HGIS Bibliography

Gregory, Ian N. and Alistair Geddes. Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS & Spatial History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).

Please contribute to this dynamic annotated bibliography by adding your own reviews, comments, and observations about this work in the comment form below.


Review by Anne Kelly Knowles in Southern Spaces (October 31, 2014).

Table of Contents


Introduction: From Historical GIS to Spatial Humanities: Deepening Scholarship and Broadening Technology by Ian N. Gregory and Alistair Geddes

Part 1: Deepening Scholarship: Developing Historiography Through Spatial History

1. Railways and Agriculture in France and Great Britain, 1850-1914 by Robert M. Schwartz and Thomas Thevenin

2. The Development, Persistence, and Change of Racial Segregation in U.S. Urban Areas, 1880-2010 by Andrew A. Beveridge

3. Troubled Geographies: A Historical GIS of Religion, Society, and Conflict in Ireland since the Great Famine by Niall Cunningham

Part 2: Broadening Technology: Applying GIS to New Sources and Disciplines

4. Applying Historical GIS beyond the Academy: Four Use Cases for the Great Britain HGIS by Humphrey R. Southall

5. The Politics of Territory in Song Dynasty China, 960-1276 CE by Elijah Meeks and Ruth Mostern

6. Mapping the City in Film by Julia Hallam and Les Roberts

7. Conclusions: From Historical GIS to Spatial Humanities: Challenges and Opportunities by Ian N. Gregory and Alistair Geddes

8. Further Reading: From Historical GIS to Spatial Humanities: An Evolving Literature by Ian N. Gregory




  1. Editors Ian Gregory and Alistair Geddes have identified two trends in the use of HGIS: how use of the software is being applied to develop new knowledge of the past and how the HGIS has broadened in technical perspective. This edited collection addresses both of these trends by dividing chapters into two sections. The first, ‘Deepening Scholarship’ shows how GIS can be used to further the contemporary understanding of historiography. The second, ‘Broadening Technology’ explores how HGIS can be used beyond the historical discipline, while addressing the second trend in the use of HGIS, the spread of the technology beyond the academy through technology. Yet, despite there being more chapters in the second section the editors primary goal was to make HGIS relevant to a wider historical audience by underscoring the potential of HGIS to answer applied research questions. The use of GIS as an applied analytical technology, according to editors Ian Gregory and Alistair Geddes “must be the ultimate aim of the field.” (p. x)

    The reclassification of HGIS beyond a diagnostic tool, into but one component of a spatial history is shown in the ‘Deepening Scholarship’ section. Robert Schwartz and Thomas Thevenin compare the impact of the rail systems of France and Great Britain on agriculture from the mid-nineteenth century to the outbreak of the First World War. While the authors use HGIS to analyse present their data, which helps to contextualize contemporary political interpretations of the rail network in both countries, they are careful to not make GIS sole crux of their argument. Indeed they states that “this chapter tries illustrate how HGIS, geographic thinking, and spatial statistics, in the good company of traditional forms of historical narrative and analysis, are key ingredients in the making of spatial history.” (p. 27) Meanwhile Andrew Beveridge uses a combination of GIS and social demographic analytical techniques to show that Chicago, long seen as the model of racial segregation in metropolitan America in fact represents an extreme form of a more general migration of African Americans leaving Jim Crow policies. His analysis also shows that segregation in American cities continues into the present. Finally, Niall Cunningham’s investigation of Protestant and Catholic settlement patterns from Ireland’s “Troubled Geographies” project demonstrates how GIS can contextualize long-discussed historical understandings of religious tensions following partition and during ‘The Troubles’.

    The pairing of HGIS, quantitative methods (scatter plots, graphs, and tables), and more traditional historical methodology in Towards Spatial Humanities shows the usefulness of HGIS while also demonstrating the importance of the integration of multiple methodologies into a historical narrative. Indeed it is the narrative that is the overarching concern of each of these three chapters. In removing the focus from the innovation of using HGIS, these authors represent not only the deepening of Gregory and Geddes, but represents a maturing in how GIS is being used by historians.

  2. This recent edited collection has much of interest to add to the developing field of spatial humanities. The editors start with a familiar narrative of how GIS was initially seen as an overly positivist, quantitative method and the resistance within most Humanities Departments to its introduction. However, as can be seen by the range of topics covered in this collection, HGIS has since been adapted to better deal with qualitative sources. Some chapters of interest include Andrew Beveridge’s discussion on American urban racial segregation, and Julia Hallam and Les Robert’s “Mapping the City in Film.”

    Hallam and Robert’s chapter is particularly interesting because of its heavy reliance on qualitative sources, films. However, I will only concentrate on one chapter here. In “The Development, Persistence, and Change of Racial Segregation in U.S. Urban Areas, 1880-2010,” Beveridge returns to long-standing issue in American historiography and one that still has contemporary significance. Although many scholars have examined the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation on the urban landscape in the United States, using GIS enables Beveridge to statistically track racial isolation, dissimilarity and exposure. The results demonstrate, for example, that there has been an increase in the isolation of blacks from whites. Beveridge was also able to conclude that Chicago, an urban centre that has been considered typical of other metropolitan areas, was actually the most highly segregated of the cities examined. While this conclusion demonstrates the utility of GIS in re-examining data, the maps produced could be clarified with a few adjustments. Figure 2.4, for example, visualizes the percentage of the population that was African American in Chicago in 1960. It would have been helpful to add a few orientating features to the map. Where was the inner city core, for example? And what were the city limits? In the end, we’re reminded that statistics and maps can show patterns but they do not explain causality. What are the causes of urban racial segregation and what does this mean for American society?

  3. Toward Spatial Humanities is a relatively short volume of six essays that points to the way in which the use of GIS in the humanities is both deepening and broadening. A short introduction by Gregory and Geddes explains that, since 2008 and a conference held on HGIS at the University of Essex, scholars are deepening the use of GIS by placing increased emphasis on interpretation. If early GIS had placed its emphasis on the technical, scholars are now thinking about HGIS in ways that emphasis how the data is read and for what purpose. This has been helped, in a large part, by the broadening of discussion beyond the traditional realms of the social sciences and into other humanities where the existing interpretive frameworks influence the reception of GIS. The move away from technical specialism and the disciplines of geography and the social sciences means that scholars are now thinking far more about how they interpret the data. While the need for attributive data to be quantitative is disappearing (since the technology can store far more than numbers), the editors suggest that it is the interpretive element of HGIS scholarship that is making the greatest strides.

    The first chapter evidences this. In a fascinating contribution by Robert Schwartz and Thomas Thevenin, the authors use HGIS to test the assertions of nineteenth century agricultural journalist Richard Jefferies. Writing during a time of agricultural depression in England (as foreign competition from the United States increased), Jefferies noted that it was essential to establish better rail networks in order to make it easier to get foodstuffs to market. The authors’ data reveals that, while declining profitability and productivity was indeed a serious problem, rail networks were less absent than Jefferies made out, particularly compared with France. On this basis, they are able to test journalistic assertions against contemporary evidence in ways that are otherwise impossible.

    The greatest appeal of the chapter is how the authors shy away from polemic regarding how they are using GIS and focus exclusively on challenging an existing interpretation. The authors note that distance to a railway station had both positive and negative effects on production across time and space; they suggest that it is necessary to broaden analysis to such factors as terrain, the quality of roads, and short-term decisions made by farmers in the face of changing markets, weather, and conditions of landholding to understand these effects. In this way, the chapter represents a massive step forward for HGIS because it is possible to read the chapter not as an aggressive or defensive clarion call for HGIS but as an excellent piece of historical analysis that just happens to be derived from HGIS techniques. As Schwartz and Thevenin directly state: “In spatial history … HGIS works best as a junior partner” (p. 27).

    The volume’s most innovative chapter is an analysis of filmmaking in Liverpool by Julia Hallam and Les Roberts. Here the authors use GIS to map how filmmakers created an image of Liverpool over time. Filmmakers, for example, focused their attentions overwhelmingly on the city centre and the buildings around the university and cathedral. In this way, the authors’ use GIS to interpret how films portrayed Liverpool in a way that no other methodological approach can.

    Niall Cunningham’s chapter uses census records and existing data sets of deaths during the Troubles to chart the influence of geography and religion on the history of violence in twentieth century Ireland. Here, the author is less challenging and the data seems to reinforce rather than challenge existing interpretations. It comes as little surprise, for instance, that deaths amongst members of the security services were worst on the Falls Road and Catholic West Belfast and in County Armagh while republican fatalities were worst in Tyrone and the Protestant wards of Shankill and Highfield.

    Overall, however, few of the subsequent chapters live up to the interpretive quality of Schwartz and Thevenin. Like many edited collections of HGIS works, there is too much emphasis placed on the data sets, the origins of various HGIS projects, and the problems faced by conducting this type of research. Given the editors assertion in the Introduction that scholars are increasingly focusing on the interpretation of the data, this can only be read with disappointment. This is not to say that the essays are not of excellent quality. It is evident, however, that it will take more time before HGIS scholars are confident enough with the data to devote the attention to interpretation favoured by Gregory and Geddes.

  4. Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS and Spatial History, edited by Ian N. Gregory and Alistair Geddes, and published by Indiana University Press in 2014, is a book that hinges on the idea that Historical GIS has reached its maturity and is now in a position to extend its reach beyond Historical Geography towards a wide range of other humanities disciplines including, but not limited to, literary studies, linguistics, classics, religious studies, media studies and the performing arts. Gregory and Geddes define the “spatial humanities” broadly as “a field using geographical technologies to develop new knowledge about the geographies of human cultures past and present” (pg. xv). They also suggest that the term “spatial history” is increasingly replacing the term “Historical GIS,” reflecting the historiographical and methodological turn towards space many historians have made since the late 1990s and to account for other new technologies that help historians analyze space outside of GIS. Seemingly, this change in terminology also suggests a reaction to the increasing acceptance of such technologies on the practice, explicitly defining a new branch of the historical craft.

    The book is organized into two thematic parts that reflect two emerging trends in Historical GIS: a deepening of the application of GIS and a broadening of the technical scope of GIS. The six chapters cross ancient, modern, national, local, rural, and urban contexts and spaces. Some, like Humphrey Southall’s chapter, make use of national historical GIS which lends strength to the argument that Historical GIS has reached a certain maturity; these large national GIS projects can now be used as they were envisioned to form the basis of new research without demanding of the researcher the time, effort, and money to create them themselves.

    Despite the supposed maturity of GIS, an idea to which I would lend more caution than do Gregory and Geddes, barriers to using GIS for History and the humanities still exist. Firstly, the editors suggest training remains a problem and propose the remedy may lie in short courses or postgrad courses on GIS and related technologies. Secondly, the cultural shift toward using technology for historical research continues to demand breaking down; while many new scholars have taken up the call, others remain unsure of the potential, power, and applications of using GIS in their projects prohibited in equal measure by cost, time, and software accessibility. Thirdly, the editors worry that while the academy “wrestles” (pg. 79) with these epistemological issues, GIS and related technologies are rapidly improving and outpacing the rate at which historians are learning to use them. To avoid being left behind, they argue it is imperative that historians de-silo their practices, embrace interdisciplinarity, and find creative ways to incorporate once incompatible sources with GIS. One chapter in particular demonstrates in an impressive manner what such work might look like – Julia Hallam and Les Roberts’s chapter “Mapping the City in Film” uses amateur, newsreel, documentary, and fictional films about Liverpool to investigate the imagined space of the city. The result is a fascinating study of the discourses on space, architecture, and geography imagined in the films and translated in a tangible, and more easily digestible way, into GIS. Hallam and Roberts appeal to humanities scholars to embrace the cultural shift towards spatial research by trumpeting epistemological modes of inquiry that favour the database over the narrative. However, this proposal is somewhat misguided. Rather, both database and narrative methods should by necessity intersect to guide the research project; relegating the narrative source to the shadows of the historical practice is a misstep here. Indeed, new technologies related to GIS make it more possible than ever to incorporate more traditional historical methods and sources within a spatial analysis such as embedding text, images, and historical maps. Hallam and Roberts are also mistaken to suggest narrative analysis is merely a passive occupation; to really effect a cultural change we need not pit one method over another.

    Overall, this is an important volume in the maturation of GIS for history and the humanities. We might be more cautious, however, in alluding to such a young discipline as having reached maturity, especially in light of how rapidly the related technology is developing. While it’s perfectly admirable the editors wish to suggest that we are moving beyond only quantitative applications for GIS and more fully incorporating qualitative ones, there rests an unresolved tension in the book between the idea of maturity and acceptance of GIS for History. For example, while the editors suggest Historical GIS has reached a particular maturity they also make very plain the need for a better peer review process for non-print based academic work, more collaboration between diverse scholars using GIS, a widening of the practice out beyond the academy to museum, commercial sectors, and to libraries and archives. They might also have mentioned teaching. That said, the book demonstrates quite well the current state of the field and makes a good case for how to employ existing GIS projects in new, especially qualitative, ones.

Add Your Comment