At this year’s MLA in Chicago, I was part of a great panel on “Geospatial Literary Studies” organized by David Wrisley of the American University in Beirut. The “geospatial humanities”—digital humanities work that emphasizes place and geography—has been expanding in the past few years, and this panel was the first devoted to the subject at MLA. The panelists presented some fabulous projects, from mapping bookstores in nineteenth-century Manhattan to exploring the implications of the crowd-sourced maps used to track the spread of swine flu.
Despite the historical variety in the presentations, a common theme was the appropriateness of using contemporary maps to document historical places. Even when scholars georeference historical maps, the base reference is often Google Maps and the author tries to match up past places with where they “would” appear according to Google. In my own work with AcuGIS, I often run up against the problem that the software’s most basic base map still includes contemporary national boundaries—so that even as I use maps of epistolary networks to show the international nature of letter writing in the eighteenth century, the images in some ways reinforce borders. This problem is an effect of hacking AcuGIS, a program often used for engineering projects or climate change tracking, to use for historical purposes.
As geospatial work develops as a subfield of the digital humanities, though, scholars are starting to create tools incorporating historical and geographical information. For my online project mapping the locations of London periodical publishing, The Periodical World, I’m using Neatline, a plug-in for Omeka. Neatline doesn’t solve all the problems of GIS, but it doesn’t offer some options. It includes both a map and a timeline, so that points on a map can be associated with a date range. This means that scholars can integrate narrative into their maps in new ways. In my case, I’ve incorporated both a 1721 map of London and insets from a 1746 map to offer different views on how the streets have changed over time. Neatline provides an interactive experience, as users can move around the different locations for information, images, and references. I’m still expanding the site, but I’m hoping to turn it into a comprehensive source for information on the people and places of early eighteenth-century periodical publishing.