According to Merriam Webster, history is the study of past events. Seems simple enough, right? Nonetheless, this definition might have vastly different implications for different historians, as there are myriad ways to to study and interpret the past. Ultimately, though, such a definition of history implies a preoccupation with time rather than space. If we are to accept this as a complete definition, then history is about the “past” and “events,” not about locations, connections, or representations of them. To a spatial historian, such a definition is quite lacking. Despite what their name mind sound like, spatial historians are not scholars who study NASA; rather, to paraphrase Richard White, spatial historians promote collaborative projects that rely on visualizations to analyze human relations to, documentation of, and creation of spaces over time. Because such scholarship relies so heavily on visual representations, many spatial historians work closely with, or are, digital historians.
There are various spatial history projects that demonstrate the strengths of this ever-developing field. One such site is Mapping the Republic of Letters. The goal of this project is to show how scholars and policy makers created networks – spatial relationships – in a time before the internet (sometimes it’s easy to forget just how recently that was). The home page of this project features an infographic timeline and illustration of the networks that connect individuals. The site also focuses on several case studies, including Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and the Salons Project headed by Melanie Conroy. This project should not be viewed as merely a synopsis of each of these groups’ or individuals’ contributions to academia. The contributors to the project firmly believe that those they are studying had created a space (a Republic) and are looking to represent the connections between participants in this space. Through graphs and maps, they are also demonstrating in a visual manner how these participants contributed to the Republic.
Let’s examine the case study of Benjamin Franklin. This example clearly demonstrates how visualizations can help historians to see individuals’ connections to spaces and to other people. Graphs can be used to show where Benjamin Franklin was receiving letters from and sending letters to. They can even demonstrate to whom, or from whom, Franklin was sending and receiving correspondence. I found it quite interesting (although not entirely surprising) to see the ratio of men to women in the graph of Franklin’s correspondents grouped by gender. As this project shows, spatial historians can help historians in their task of “studying past events” by visually representing how seemingly random events are connected, how people in the past have made and used spaces, and spaces affected people, places, or events in the past.
See for yourself: Republic of Letters
What do you think: Should historians be concerned with “spaces”? How should they define “spaces”? What is the value of visual representations of spaces? What is your opinion of the project discussed in this blog post? Comments welcome.