In my work I use spatial analysis and mapping right alongside critical reading and contextualization. Writing history and making maps are complementary processes, and I'd like to think that everything I produce is much improved by this hybrid approach.
Why and when is it important to think about the spatial dimensions of what we study?
In the field of Russian history, asking spatial questions is a necessary, if much-neglected art. That is not to say that scholars are unaware of the significance of space or place. Important work has been done on spaces of inclusion and exclusivity, private and public spheres, sacred spaces, and urban landscapes. And nearly all of the stories we tell and arguments we make unfold within the context of place of one kind or another: burial grounds, museums, peasant huts, prisons, monasteries, shopping malls, train stations, factory towns - the list goes on and on.
It is one thing to be aware of the geographical setting of history. It is another to set one's shoulder to grapple with the endless square kilometers of pine forest, grain fields, ponderous rivers, sprawling estates, Orthodox Churches, monumental squares, merchant stalls, and post stations through and within which Russian history unfolded. The fact of the matter is that while we know that Imperial Russia was vast and diverse, we lack a sophisticated understanding of a whole range of issues related to questions of proximity, density, and intersection.
Can mapping bring us closer to understanding not just where the roads led and where the administrative boundaries fell, but the way empire was understood and experienced?
I think it can. After all, a large portion of the documentary record of the human past – the very sources that enable historians to write history – are organized in spatial terms. Think of everything from parish registers to travelogues, bureaucratic correspondence to court records: each document binds information about the past to particular places on the surface of the Earth in one way or another.
What, exactly, is historical GIS?
On the one hand, a geographic information system (GIS) is a perfectly innocuous creature. According to ESRI (the company whose software dominates the international market),
“A geographic information system is a computer-based tool for mapping and analyzing things that exist and events that happen on earth. GIS technology integrates common database operations such as query and statistical analysis with the unique visualization and geographic analysis benefits offered by maps.”
In simplest terms, you can think of a GIS as an analytical environment that combines 1) information about location (names and coordinates of US cities), 2) other types of information (the number of libraries in each of those cities), and 3) a series of analytical and visualization tools. This seems reasonably straightforward.
GIS work, and historical GIS work in particular, however, is anything but straightforward.
Our own susceptibility to the idea that maps are objective, authoritative sources of information makes GIS into a dangerous weapon. As historian David Bodenhamer has pointed out, "GIS is a seductive technology, a magic box capable of wondrous feats, and the images it constructs so effortlessly appeal to us in ways more subtle and more powerful than words can.” In other words, while all maps lie (baldly attempting to make us believe that the Earth is flat, if nothing else), those created with GIS technology present lies that are even more authoritative and even more effective. Beyond this point, there be dragons.
Bearing such cautions and critiques in mind, I have come to believe that historical GIS is an incredibly productive approach to studying the past. Building a geographical information system clearly prioritizes location. While we don't need to build a GIS to locate Moscow in 2016, historical GIS often involves painstaking sleuthing to establish the location of settlements and monuments, administrative boundaries and geographical features as they existed in the past. But that is not all it does. A historical GIS can help define the significance of location as well. It does this either by identifying the relationships among places, or by enabling the historian to combine location information with information of other kinds: census tracts with average annual income data, for example.
In the end, and in entirely non-technical terms, the value of historical GIS work is threefold. First, it gives us a tool with which to analyze and visualize quantitative data (the kind of data resists more traditional forms of narration). Second, it encourages us to formulate questions we would not otherwise have asked. Finally, it generates new knowledge about places and the relationships between them.