts or video posts, etc. If it belongs to an organization, it should have an easily accessible contact page, with emails and/or phone numbers of people who work there. The design should also be simple. Not too many colors or other visual things going on and a clean and easy to read font. When designing a website you want people to:
- Not be overwhelmed by too many things or too much information all at once
- Be able to navigate the site and find what they are looking for. If I click on a site and I can’t find what I am looking for almost immediately, I don’t stay on the site.
- Come back. If you are putting information out there, you want it to be user friendly so people keep coming back to access the information and see updates.
Two sites that I find well put together (not having to do with history) are:
- A24 : this site for the movie studio A24 is very easy to navigate. The homepage consists of trailers for upcoming movies and the headings include Films, Television, About, Contact, Notes, Shop and then provides links to all of their social media accounts. Everything a person could be looking for is easily accessible and found under simple categories. The site is vertical list form and has a simple black and white color scheme.
- McElroy Shows: I’m a huge fan of podcasts, and my favorite podcasters have so many projects that it is hard to keep up so this site fixes that problem. The main page has a grid of all of the podcasts that they are apart of and the heading provides information on Tours, Release schedule, social media, representation and cancelled podcasts. Depending on the page, there is either a list or a grid. The site is simple and clean, being a basic white, however, each show in the grid has its own “album cover” design that not only makes it easy to find shows, it adds some color without being too much.
Just for fun I’d like to include the worst site I’ve been to recently:
- Warrens: This is the site for the Warren’s Occult Museum, which is no longer open, and is home to the Annabelle doll. The site has too much going on, with articles that slide onto the page, early 2000s word art, weird fonts, colored fonts on a black background… the whole thing is just a mess. HOWEVER, I have to give them some credit, because they did update. On the old website (October 2017), each heading took you to a page that would automatically play a YouTube video, providing background music whether you wanted it or not. But if you want a good way to waste 20 minutes on “haunted” stuff, this is a pretty fun, yet awfully designed site.