Mapping and History

I really enjoyed Matthew Booker’s “Visualizing San Francisco Bay’s Forgotten Past.” Booker is associated with a major digital humanities project based at Stanford University. The team there is using digital software to construct historical maps that track environmental change over time. I first heard of the project a few years ago when it came to my attention that Zephyr Frank, a historian of modern Brazil, attached himself to the project. I had not read any of the results until reading this piece by Booker.

I am a proponent of using maps in class, for homework, and in general for situating historical events and processes. Booker and his team constructed these maps based on extensive primary-source research on the San Francisco Bay. I appreciate how he emphasizes the importance of narrating the history of human interaction with the geological history of the region. This sort of “big history” gives us a much greater appreciation for human history than projects focusing solely on human endeavors. It is quite time consuming, which makes me wonder if this sort of project is best done in teams.

In fact, that would be one of my questions: are big data projects, or big mapping projects, or extensive digital projects best done in teams? And, if so, how do we get funding sources and University administrators to acknowledge the importance of funding these sorts of projects? Will these big projects be the domain primarily of well-funded institutions, such as Stanford? Or will small schools with few resources be able to conduct these projects at the same or similar levels as the well-heeled schools?

I also took a look at the sites we were asked to explore. I confess that my computer skills are too rudimentary to make sense of them without guidance. I would love to get together with some faculty of IT person to figure them out.

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