Information Overload

The study of history has not been glorified in a way that the study of medicine or law has been. Those fields have shows based on the conveyed exciting careers of doctors and lawyers, i.e. Grey’s Anatomy, Boston Legal, etc. The study of history to most in popular culture and so forth is seen as a more lucid and boring task, however to those that enjoy it, it provides an excitement. The use of GIS in history is a potential tool to grab the attention of many, in a manner that accurately reflects the tale of history how historians want to tell it. Will maps, charts, and so forth replace the written word as a the prime source for historical knowledge? Most likely not. However, John Theibault in Visualization and Historical Argument¬†argues that the visualization of history (using graphs, maps, charts, and other software to tell history) provides the ability to quickly teach the reader information in a manner much simpler and faster than pages of text can. Theibault uses the example of Minard’s map based chart of Napoleon’s invasion into Russia. Minard’s chart has been praised as an effective use of visualization to convey history, bringing the entire invasion on to one page and still managing to make the information understandable to those who may not have a background knowledge.

With the rise of the internet and computer software development, the game has changed. GIS gives a unique twist to the collection and understanding of history, adding numeracy to a highly literature based field. As argued by Anne Kelly Knowles in Placing History chapter 1, the use of GIS-based historical studies provides the potential to integrate the information historians collect in a more efficient and possibly effective manner. Using GIS technology to  further development historical knowledge can allow for historical argumentation to become more clear, the use of colours to differentiate the different points of view and topics, provide a new experience in the study of history. Yes, you may be thinking, books have visuals, but where the book fails is its ability to be integrated in an efficient manner to the changing interpretations of history. Instead of delving into a historical works for hours on end to find a set of information that is sufficient, GIS allows the user to link sets of information to uncover patterns possibly harder to see throughout the text of a book. Knowles points out that the flaw in GIS however is that sometimes the information in history is rather difficult to convert into a readable display. As the popularity of GIS and visualization in the field of history increases, with history integrating with software and the internet evermore, the obstacles of effectively communicating in the visual history forum will be overcome. However, although I am a proponent of the increasing use of these technologies in history, I do not believe that the field of history will become strictly visual based. This is a rather obvious point, however, I see the use of this technology, increasing the burden on historians.

The use of these technologies requires knowledge and understanding of a field wholly different to the traditional study of history. Minard himself was a civil engineer and not a historian, but is credited with one of the most significant works in the use of visualization in history. In Bodenhamer’s chapter in Placing History, it is argued that for GIS to become a major component in scholarly history than it must adopt the norms of history and understand its philosophy. The use of such technology stretches the requirements of a historian to not only get it right and conveyed in a credible manner, but to effectively use the technology to actually benefit the user. Google maps and ArcGIS are two sites as pointed out by Theibault that greatly benefit the individual and are easy to use. However, the questions remains, without overwhelming the study of history, how do we ‘google map’ the discipline of history?


One thought on “Information Overload

  1. I agree that I don’t believe that visuals will ever take precedence over, say, tangible items, especially in the case of a visual being a reproduction of an original source. But I do wonder if the burden on historians is in reference to older historians, for whom such technologies would essentially be having to start from scratch. If our generation/future historians are trained to implement the use of things like GIS, and from the start of their careers, it might be easier for them to be able to integrate such tools into their projects.