HGIS Bibliography

Gregory, Ian N. and Paul S. Ell. Historical GIS: Technologies, Methodologies and Scholarship. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

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 Jeremy Atack in The Economic History Review 62 (2009): 781-782.

Review by Peter K. Bol in International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing 3 (2009): 206-210.

Table of Contents

List of Figures

List of Tables


1. GIS and Its Role in Historical Research: An Introduction

2. GIS: A Framework for Representing the Earth’s Surface

3. Building Historical GIS Databases

4. Basic Approaches to Handling Data in a Historical GIS

5. Using GIS to Visualize Historical Data

6. Time in Historical GIS Databases

7. Geographic Information Retrieval: Historical Geographic Information on the Internet and in Digital Libraries

8. GIS and Quantitative Spatial Analysis

9. From Techniques to Knowledge: Historical GIS in Practice





  1. Ian Gregory and Paul Ell’s Historical GIS provides a truly excellent introduction to the methods, approaches, and terms of HGIS. In addition to two introduction chapters on the history and concept of HGIS, seven thematic chapters focus on building databases, approaching the data in those databases, using data to visualize historical sources, and the role of time and space in HGIS analysis. Highly organized, the book allows scholars to dip into important or relevant sections with ease and, as a reference source, it is indispensible. The book is heavy on terminology but not in such a way that is off-putting. While the Introduction focuses on concepts and history, Chapter 2 provides a brilliant technical overview of how spatial and attribute data are combined in GIS.

    While the book provides crucial information on the technical elements of HGIS, the book also offers important interpretive points that go beyond mere utilitarianism. Assertions that HGIS maps should be seen as graphs to represent data rather than maps in the conventional sense (p. 94) or that HGIS has seen the resurrection of qualitative history (that perhaps suffered as a result of the cultural turn) means there is much more to the volume than technical data alone. The final chapter on how several scholars are transforming the interpretation of major historical events through HGIS is one of the most interesting.

    It is the argument regarding the transformative power of GIS, however, that is, potentially, the most problematic aspect of the book. The claim is made that HGIS has the potential to “reinvigorate almost all aspects of historical geography” (p. 1) because it is not simply a piece of software but rather an approach to historical scholarship. Yet, while acknowledging the potential pitfalls of basing historical research on positivist methodologies or data-rich, overly scientific approaches, the volume does not seem at all concerned with squaring any circles with traditional methodologies. On p. 9, for instance, the argument is made that “In theory, … [GIS] makes no requirements on the approach that the research adopts” as long as the data set includes the components of theme, location, and time. But if historical scholarship is defined by the sources we use and the questions we ask, the type of scholarship produced is necessarily heavily dependent on data. In recent weeks, I have become extremely conscious that, owing to the time necessary to compile the data and to develop the requisite technological skills, HGIS requires a greater commitment than would be the case for other spatial methodologies such as Atlantic or World History. As a result, my belief is that HGIS’s methodologies define the scholarship in ways that are unusual. It might have been useful, therefore, if the book had made more of the potential conceptual changes brought about as a result of HGIS, although it should be noted that there is good coverage of how HGIS can be presented in ways that transcend the limitations of traditional text-heavy monographs (esp. pp. 108-118, 145-160).

    This should not be read, in any way, as a criticism of HGIS as a tool or even a broader methodology. New to HGIS myself, I have quickly discovered its immense potential and am actively seeking ways that I could employ it in my scholarship. Rather, this should be taken as a (albeit partial) criticism of a volume that is too uncritical of how HGIS will influence scholarship. It is perhaps revealing that in a section entitled “The Benefits and Limitations of GIS,” the only noted limitation is that these tools must be matched by “high-quality history” (p. 11), surely a requirement for any type of historical methodology. Scholarship is not a zero-sum game. The variety of historical methodologies available to historians and our general unwillingness to allow theory or method to possess the same hold over our interpretation that exists in the social sciences remains of critical importance to the profession. The only major criticism of this excellent book is that it is too reserved about what HGIS will mean for scholarship. Rather than simply adding an extra layer to scholarship and its methodology, HGIS might mark a more profound and defining shift in historical methods.

  2. Ian N. Gregory and Paul S. Ell’s HGIS how-to manual, “Historical GIS: Technologies, Methodologies and Scholarship” does a great job of presenting both the theory and the application of Historical GIS to its readers. The strength of this book lies in the structuring of its chapters, which build on one another without overwhelming the reader. Gregory and Ell also do a great job of clearly explaining concepts that would be foreign to their intended audience and also integrating these new concepts into their discussion in an effective way. Furthermore, Gregory and Ell do an excellent job of explaining how adding a spatial element to historical research can bring to light new questions and allow the historian to see old questions in new ways without replacing more established historical tools. Overall, Gregory and Ell effectively show historians new to the idea of HGIS how this technology can be used to benefit their research without bogging them down with jargon.

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