Scholars' Lab Site Helps Map Future of Spatial Humanities

July 19, 2011

July 19, 2011 — The Scholars' Lab at the University of Virginia Library has developed a new online hub for an emerging generation of humanities scholars using digital map-making tools in fields ranging from architectural history to literature.

The Spatial Humanities site provides a primer on the emergence of geospatial tools in the humanities and serves as a place to find best practices, links and conversations about new projects.

The use of geographic information systems, or GIS, to map out information online is well-established in fields such as geography, environmental science and urban planning, but has only recently begun to rapidly expand into the humanities, said Kelly Johnston, a GIS specialist with the Scholars' Lab.

"It's not been something that's been a part of most humanities scholarship in the past, but we're seeing more and more interest," Johnston said. "In part it's been driven by the accessibility of tools like Google Maps, MapQuest, GPS in cars and Google Earth. More and more people are comfortable using those tools, and they start to think "How can I use this in my work, in my research?'"

The site provides links to the geospatial projects of scholars from U.Va. and beyond. One, the Falmouth Project, is a site that maps and catalogs the historic architecture of Falmouth, Jamaica. The project hosts years of data on historic buildings in the city, gathered by students and faculty in U.Va.'s Department of Architectural History, and makes it readily accessible in map form, Johnston said.

Another is an interactive map that tracks the physical dimensions of what are now U.S. counties, beginning in 1629. Users can use a timeline to scroll through the centuries and see the corresponding changes to county boundaries. 

Though it aggregates many such projects, the Spatial Humanities site is more of a "sharing-house" than a data clearinghouse, said Bethany Nowviskie, the director of digital scholarship at the library.

The site grew from a two-year National Endowment for the Humanities grant that the Scholars' Lab received to host a training institute for librarians, software developers and scholars interested in geospatial humanities projects. The Institute for Enabling Geospatial Scholarship drew about 80 participants and 21 expert faculty, who gave organizers a clear idea of what they were looking for in a website, Nowviskie said.

"They wanted a place they could go to get a sense of what the big projects are, and of who the groups are that are involved in this kind of work," she said. "They wanted, similarly, an opportunity to contribute to a growing bibliography."

The site, which rolled out earlier this year, provides an introduction to the use of spatial tools in the humanities, and uses social media to continue conversations that began at the institute.

Johnston curates a portion of the site that serves as a vetted, step-by-step guide for creating GIS projects in the humanities. Though many people are immersed in the topic at the University, other institutions might have only one or two people interested in spatial humanities and the guide can allow them to plug into the larger community, he said.

"It's basically a peer-reviewed occasional publication about how to do things with geospatial tools focused on humanities topics," Johnston said.

Using software to build a visual representation of research was once an intricate process that required a steep learning curve, said Joseph Gilbert, a Scholars' Lab consultant and Web developer in the library who helped build the site.

"But now some of these tools have become more mainstream and more Web-enabled, so folks can gain the benefits without having to go through so much of the dues-paying part," he said.

The site serves as both a gathering point for people excited about the evolving possibilities of GIS in the humanities and as a resource for those looking to do more, he said.

"If people come to this site and start thinking about some questions they can ask in their own work, and then have some avenue to continue that journey – whether it's an article or a step-by-step help sheet – then I think we've more than succeeded," Gilbert said.

– by Rob Seal

Media Contact

Rob Seal

Director of Media Management and Managing Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications