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.